Many fashion critics recommended bright colors that would feel less garish in artificial lighting. This circa 1883 scarlet and gold silk satin and brocade gown was worn by Annie Otis Sanders. Photograph provided by the Cleveland History Center

The Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society is shining a light on fashion and the role it has played in Cleveland’s past.
Its’ latest exhibit, “Fashion After Dark” simulates the atmosphere of an evening on Euclid Avenue near the end of the 19th century with immersive lighting and sound. Using the Hay-McKinney Mansion’s period rooms and bulbs that mimic gaslight and early electricity, vignettes of dressing, dining, entertaining and household service will fill the home. The Hay-McKinney Mansion dates back to 1911 and is the only fully restored house of its kind open to the public in Cleveland. Fashion and period rooms work together to create a storybook atmosphere, transporting visitors back in time. In addition to luxurious interiors, the preserved servants’ spaces offer a glimpse into working life “downstairs.”
Imagine a visual feast of shimmering silks, dazzling sequins and sparkling gemstones. In the 19th century, gaslight and early electricity brought evening wear to light in an otherworldly way. The Cleveland Gas Light and Coke Company began production in 1849. America’s first gas companies largely supplied commercial establishments and street lamps. As people built their homes in the second half of the century, some were outfitted to receive gas. By the time of the Civil War, over 380 gas companies existed in American cities.
Daylight stood in such contrast that some shops offered specially lit rooms for choosing silks, and style writers recommended the best colors and fabrics for gaslight. Some stores advertised “evening rooms” where merchandise could be viewed in the dark and with gas fixtures. However, the merchant S.D. Condit & Co. advertised special holiday evening hours for silk shopping, assuring their customers that, “Condit’s store, when lighted at evening, is as brilliant, so far as light and effect are concerned, as the drawing room, and it is far better to take advantage of this than to trust to selecting in rooms artificially darkened.”
“Fashion After Dark” is curated by Patty Edmonson, the Museum Advisory Council Curator of Costume and Textiles. “I wanted to bring the house and the costume collection together,” Edmonson noted. “I knew that I wanted to explore different types of lighting, so I spent some time reading about the introduction of gas and what people were saying about it in the 19th century. Researching evening wear also gave me that chance to put out some real show-stoppers.”
Edmonson said some of the fashions have been on exhibit at the museum previously, but not in recent years. “A few garments are newer acquisitions, and others were on display during the 1980s and 1990s. One of the gowns was featured in the 2015 exhibition, “In Grand Style,” but that might be the most recent showing,” she said.
Various departments of the Cleveland History Center worked together to stage this exhibit, which incorporates immersive light and sound. “We have a smaller staff, so when I install exhibitions, I always work with our Chief Curator Eric Rivet, our Collections Manager Whitney Stalnaker, our unofficially titled installation guru Kevin Barrie, and our Director of Experience Dennis Barrie,” Edmonson explained. “I did research on electric bulbs that are made to simulate gas and the ones we use are sold by Gulf Coast Lanterns. I would say that visiting other museums like the Met in New York City helped with the inspiration for this exhibit. They have successfully used their period rooms with fashion before and we were inspired by that.”
A Cleveland native, Edmonson received her undergraduate degree in art history from Case Western Reserve University. “While there, I interned at Western Reserve Historical Society, so I’ve come full circle. I have an MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. Winterthur is a museum with period rooms and I have a real love for historic interiors, which I think this show illustrates,” she said. “After school, I worked in the American Wing and Costume Institute at the Met before moving back to Cleveland. I’ve worked in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Education Department and am always trying to put the visitor experience first. I’ve been at Western Reserve Historical Society since January, 2016.”
Western Reserve Historical Society maintains one of the largest collections of historic costumes and textiles in the United States. Housed within the Chisholm Halle Costume Wing and the Bingham-Hanna Mansion, the collection comprises about 40,000 garments, accessories and domestic textiles, ranging in date from circa 1750 to the present day. The collection is international in scope and contains both historic and contemporary designs, including mass-produced, ready-to-wear, couture and one-of-a-kind pieces.
“Fashion After Dark” is on exhibit through June 30, 2024. The Cleveland History Center is at 10825 East Blvd. Museum hours are noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Phone 216.721.5722 or visit for ticket information.