On this week's Fashion Fridays with Joanna, we will be taking a look at the life of Ann Lowe. Ann Cole Lowe was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer. She was best known for designing the ivory silk taffeta wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953.
Ann was born in rural Clayton, Alabama, during the Jim Crow era in 1898. She was the great-granddaughter of a slave woman and an Alabama plantation owner. Ann Lowe was born into a lineage of seamstresses who had established their own dressmaking business in Montgomery, Alabama. Lowe's interest in fashion, sewing, and design stem from her mother, Janey, and grandmother, Georgia. Ann’s mother passed when she was 16-years-old. At the time of her death, Lowe's mother had been working on four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O'Neal. Utilizing the skills she learned from her mother and grandmother, Lowe finished the dresses. In 1912, she married Lee Cohen, with whom she had a son, Arthur Lee. After her marriage, Lowe's husband wanted her to give up working as a seamstress. Lowe left her husband and moved to Florida with her son, becoming a live-in dressmaker for a socialite for ten years. She married for a second time but that marriage also ended. Lowe later said, "My second husband left me. He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses." Lowe later adopted a daughter, Ruth Alexander.
In 1917, she traveled to New York City to attend sewing courses at S.T. Taylor design School. As the only Black student, she was segregated to a separate room away from her peers. She returned to Tampa in 1919 and saw an opportunity to capitalize on the city’s yearly celebration known as the Gasparilla Ball, where a court and queen is crowned during week-long festivities. The following year, she opened her first dress salon named, Annie Cohen. The salon catered to members of high society and quickly became a success and she saved $20,000 from her earnings. Soon after, Lowe was on her return to New York City in 1928. Ann's reason for returning was for her to fulfill her dream as a fashion designer in the Big Apple. In order to make ends meet, she had to put her independent design career on hold and take jobs designing anonymously for other labels and department stores such as Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Chez Sonia. In 1946, she designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each His Own, even though the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg. As she was not getting credit for her work, Lowe and her son opened a second salon, Ann Lowe's Gowns, on Lexington Avenue in NYC in 1950. Design elements that Ann was known for were her fine handwork, signature flowers, and trapunto technique. When asked to describe herself she would use quotes such as "an awful snob", adding:
"I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them.
I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register."
In 1953, Lowe got the opportunity of a lifetime when she was asked to create the dresses for the entire bridal party of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding to senator John F. Kennedy. The opportunity was presented to her by Janet Lee Auchincloss who happened to be the mother of the future First Lady. Though the opportunity helped her career at the time, Ann didn't really benefit from the earnings; she was paid $500. Throughout her career, Lowe continued to work for wealthy clientele who often talked her out of charging hundreds of dollars for her designs. Lowe was paid less than white designers for her custom design work. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit on her designs. Lowe later admitted that at the height of her career, she was virtually broke. Upon losing her son and business partner in 1958 to a tragic car accident, she had difficulty making ends meet, ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 1962 after losing her salon in New York City and failing to pay taxes. That same year, her right eye was removed due to glaucoma. Things started looking up again for Ann during the last years of her life when she was able to go under surgery to save her eye. In 1968, she opened a new store, Ann Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue. She retired in 1972. In the last five years of her life, Lowe lived with her daughter Ruth in Queens. She died at her daughter's home on February 25, 1981, after a lengthy illness. Her funeral was held at St. Mark's United Methodist Church on March 3rd.
Jackie Kennedy in Ann Cole Lowe
(Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)
Lowe is now recognized as a pioneering African American couturier. Her pieces are preserved in renowned museum collections including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and The Museum at FIT. Several others were included in an exhibition on Black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016. A children’s book, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe written by Deborah Blumenthal was published in 2017.
Photographer unknown. Ebony Magazine, Ann Lowe in her Madison Avenue salon, December 1966. Source: Ebony Magazine