One great event from the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture is that designers of color now have public acknowledgement of their famous work. One such woman is Ann Lowe, who created Jackie Kennedy’s iconic wedding gown in 1953.
Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, and learned design in her family’s custom dressmaker shop. She moved to Tampa in 1916, then to Manhattan in 1927, with the desire to develop a business making gowns for society women.
Although she worked for other designers through the Depression, by 1950 Lowe had established her own attalier at 540 Madison Avenue, second floor.
Her heyday coincided with that of the debutant ball, and in the 1950s and ’60s, she dressed many of the most prominent New York debs. In several families, her work was so respected that she dressed two and three generations of young women. The wedding gown and bridesmaids’ dresses she did for Jacqueline Kennedy, nee Bouvier, were just one set of many items she designed for the women of the Auchincloss family. Jackie’s step-sister Nina, wore a Lowe gown for her debut, as pictured below in Vogue.
In the Saturday Evening Post, in 1964, she described how “I like to have my dresses 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.”
Ann Lowe worked into her 70s and died in her home in Queens in 1981.
Although Lowe has been written about in a number of places, e.g. the National Archive blog, Hidden Fashion History blog, The Huffington Post, the New York Post, and the New York Times (11/17/1967 among others), her name has not (yet) become well known. Inclusion of her work and her name in the National Museum of African American History and Culture will hopefully put her name back into the history of American design.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ first wedding dress is in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, along with an array of other clothes she wore as First Lady.
I wrote about another designer of color/dressmaker to First Ladies last winter: Elizabeth Keckley worked with and for both Mary Todd Lincoln and the Confederate First Lady, Varina Davis in the 1860s.
We also have her autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.
Happy reading and dress-gazing!