Named by the Saturday Evening Post as “Society’s Best-Kept Secret” in 1964, Ann Cole Lowe can definitely be described as one of fashion’s Hidden Figures. But in recent years, she is finally getting the recognition she should have received during the 1940′s, 50′s and 60′s as she became the first black couturier to open a shop on Madison Avenue, made dresses for some of the most elite women in New York and Florida, and was commissioned by the Auchincloss family to dress a young socialite, Jacqueline Bouvier, for her nuptials to then Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Ann Lowe in her New York salon with model Judith Palmer, Ebony magazine, 1966.
Ann Lowe was truly a pioneer. Born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Ann learned to sew from her grandmother, a freed slave, and her mother who made dresses for Southern socialites. When her mother suddenly passed away before finishing some ball gowns commissioned by the First Lady of Alabama, 16-year-old Anne finished the dresses, launching her career as a couture dressmaker.
Nina Auchincloss (Jacqueline Bouvier’s step sister) in an Ann Lowe dress in the August 1, 1955, issue of Vogue magazine.
Ann continued to pursue her passion for couture, enrolling in S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. When she arrived, the school tried to turn her away once they realized they’d admitted a Black woman. Though she continued to face discrimination and segregation while pursuing her studies (she was forced to work separately, her white classmates refusing to sit in the same room with her), she continued to move forward and graduated early.
Nylon, silk evening dress with metallic thread by Ann Lowe,
circa 1960, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ann spent several years in Florida making dresses for the elite. Ann would often dress women for events that, because of segregation, she would have never been allowed to attend. One such Florida event was the annual Gasparilla festival, an exclusive, segregated formal ball where the main event is a coronation of a King and Queen and their court. Ann would often provide the gowns for the entire court as well as many of the women who attended. Interestingly, despite the discrimination in Florida, Lowe speaks of that time in Tampa as “some of the happiest years in [her] life.”
(left) A gown designed by Ann Lowe for the Gasparilla festival, an early example of her signature fabric Flowers. (right) Closeup back view of an evening dress worn by Barbara Baldwin Dowd, 1966-1967. The dress is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History.
Ann left Florida and returned to New York City. Despite the steady following from members of the New York elite and her gowns appearing in publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, her first shop closed for financial reasons. After working as an in-house seamstress at department stores & boutiques including the prestigious Adam Room at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Chez Sonia, she was able to re-open her shop on Madison Avenue.
Olivia de Havilland accepted the 1947 Academy Award for Best Actress in one of Lowe’s gowns. Though Lowe designed and sewed the gown, her name was not on the label. Instead, the label read Sonia Rosenberg (Chez Sonia).
Ann’s work earned her Couturier of the Year in 1961 and a listing in the National Society Directory and the Who’s Who in American Women list. She was known for her trapunto work, meticulous needle work and beautiful finishing details, both inside and outside of the garment. She truly loved couture design and dressmaking. In an Oakland Tribune interview, she said, “I feel so happy when I am making clothes …” And in a 1965 appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, she explained that her driving force was not fame or fortune but her desire “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.” She most definitely succeeded.
Ann Lowe working in her Madison Avenue studio in the 1960′s.
Photo: Ebony Magazine
There is much conflicting information (what little information we know) about Ann Lowe. However, I did find a wonderful blog that chronicles much of her work throughout the years and has much more information and pictures of her work that you won’t readily find on the internet.
Jackie Kennedy in the iconic wedding gown created by Ann Lowe in the the December, 1966 issue of Ebony Magazine. It is now part of the permanent collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Did you know that 10 days before the Kennedy wedding, a pipe burst in Lowe’s studio, destroying 10 of the 15 dresses she’d created, including the bride’s dress which had taken 2 months and fifty feet of silk taffeta to make. She’d only charged the family $500 for the elaborate dress (which would have cost at least twice as much, probably more from a competitor), and incurred a loss of $2200. Adding insult to injury, when she hand delivered the garments to Rhode Island, she was told to use the back entrance. She said, “If I have to use the backdoor, they’re not going to have the gowns!” The guards let her in.
Lowe never mentioned the mishap to the family, and though at the time she was never given credit for her one-of-a-kind design, her wedding dress became one of the most iconic in history.