Library to Host Exhibit of Historical Fashions from Elmwood, Other Collections

photo from exhibit

When Eastern Kentucky University Libraries staff members began to preserve books from the historic Elmwood estate in late 2013, something else captured their attention.

“We had the privilege of seeing some of the historical fashions in the mansion,” Krista Rhodus, director of library advancement, recalled. “As preservers of information and keepers of history, our librarians and Special Collections and Archives team members developed a dream of putting the fashions on display for the public.”

With the help of the University’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and fashion historian Adam MacPharlain, that dream will come true May 20-June 12. That’s when the Grand Reading Room of the John Grant Crabbe Main Library will host a public exhibit of historic fashions and accessories not only from Elmwood’s rich heritage but from other University collections. (For exact hours, visit or call 859-622-1072.)

The exhibition will feature one dress per decade from 1860 to 1960 “as a way to show the changing styles of fashionable dress,” said MacPharlain, a 2005 EKU graduate and now a curatorial assistant for fashion arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “They range in provenance, so they are not all from Madison County. All are women’s dresses, except for one suit worn by Emma Watts’ father, William W. Watts.”

Other pieces in the exhibit come from the University’s Dorris Museum collection – some of those items are on loan to the Irvinton House, home of the Richmond Tourism and Visitor Center – and from the EKU Apparel Design and Merchandising Program’s historic costume study collection.

“These dresses were worn by middle and upper-class women, though we only know the wearers of a few pieces,” MacPharlain said. “The styles from each decade are in keeping with fashionable dress of the time and show women who kept their wardrobe updated and stylish.”

Libraries, explained Betina Gardner, dean of libraries, “are keepers of culture and history, not just books and journals. We seized on the opportunity to exercise this aspect of librarianship. We wanted the opportunity to express to our community that we are more complex than they might have thought. And we are always looking for opportunities to enrich the students’ learning. This was the perfect opportunity to imbed a project right into the curriculum.”

MacPharlain, whose degree from EKU is in Apparel Design and Merchandising, worked with Dr. Diane Leggett’s Historical Costume and the Social Order class last fall. After his presentation on writing museum labels, the students were all assigned pieces within the Burrier collection.

For MacPharlain, a Richmond native, it was an opportunity to apply his knowledge and skill to a childhood fascination.  “My favorite part of the process of getting this exhibition together has been exploring Elmwood,” he said. “I grew up around the lore of this abandoned house,” which was obtained by the EKU Foundation in 2011. “To be able to get an inside look and learn more about Emma Watts has been a real treat.”

Watts, the occupant most often associated with Elmwood, passed away in 1970 at the age of 83. The mansion was completed in 1887, the year Watts was born. After her parents’ death, she lived there alone for many years.

Parking for the Library exhibit will be available in the Lancaster Lot, located across Lancaster Avenue from University Drive. Visitors can use the EKU pedway to cross Lancaster and walk to Crabbe Library. Visitors requiring special parking arrangements should call 859-622-1072 at least three days in advance of their visit.

The exhibit is made possible through the support of Friends of EKU Libraries, Rhodus noted. To learn more about becoming a Friend and supporting future EKU Libraries events, visit EKU Libraries offers educational Live @ Your Library opportunities for the community throughout the year. For more information, visit or to follow events and happenings.

Published on May 01, 2015

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