Women have been breaking molds and shattering glass ceilings all over Cleveland as long as the city’s been in existence. For the last 150 years, the Western Reserve Historical Society has been there to collect the remnants.

The “Wow Factor” exhibit, open now at the Cleveland History Center, shows off the fashions, but what you really get is a look into the lives of the women who wore them and that’s your “wow factor” – they’re not who you think.

“We want people to come [to the exhibit] and see themselves,” says Western Reserve Historical Society CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall. A lot of the items that are in the exhibit are by people who live and work right here. They are uniquely Cleveland. They are an expression of who we are and Cleveland is a bold town.”

The opening night gala was a high-class, stellar affair that featured live music, presentations, and an open bar with a featured cocktail of gin and tonic perfectly-mixed with elderflower that was raved about by attendees. The museum’s well-known Costume and Textiles Curator, Patty Edmondson, officially launched the exhibit’s opening with a staircase speech in the Chisholm Halle Costume Wing to an audience that included everyone from hardcore fashionistas to hard-rockers in white jeans.

Despite the Historical Society being reputed for preserving the earliest of Cleveland’s history, Cleveland’s actual history extends all the way up through, well, yesterday, if you really want to get technical about it. This means a lot of the items you see on display, including a pair of Lebron James’ shoes, are very recent history. Patty Edmondson gave PressureLife a tour of the exhibit and here’s what we learned:

  • Cindy Halle of the famed Cleveland Halle family has a gorgeous black pantsuit on display, designed by fellow Clevelander Joan Yellen, who convinced an uncertain Halle she could pull off wearing the suit.
    • The wow factor: the pants of the suit are completely sheer black, and it’s the late 1980s, plenty of reason for Halle to be a bit wary. “The jacket is long enough to keep you, kind of modest?”, Edmondson says but also questions with a laugh.
  • There’s a tiny, pale pink wool coat on display with a detached hood piece that buttons under the neck and lays loose in the back like a head scarf, unusual but understated, and very, very elegant.  
    • The wow factor: beloved actress Audrey Hepburn served as a long-time Global Ambassador for UNICEF and was in Cleveland for one of the charity’s events. Edmondson explains, “Somebody thought to bring her here, they gave her a behind-the-scenes tour and she was super impressed with the collection. She started her relationship with Cindy Halle and she mailed this to us the next week.”
  • Ada Watterson may be one of the most interesting Clevelanders you never knew. Edmondson says, “We’ve got her family papers in our library with old photo albums and she looks fun to hang out with. [Photos of her] playing a guitar, sitting in a hammock with her sister…there’s a series where she and her friend staged these photographs together, different scenes and that. I would have liked to have met her.”
    • The wow factor: Watterson earned a B.A. from Barnard College, a Master’s from Columbia and her Ph.D., and she did it in the 1890s.
  • A full-length gown with strong shoulders and an armour-style neckline made of a material you’d never guess if you weren’t told. Denajua, the Cleveland- and Paris-based designer explains,“I go to this annual textile show in Paris and there’s a place in the Philippines that weaves VHS tapes and it was so light and interesting. My parents had both died and I collected all these old VHS and I had to transfer them to DVDs, and I just loved the texture of [the tape]. And I said ‘Okay, that’s it’. I don’t know whose life it is that’s woven into that, I wish I did, but it’s someone’s history and it makes perfect sense that it’s in a history museum.”
    • The wow factor: Denajua is her own wow factor. She is unabashedly herself in a way that is only off-putting if strong women just aren’t your thing. Denajua tells us she was among the first to have gender reassignment surgery, done in the late 1970s at the Cleveland Clinic. She was an almost immediate success, spending the ‘80s as one of Cleveland’s most sought-after designers. She is now married to a Frenchman and divides her time between Paris and Cleveland. She is a blend of both her Parisian and Clevelander selves – she takes great pride in her abilities to create and appreciate the finer things, but in a Midwest-sensibility kind of way reflected in her designs.

The “Wow Factor: 150 Years Of Collecting Bold Clothing” exhibit is open now through 2018. For more information, visit the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s website at www.wrhs.org.

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