Tag Archives: Abingdon

One Woman’s Clothing at the William King Museum of Art

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Thanks to the phenomenon of the Advanced Style empire, older people are no longer invisible in the style world, at least the ones who are a bit colorful and eccentric are not invisible. But what about the rest of us?

We recently went on a little Christmas holiday to Abingdon, Virginia to attend a performance at the wonderful Barter Theater and to stay at the Martha Washington Inn. This was my Christmas “present” as we no longer indulge in physical gifts. I’ll join the hundreds of older people who tell you to spend your money on experiences rather than objects. Unless that object is really great, then spend away, is my philosophy.

I found out, purely by accident, that the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon had a fashion exhibition going. What serendipity!

The exhibition was of the type that I love – that of one woman’s clothes. The woman was Fran Keuling-Stout, of whom I’d never heard, but that’s not surprising. She and her husband lived in the small Virginia mountain town of Big Stone Gap, though the museum did sneak in a mention that they also maintained a residence in New York City. And we also learned that Fran had three major fashion loves – Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, and Giorgio Armani. She was born in 1946, so she was a few years older than me, but of the same generation.

In the photo above, you have left to right: McQueen, Lauren, Lauren

How refreshing it was to see an older woman celebrated for a sense of style that was not kooky. Yes, Fran obviously had some money in the bank. The coat above was from Alexander McQueen. But still, here was a woman who knew what she liked, and just went for it.


Most of the garments in the exhibition were things I could picture myself wearing. Maybe not in small town North Carolina, but definitely in NYC. Which left me wondering if she wore her McQueens in Big Stone Gap. I hope she did.

One thing that left me confused about the exhibition was a display case full of Fran’s sneakers and other flat shoes. I somehow missed the explanation at the museum, but when I got home and started looking into Ms. Keuling-Stout, I learned that she was known for her sneakers. No impossible stilettos for her! She loved pretty clothes, but knew that comfort (and stability) were also important. You can see a pair of her dress flats above, paired with a lot of Armani.


Speaking of comfort, these dresses give the illusion of structure, but all are knit; all by McQueen.

I learned that Fran died unexpectedly last year at only seventy years of age. But I found a video of her talking about clothes, that makes me appreciate how she lived her life. And she talks about sneakers.



Filed under Designers, Museums

Martha Washington College, now the Martha Washington Inn

I just spent a few days with friends in my favorite type of place – a town full of history.  The town is Abingdon, VA, and more specifically, I’ll be telling about the inn where we stayed, the Martha Washington.  The central part of the inn was built in 1832 as a residence for General Francis Preston and his family.  Much of the original structure is intact, including the family’s parlors, and a lovely oval staircase.

The house was sold in 1858 to the Methodist church, which was in the process of establishing a school of higher learning for girls which was to be named for Martha Washington.  The school actually opened in 1860.  Over the years the building was enlarged and new wings were added on either side.

All the sources I’ve found call the school Martha Washington College, though, especially in the early years, it was really more of a finishing school.  A girl could attend for two years if she had graduated from high school, or for four years if she had completed two years of high school.  By the 1920s the school was in effect, a junior college.

There are a lot of legends and ghost stories surrounding the school, including tragic love stories involving students and Civil War soldiers.  I also found a lot of differing information concerning dates.  This is a topic in search of a good researcher!

What made the stay at the Martha Washington so interesting to me was the presence of many photographs and other memorabilia concerning the school that lined the walls of the main floor of the inn.  Most of it was from around 1895 to 1932, when the Great Depression forced the school to close.

Many of the photos from the Teens and Twenties show the girls in sports uniforms.  Here’s part of the basketball team from 1924.

And here are some basketball players from a few years later.

Students were properly attired for golf in 1924.

Many of the photos showed the girls wearing middy blouses, that most schoolgirl of all garments.

The inn really has taken great pains to remember the heritage of the old building.  Each guest room is identified with a different vintage photo of the school and its students.  One of the parlors is named for First Lady Edith Wilson, who was a student at Martha Washington for a very short time.

After the college closed in 1932 (some sources say 1931) the building stood empty for a few years.  But fortunately for Abingdon, a new enterprise opened across the street – the Barter Theatre.  In 1933, young (and out of work) actor Robert Porterfield got the idea to open a theatre and let people pay their admissions with either 40 cents or an equivalent amount of food.

The theatre was an immediate success, and that created a need for a hotel.  The Martha Washington opened as an inn in 1935.

In 1948 Abingdon was the “Second healthiest town in America.”  I would love to know which town was number one!



Filed under Curiosities, Road Trip, Vintage Travel