Updated: Feb 20, 2019
In honor of Black History Month I will be highlighting several designers of color who were significant during their lifetimes but may not be household names today. First up is Ann Lowe, described by the Saturday Evening Post in 1964 as "Society's Best-Kept Secret." Speaking in the same interview Lowe remarked:
"I like for my dresses to be admired. I like to hear about it—the oohs and ahs as they come into the ballroom. Like when someone tells me,'the Ann Lowe dresses were doing all the dancing at the cotillion last night.' That's what I like to hear."
Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, AL into a family of accomplished seamstresses working for the upper echelons of Alabama society. She learned her craft from her mother and grandmother at a young age. In 1914, Lowe's mother unexpectedly passed away and at 16 years old, Ann was already skilled enough that she was able to fulfill her mother's remaining orders for dresses on her own. Two years prior she had married Lee Cohen with whom she had one child, Arthur Lee. Cohen was not supportive of Lowe's career choice, and Lowe considered giving up sewing for a time. But when given the opportunity to design for a wealthy woman in Florida, Lowe packed up her child and took off. By 1917, Lowe had found her way to New York and begun taking design classes at S.T. Taylor Design School. Though segregated from the rest of her class, Lowe's work was exceptional and, according to Nancy Davis and Amelia Grabowski writing for a Smithsonian blog, was used as an example for other students.
For several decades, Lowe tried her hand in several ways to maintain success. She opened shops in Florida and New York and worked on department store commissions. Lowe continued to cater to the wealthy, and the success of her shop in Florida enabled her to save enough money to center her career in New York.
In 1950, she and her son opened Ann Lowe's Gowns on Lexington Avenue. According to Black Past:
"Here Lowe created designs for some of the most prestigious families in the nation including the Rockefellers, the Lodges, the DuPonts, the Posts, and the Biddles. In 1953, she was hired to design a wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier for her wedding to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Lowe was chosen by Jacqueline’s mother Janet Auchincloss, who previously commissioned Lowe to design the wedding dress she wore when she married Hugh D. Auchincloss in 1942."
Lowe and her seamstresses were tasked with dressing all of the women in the Kennedy wedding party. But, ten days prior to the wedding, Lowe's workroom flooded and she and her staff had to recreate months of work in less than two weeks. The Kennedy wedding dress is one of the most well-known designs that Lowe ever created, and speaks to Lowe's discipline and talent due to how quickly it had to be re-made. Reportedly, Lowe never told the family about the flood or the financial loss that she absorbed because of it. Upon arrival in Rhode Island to deliver the gowns, she was informed by house staff that she had to use the back entrance. On grounds of taking back the dresses, she refused and escorted herself through the front door. Unfortunately, Lowe was never acknowledged publicly by the Kennedy's for her work.
As one can imagine, Lowe's designs were made according to the highest standards. Historian Margaret Powell told the New York Post in October 2016:
"Her clients realized that they could get the same quality as Dior at a much lower price.”
While writing about a gown designed for socialite Polly Duxbury in 1967, curator Nancy Davis said:
"The quality of this dress? Unbelievable. All the seams are lined with lace. There's an amazingly complex interior structure that the dress is built around—the slip and bra are built in. According to Polly Duxbury, the fit is absolutely glorious—it's like your skin. The slip has tulle along the hem, which gives it shape. This kind of really detailed, really high-end work is very time-intensive."
Davis goes on to note that Lowe often undercharged for the quality of her work and her supplies. According to her New York Times obituary, sometimes Lowe's clientele would talk down her prices, too. With the passing of her son and business partner in 1958, Lowe struggled financially until in 1962, while recovering from cataract surgery, an anonymous donor payed her debts, freeing her to work and design once again.
I was delighted to find out that Lowe undertook what is now a somewhat obscure but charming project for the Evyan perfume company. For the launch of their scent Great Ladies in 1957, Evyan asked several designers to recreate the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies in doll form. On her blog Hidden Fashion History, historian Margaret Powell goes in to great detail about the campaign (it's a fun read---check it out!) and confirms that Lowe designed the dresses for the Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson dolls. One of my first museum jobs was as a docent at the First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, OH, which holds versions of the two confirmed Lowe gowns. The mini-inaugural gowns were rotated throughout the year in a small permanent exhibition and I remember specifically how beautiful the Lady Bird dress was.
Much more can be said about Lowe, and I encourage you to use my referenced sources as a jumping off point to get to know and celebrate the work of this remarkable woman.
Gerri Major (December 1966). "Dean of American Designers". Ebony.
Hidden Fashion History blog by Margaret Powell
Lizabeth Grey (February 3, 1998). "Let's Talk About: Black History Month". Pittsburg Post Gazette.
Nancy Davis and Amelia Grabowski (March 12, 2018). "Sewing For Joy: Ann Lowe". National Museum of American History blog.
Raquel Laneri (October 16, 2016). "Why Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress designer was fashion’s ‘best kept secret’". New York Post.
Samuel Momodu (June 11, 2017). "Ann Cole Lowe (1898-1981)". Black Past.
Thomas Congdon, Jr. “Ann Lowe: Society’s Best Kept Secret”. Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1964, 76
Timothy M., Phelps (March 1, 1981). "Ann Lowe 82, Designed Gowns for Exclusive Clientele In Society". nytimes.com.