Evelyn Blake’s fashion sense has never failed her, not once in nearly a century. She cultivated her early fashion instincts as a graduate student in home economics at Virginia Tech, where she learned valuable skills and techniques that helped define her 40-year career in education.  

Teaching in the Roanoke school system, Blake paid careful attention to her high school students’ sewing projects, often helping find creative solutions to impending disasters. When one of her students cut a hole in the fabric meant for a dress, Blake did not blink an eye.

“‘Oh, Ms. Blake,’” the teacher recalled the student bemoaning, “‘I ruined my dress, and I was going to wear it to a dance this weekend.’ And I said, ‘No, you haven’t.’” And the experienced seamstress helped salvage the project. Together they created a stylish oval cutout below the chest area.

“It was a big hit,” said Blake, who received her master’s degree in 1949 and will turn 100 in September, “because most people couldn’t buy something like that.”

Blake, who majored in biology at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia, found inspiration and a career path from her mentor, Oris Glisson, who served as an associate professor of home economics from 1948 to 1955 and head of the Department of Clothing, Textiles, and Related Art — which is now the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management — from 1955 to 1978 

“Oris inspired me to teach,” she said. “Oh, my goodness, yes. She showed me what I wanted to do with my life; I just didn’t know it until I had her as a teacher.”

Blake, who grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, toyed with being a professional fashion designer. She remembers that Glisson offered to help her get a scholarship to the Parsons School of Design in New York. At the time, her husband, Oscar Jennings Blake, was a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, where he had received his master’s in architectural engineering. He had also recently been in the armed services. She wanted to spend more time with him, and rather than moving to New York for a few years, she decided to get a teaching job. 

She had another compelling reason not to pursue a career as a designer.

“I really would have liked to have gone into design, but I felt like I did not have the push that was necessary,” she said. “And I was happy teaching students how to do it.”

Blake recalled creating challenging projects for her students. A potholder was among the first. It was no simple task, as it involved 23 distinct elements. Students who could not do all correctly would have to repeat the project until they mastered every component. When students completed all the tasks, Blake would allow them to start making three required garments. At the end of the course, they would display their creations in a fashion show. One student even covered a two-piece bathing suit with several of the potholders. The end effect? She looked like she was wearing only potholders.

But teaching did not stop Blake from applying her creative talents to her own wardrobe. Take her dress made from two burlap sacks and lined with turquoise taffeta to keep the garment from feeling scratchy. Add to this, matching shoes, gloves, and a hat — all in turquoise — and she had a definite fashion statement.

Blake wore this ensemble to a dinner at the Hotel Roanoke. That year, she said, the Roanoke school system had promised the teachers a raise, then later decided it could not carry through with the plan.

“We wouldn’t get the raise, but they would give us a dinner at Hotel Roanoke,” she said. “And in those days, it costs $5 for dinner. So, they gave every teacher in the county a $5 dinner, and I wore my burlap dress. And I said, ‘This is what we’ll all be wearing if we don’t get a raise.’”

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But between her teacher’s salary and her husband’s as a professor of civil engineering, she enjoyed fine fabrics for sewing, a longtime hobby as a photographer (even having her own darkroom), and opportunities to continue her education through workshops and classes throughout the world. She also created a legacy through philanthropy. 

She donated 169 acres of forestland located north of Blacksburg to the Nature Conservancy, named the Oscar Jennings and Evelyn Lilly Blake Preserve, which contains a rare calcareous forest. And she has supported both the marching band and science program at Concord University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate of humanities in 2018.

And recently Blake donated several of her fashions to the Oris Glisson Historic Costume and Textile Collection at Virginia Tech. Named after Blake’s mentor and founder, it preserves and documents fashionable dress items worn in southwestern Virginia to illustrate to the Virginia Tech community the changing values in clothing design from the 18th century to present. 

Dina Smith-Glaviana, an assistant professor and director of the collection, will process and preserve the items once the campus physically reopens.

“Evelyn gave us good quality pieces,” Smith-Glaviana said, “because she sewed them herself. And I love the fact that she used the techniques taught by Oris Glisson. I find that connection to the collection’s founder intriguing.” 

During a visit, Blake pointed out those techniques on the garments and Smith-Glaviana documented them.

“These pieces are a good fit for the Glisson collection and an upcoming research project,” Smith-Glaviana said. “Anything that’s local and related to Oris that we can put in the collection is really special.”

Story, photograph, and videos by Leslie King