An Uncredited Career
Fashion Designer Ann Lowe
By Anne Levin
In the annals of the accomplished whose work has gone largely unrecognized because of their race, Ann Lowe occupies a prominent spot. Lowe was an African American fashion designer whose lavish creations were coveted by the rich and socially prominent. While she earned such distinctions as Couturier of the Year and made the Who’s Who in American Women list, she rarely received the attention she deserved.
In 1953, Lowe designed the ivory silk taffeta gown that Jacqueline Bouvier wore for her wedding to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The dress featured trapunto, a layering of fabrics to create a dimensional effect — a technique for which Lowe was known in fashion circles. But the future first lady is said to have credited “a colored woman” with creating the famous gown, neglecting to identify her by name.
Lowe’s designs made the pages of Vogue, Town & Country, and other popular fashion magazines. Her skill and artistry impressed French designer Christian Dior. At one point in her career, she had her own label and a store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Her dresses were sold at Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, and Saks Fifth Avenue, where she was the head designer of a special boutique with a privileged clientele. Yet her genius was rarely recognized.
“Ann Lowe was highly respected by the fashion industry, but the custom nature of her work made her little known publicly,” writes Margaret Powell, the curatorial assistant of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pa., in an email. Powell is writing a book about Lowe, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2021. “Some designers expanded their work to capture a lower price point, but Ann didn’t want to do that,” Powell continues. “She just wanted to make her gorgeous dresses.”
John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier on their wedding day, 1953. (Photo by Toni Frissell; Wikimedia Commons)
Lowe was born in Alabama in 1898 to a family of seamstresses. She learned to sew from her mixed-race grandmother and her mother, who made dresses for Southern society women. Her mother’s sudden passing left 16-year-old Lowe with the challenge of creating four ball gowns for the first lady of Alabama. She succeeded, and her career was launched.
Focused on making it in the fashion industry, Lowe left her first husband to become an in-house seamstress to a wealthy woman in Tampa, Fla. She was given the opportunity to study, for six months, at a design school in New York.
“Ann had a wide range of very specific skills from the Civil War period, notably to conserve fabric while making ornament for the gowns, plus the more traditional services of a northern seamstress,” said Powell. “This combination was unusual. One of her most successful themes — silk roses in different states of bloom, winding around a silk gown — was something she had developed for a Tampa gasparilla [pirate] queen in 1928. They were made from scraps off the workroom floor.”
An ivory dress (left) decorated with swirls of handmade fabric rose vines. The variety of rose depicted on the dress is the American Beauty, which has led to it being called the “American Beauty” dress. A pink satin and organza dress (middle). Pale green teal silk sari gown (right) designed by Ann Lowe. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane)
Lowe had to endure racist attitudes during her training. “She was segregated in her New York school, after being allowed to attend at all, since they had never had a black student and this was 1927,” says Powell. “This was frustrating for her. She was put at a desk in a hallway near the bathroom. As her teachers saw the high quality of her work, they were actually bringing people out to show them her techniques. And she had worse problems [later] in New York. Any time she would have a salon, she would need to have a white business partner. Because a black person would not be able to rent in these areas.”
Lowe, who died in 1981, was not often written about during her lifetime. But she gave an interview to Ebony magazine in 1966 and made a television appearance on The Mike Douglas Show around the same time. The Saturday Evening Post profiled her. Recent decades have seen an interest in her life and work. A Google search reveals numerous articles detailing her talent and her struggles. Lowe was prominently featured in a 2016 exhibit by the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, focused on the impact of designers of African descent. The same year, a show highlighting Lowe’s work was mounted at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Among the designer’s most famous creations was the dress Olivia de Haviland wore to accept her Oscar for the 1946 film To Each His Own. But Lowe’s name wasn’t on the label.
The Bouvier/Kennedy nuptials received considerable press. The dress Lowe designed was described in detail by The New York Times and other publications, without mention of her name. Also not mentioned was a flood in Lowe’s studio that destroyed the original gown and bridesmaids’ dresses. In ten days, Lowe and her team recreated what had originally taken them months to make.
Despite the high prices of the dresses she designed, Lowe never made much money. According to the Ebony interview, at one point in her career she was able to turn out an average of 1,000 gowns a year, had a staff of 35, and grossed $300,000 a year. But by 1963, she was forced to declare bankruptcy.
“One morning I work up owing $10,000 to suppliers and $12,800 in back taxes,” she said. “Friends at Henri Bendel and Neiman-Marcus loaned me money to stay open, but the Internal Revenue agents finally closed me up for non-payment of taxes. At my wits end, I ran sobbing into the street.”
Rumor has it that Lowe’s IRS bill was finally paid by Jacqueline Kennedy when she learned of the designer’s troubles.
No two designs by Lowe were alike. Her clients had names like Rockefeller, DuPont, Auchincloss, and Biddle. She was a snob, and proud of it. “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,” she told Ebony. “I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register.”
Lowe lived in an apartment in Harlem for nearly five decades. After her son Arthur Lee, who served as business partner, died in a car accident in 1958, she relied on her sister, who served as Lowe’s eyes when she was partially blinded by glaucoma. She was 82 when she died after a long illness, having spent the last five years at the home of her daughter in Queens.
Lowe’s story continues to fascinate those interested in fashion and African American history. Five of her designs are held at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I think there is a renewed interest in Ann,” says Powell. “It’s because of people like Henrietta Lacks [whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951] and Hidden Figures [the film about three African American women who made brilliant discoveries at NASA in the 1950s] — stories of other black women who contributed so much to history, but received little in return.”