In 2003, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston held a special exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy nuptials. Visitors got to see various mementos from the 1953 wedding, considered the social event of the season at the time. A highlight of the exhibit was Bouvier’s ivory silk-taffeta bridal dress, which received a lot of media attention for its exquisite design. It also sparked renewed interest in the woman who made it: Ann Lowe, a little-known African-American designer who specialized in formal wear for wealthy socialites.
“I first learned about Ann Lowe years ago when I went up to what was then the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem,” recalls Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where several of Lowe’s dresses are housed. “What struck me was that she was a custom dressmaker to elite, white society, which was a significant genre,” says Steele.
“I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,” Lowe famously told Ebony magazine. “I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register.” The story of how she became one of their most sought-after designers is quite remarkable.
Born in 1898 in Clayton, Ala., Lowe came from a family of dressmakers. Her grandmother Georgia Cole made clothes for her plantation mistress before becoming a free woman in 1860, and her mother, Jane Lowe, was an expert seamstress and embroiderer. Learning from both women, Lowe became skilled at creating intricate fabric flower adornments that would later become one of her signatures. The women eventually moved to Montgomery, Ala., where they ran a successful dressmaking business. When her mother died suddenly while making gowns for the governor’s wife and daughters, Lowe, then 16, completed the project and subsequently headed the family business.
A wealthy Floridian impressed with Lowe’s skills invited her to move to Tampa and become her family’s seamstress. As word of her talent spread, her clientele increased.
“There have always been black women who were dressmakers,” says Audrey Smaltz, former Ebony Fashion Fair commentator and founder of the Ground Crew backstage management company. “If they had a dressmaking job in a white lady’s house and that lady was looking good, she would also subcontract the dressmaker out to others. That’s how black women got to be seamstresses. They’d work for one family and maybe that family would help her [become established].”
With her employer’s support and encouragement, Lowe enrolled at the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York. She studied alone in a separate classroom because white students did not want to attend class with a “Negro.” Ironically, her designs were often upheld as examples in the same classes she was forbidden to attend, and she successfully completed her two-year design program in half the time. Lowe returned to Tampa, opened a shop, and hired 18 seamstresses to help her keep pace with requests for balls, cotillions and other formal affairs. Business was good, but Lowe was eager to fulfill her dream of working in New York City. Taking $20,000 in savings, she closed shop and headed north.
The Great Depression hit soon after she arrived in the city. To make ends meet, she took work designing and sewing for prestige labels like A.F. Chantilly and Sonia Gowns. Those jobs were her introduction to New York society—and its introduction to her—though its members wouldn’t immediately know it, because the labels on her creations bore the company’s name.
Lowe’s career really took off during the prosperous postwar years when wealthy women flocked to the opera, theater and galas and needed the appropriate attire. Debutante balls were growing in popularity as well, so there was a new generation of socialites to design for. “The girls were coming out in those days, and she was so good at making cotillion dresses,” Smaltz says. “She had lots of upper-echelon clients”—du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, Posts, Bouviers and Auchinclosses among them.
Lowe opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem in 1950, and Ann Lowe’s Originals on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue in 1968, making her the first African American to have a business on the high-end retail strip.
A 1966 Saturday Evening Post article called Lowe “Society’s Best Kept Secret,” a description that Steele says could be a double-edged sword. “On the one hand, people really liked her work. On the other hand, they weren’t exactly boasting that this beautiful dress they had was made by an African-American designer,” Steele says. “They probably would have been just as happy to have people think, ‘Oh, maybe she’s wearing Dior.’ It didn’t help her business that people weren’t talking her up.”
Another detriment to business was that Lowe, succumbing to pressure from clients, often sold dresses for much less than they were worth. Mounting business debts and back taxes forced her to declare bankruptcy and shutter her first store in the early 1960s. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor who paid off her debts, Lowe rebounded and continued to work at her Madison Avenue store until her retirement in 1972.
Thanks to some recent efforts, Lowe is having another fashion moment. An exhibit of her dresses at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is exposing thousands of visitors to her legacy and artistry. Julia Faye Smith’s 2016 biography, Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe, America’s Forgotten Designer,filled with archival pictures, puts Lowe’s life and career in historical context. And there is even a children’s book, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, by Deborah Blumenthal and Laura Freeman, which introduces little ones to this American great. May she never fall into obscurity again.
Five Fab Facts About Ann Lowe
1. New York World, a leading African-American newspaper, sent Lowe to cover Paris’ first Fashion Week in 1947.
2. Christian Dior, whom she met while in Paris, was a fan.
3. Lowe made the dress that movie star Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar for the 1946 film To Each His Own, though her name was not on the label.
4. When Bouvier’s original wedding gown and bridesmaids’ dresses were ruined because of a flood in Lowe’s studio, she and her team re-created in 10 days what had originally taken them two months to make.
5. Her gowns were featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Town & Country magazines throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
By: Julia Chance