A little known University of Kentucky costume collection will make its big screen debut when a documentary on Lexington’s most famous madam premieres at the Kentucky Theatre Feb. 16.
The documentary, “Brezing and the Gilded Age of the Bluegrass,” will feature garments from UK’s Betty D. Eastin Historic Costume Collection and an interview with Kim Spillman, who manages the collection and is an associate professor in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
“Having read every book ever written about Belle Brezing and after working on this film of her life for nearly two years, I thought I had a good handle on her story,” said Doug High, the film’s executive producer and director. “I was amazed at what these garments revealed to us about Belle and about the Victorian Era. Most surprisingly, I was overwhelmed by the personal and emotional connection it gave us to Belle in a way that nothing else had.”
The Eastin collection contains 19 garments of Brezing’s, a nationally known madam who ran several brothels in Lexington from the 1890s until 1915, when the city shut them down. Her most famous one was a three-story mansion located at 59 Megowan St., which is now the corner of Wilson Street and Eastern Avenue in downtown Lexington. The late Buddy Thompson, who wrote Brezing’s original biography, donated the items to the collection in 1986. Thompson purchased the garments during the auction of Brezing’s belongings that occurred after her death in 1940. Among the Brezing items in the costume collection are a walking suit, which she would have used to go out in public to conduct professional business, such as banking; a seafoam green blouse that she would have worn to parties; and a brown embroidered cape she would have worn over her dress for warmth in the winter.
“I believe the main benefit of historic costume to a movie production is historical accuracy,” Spillman said. “If the costume designers have access to original dress items, they can focus on making costumes accurate for the time period depicted.”
The late Eastin, who was a UK professor and department chair, began the costume collection as a teaching tool for her classes in what was then the Department of Clothing, Textiles and Merchandising. The collection contains about 2,500 artifacts dating from the 1870s to the 1970s. In addition to Brezing’s garments, it contains other notable materials from Mona Von Bismarck, a Kentucky native and American socialite, and former U.S. vice president and Kentuckian Alben Barkley. While the costume collection is primarily used for teaching today, graduate students have used it as a subject for master’s theses, and it is available for other scholarly projects.