‘A Lady of Class and Grace’

How Carolyn Barnett made Evansville look good.

“If you love what you do, and you love to help people, then it’s not work,” Carolyn Barnett told Evansville Living in 2012 upon her retirement as the owner of Carolyn’s Fashions.

Born in Henderson, Kentucky, and raised in Evansville – she was a 1953 Benjamin Bosse High School graduate – Barnett died June 10 from cancer at the age of 88, and her impact went far beyond doing what she loved. After her career teaching in Henderson County schools, Barnett opened Carolyn’s Fashions in 1976 in Henderson, eventually owning an additional storefront in Evansville.

Through her business, Barnett was able to produce fashion shows for charity, aiding organizations like Easterseals Rehabilitation Center, Evansville Philharmonic, Mental Health America of Vanderburgh County, Vanderburgh County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and Evansville Association for the Blind. Her efforts behind the Passion for Fashion show benefiting Easterseals raised $444,000 over 17 years.

She also took care with her customers’ dresses, making sure anyone attending the same event would not show up in the same fashions, since almost all would go to her for their attire. With the end of Carolyn’s Fashions, longtime customer Kirsten Wagmeister has had to go out of town to buy formalwear since many businesses in town are catering to brides and bridal parties. Wagmeister describes Barnett as someone who always looked put together and was “a lady of class and grace.”

“When you ordered a dress from [Carolyn’s Fashions], only you wore the dress. She would not order it for someone else,” says Wagmeister, who at one time sat on the boards of seven different Evansville organizations and, thus, had many occasions to don Barnett’s fashions. “Her shop was the place to go when you needed something for events. I went to see her eight times out of 10.”

Those who modeled in her fashion shows were not professionals but customers and friends of Barnett, as well as prominent community members. Betty Barning, 90, and her daughter Karla Kappler both modeled for Barnett and considered her a dear friend. Barning and Barnett became close after an Evansville College (now University of Evansville) class reunion. Barning’s husband, David, and Barnett were in the same graduating class. Once Barnett’s husband, Owen, and Barning’s husband passed away 18 years ago around the same time, the two grew even closer.

Photo of Carolyn Barnett and Betty Barning provided by Karla Kappler

When asked how many shows she modeled for Barnett, Barning says, “I can’t even remember. She’s been a friend forever. I will really miss her.”

Barning used to attend weekly lunches of about eight ladies with Barnett and friends at the now-closed Kennel Club on Kratzville Road. Barnett also used to hold barbecue dinners in the summer at her Henderson home with her partner, Jerry Newhouse, who died in 2020. They were together for 14 years.

To Kappler, Barnett was like a second mother since she was close with Kappler’s mom, Barning, and her mother-in-law, Joan. Kappler says she was privileged to share in Barnett’s and Barning’s friendship.

“She’s going to be missed very much,” she says.

Kappler did fashion shows for Barnett as well – she estimates three or four annually for more than 20 years. Still, Barnett’s generosity went far beyond charitable causes. To her family, friends, and customers, she always was the person they could talk to. Kappler says her favorite memories of Barnett were “sitting and talking to her” whenever she would pass by Carolyn’s Fashions.

Barning says she will miss “having lunch together and just talking and reminiscing. She was always a friend that would be there for you. I never heard her speak ill of anyone.”

Barnett is survived by three children and three grandchildren, along with her brother and a sister. Those wishing to attend her services can find more information here.

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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