Memphis Museum Perfect Fit for Fashion Historian

New to Memphis in 1999, Karen Kilgore Ralston ’69 felt uprooted.

Karen Kilgore Ralston is responsible for a 1,000-piece clothing collection at the Woodruff-Fontaine House and creates hats for Memphis Playhouse productions. The volunteer milliner and curator taught herself about vintage and Victorian clothes. Photo courtesy of Linda Raiteri/Memphis Downtowner Magazine

Karen Kilgore Ralston is responsible for a 1,000-piece clothing collection at the Woodruff-Fontaine House and creates hats for Memphis Playhouse productions. The volunteer milliner and curator taught herself about vintage and Victorian clothes. Photo courtesy of Linda Raiteri/Memphis Downtowner Magazine

She and husband Jim had lived for 30 years in Cincinnati, where he worked as a corporate general counsel. But when Jim’s company changed hands, the couple relocated for his new job.

To shake off her gloom, Ralston checked out the Woodruff-Fontaine House, a preserved Victorian mansion and museum in the city’s historic Millionaires’ Row.

A self-taught historian of vintage and Victorian clothing, with a library of books on the subject and her own extensive collection of garments at home, Ralston wandered the three-floor house museum with pleasure.

Then she spotted the ribbon. It was all wrong − a modern anachronism on an old blouse. “I opened my mouth and said, ‘Ooh, that ribbon is not correct,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.

She soon started volunteering at the museum. There, she fixed that little ribbon– and took a big step toward banishing her discontent.

Today Ralston is Woodruff-Fontaine’s volunteer curator of clothing, responsible for a 1,000-piece collection. She gives occasional public presentations on the intricacies of Victorian attire, from the skin out. Audiences, she notes, are fascinated by Victorian underwear.

In 2000, she started volunteering as costume assistant at Memphis’ Playhouse in the Square, and for a 2003 production of Ragtime she was asked to make all the ladies’ hats.

“I said, ‘I haven’t ever made hats before, but I’m willing to learn,’ ” Ralston recalled. “And 47 hats later, I was the milliner.”

She’s since created hats for a variety of productions, few more fun than the campy showgirl headpieces for The Producers’ musical within a musical, Springtime for Hitler. For it, Ralston made a hot dog, a Volkswagen, a German shepherd, and a giant pretzel, all wearable. “I made the pretzel out of pool noodles, with rhinestones as the salt,” Ralston recalled.

The move to Memphis “turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to pursue things I had always wanted to do,” Ralston said.

Photo courtesy of Linda Raiteri/Memphis Downtowner Magazine

Photo courtesy of Linda Raiteri/Memphis Downtowner Magazine

While studying at Mary Washington in the late 1960s, Ralston made dance gowns for herself and her friends. But she focused her academic efforts on the practical.

She graduated with an English degree in 1969 and married college beau Jim Ralston. He was a first-year law student – but he still got drafted. Newly married, he went to Vietnam, and she moved back in with her parents.

After Jim’s return, the couple moved to Cincinnati, where he finished law school and she taught middle school reading until her own children came along. Having a son and a daughter fueled Karen’s creativity, and she happily produced whimsical costumes for Halloween, theater productions, and skating competitions.

Today, being a volunteer – even a very busy one − gives Ralston the flexibility to travel with her husband and to see dear college friends.

She has long gotten together with classmates Linda Huff Alderson, Bonnie Page Hoopengardner, and Linda Marett Disosway; the late Betty Ferguson Foster was also part of the quintet.

Lasting friendships are just some of the treasures Ralston took from her college years.

Mary Washington gave her the foundation to keep learning on her own, Ralston said, and it emboldened her to embrace a challenge.

“It gave me the confidence to say, ‘Yes, I can make hats for Ragtime,’ ” she said. “It was a great experience.”

Comments

  1. phyllis thompson says:

    Such a terrific article about Karen. She is a special person, indeed. She was visiting her sister in Los Altos, CA a year or so ago, and she, Iris Harrell, Suzanne McCarthy VanNess and I got together for an afternoon, since I only live 5 minutes from Los Altos. These alumni profiles help to strengthen the bonds made so long ago. Thank you for remembering those of us who graduated long ago, but still have so much warmth in our hearts for UMW.
    Phyllis Newby Thompson MWC ’69

  2. Mary Anne Burns says:

    Karen, I remember you well, as a most delightful person, warm hearted and so bright! It is so much fun to read this about you! With all best wishes, Mary Anne Burns MWC ’71

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