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Issue 17 Out Now

THE LIFE OF ANN LOWE

Updated: Jun 16, 2022


Anne Lowe: Society’s Best-Kept Secret

The first black woman to be internationally-recognized as a fashion designer crafted a space for herself through talent while living in the Jim Crow-era in the United States, Ann Lowe is sparsely known today. Her work should be known amongst the likes of Dior and Chanel, but Lowe never got her recognition due to the way black people were treated in her time. Although she made dresses for individuals of the highest register, Lowe never achieved the fame she rightfully deserved.


Born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Lowe inherited her dressmaking skills from her mother, Janie Tompkins, who was freed in 1860. Along with her mother, Georgia Tompkins, according to The Life and Work of Ann Lowe: Rediscovering “Society’s Best-Kept Secret” by Margaret E. Powell.

The family’s most affluent client was Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal, a social matron who became the First Lady of Alabama in 1911. She was known as a fashionable woman whom the Lowe family sewed gowns for. When Lowe was 16, her mother passed away, leaving her to finish her mother’s last job having to create four ball gowns for O’Neal.



Ann Lowe (American, 1898–1981). Evening dress, ca. 1960. Nylon, metallic thread, silk. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.144. Gift of Lucy Curley Joyce Brennen, 1979. Source: The Met

Lowe experienced immense success from her dresses. Her husband at the time spoiled her career as he did not support her desire to work; Lowe, however, had a mission to make beautiful dresses to give young girls their fairy tale moments.


Her compliance with her husband did not last because she was “discovered” in her hometown of Dothan, Alabama. The outfits she wore were so fashion-forward and professional that they caught the eye of women throughout the city. Josephine Edwards Lee, the wife of a successful Tampa businessman, spotted Lowe in a Dothan department store and promptly asked where she could find similar clothing; Lee then invited her to Tampa to work as a seamstress for her family claiming no one could sew as she did.


Lowe accepted Lee’s offer to move to Tampa to make all of the dresses for her daughter’s wedding. After picking up her son Arthur Lee and leaving her first husband, Lowe began to pursue her dreams.

First to Florida, then to New York City, Lowe continued following her passion. She enrolled at S.T. Taylor Design School in New York where racial segregation existed in her reality. Lowe was removed from her peers and was confined to her own space where she worked, achieving her diploma and continued making dresses for elite socialites.


Ann Lowe (American, 1898–1981). Ball gown in Chantilly lace over silver-white Duchesse silk satin, 1957. New York: Museum of the City of New York, 2009.2.2. Source: MCNY

In the 1950s, Lowe opened a boutique in Harlem by the name of “Ann Lowe’s Gowns” and became the first black person to have a business (“Ann Lowe’s Originals”) on the luxurious Madison Avenue in 1968. She was a hit with the elite making dresses for du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefeller’s, Whitneys, Posts Bouviers, and Auchinclossess.


An Ann Lowe gown became the signature of high society as Lowe limited her clientele to wealthy white women on the Social Register. She told Ebony magazine that she loved her clothes and was particular about who wore them, she once said “I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue.”


Powell suggests that “this almost single-minded focus on race may have limited the analysis of Lowe as a designer and her body of work”. Her work and clientele should have made her a household name, yet with the time, she lived in none of her exclusively white clientele ever felt the need to credit her.

Lowe’s career should’ve marked her as one of the most famous fashion designers. She went on to design Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. In Powell’s research on Lowe, she notes that the designer of the dress was never revealed.


When reporters asked Mrs. Kennedy about her gown after the wedding she described the designer as “a colored woman dressmaker”. With a passing comment, the likelihood of free advertising for her dress salon became nonexistent.



Ann Lowe (American, 1898–1981). Jacqueline Kennedy’s Wedding dress, 1953. Silk taffeta. Source: FIT Fashion History Timeline

She lost many opportunities to boost her business as her name was not on the label of her dresses. Today the wedding gown Kennedy wore lives in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts, most oblivious to the historical impact of the designer. Few know that Lowe designed this dress and it is one example of the countless dresses she designed for the elite American upper class.


Either her clients liked to keep her for themselves or they didn’t want to admit the origins of the inexpensive dress designed by a Black woman. Lowe’s clients denied her credit and thus forth she was hardly known outside of elite circles. Later being nicknamed in a 1996 Saturday Evening Post article calling her “Society’s Best Kept Secret”.


The same publication interviewed a luxury fabric vendor stating that racial attitudes and changing fashion trends played a role in her not being known. He believed that her designs were of such a high caliber that if she lived in France she would’ve been much more successful.



Ann Lowe (American, 1898–1981). Debutante ball dress for Pauline “Polly” Carver Duxbury, 1967. Source: Smithsonian

Seemingly as racial relations improved by the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black designers found success in the Manhattan fashion district, while alternately Lowe’s career began to fail. The generational skills she got from watching her mother and grandmother run their dressmaking business in Alabama, along with changing fashion trends and struggles with glaucoma, Lowe was forced to close her final Manhattan couture salon, Ann Lowe’s Originals in 1972.


The press never saw Lowe as a talented designer. They painted her out as an elderly Black woman with one eye and an elite list of the most influential clients. Curators have gone on to discuss the perfection of work, how she was undercharged for the cost of the fabric, and the handwork required to design the dress.


Lowe made a mark while living a full life of creation and fantasy. She died in 1891 at the age of 82. She achieved the impossible in the Jim Crow-era by making a name for herself amongst high society and solely from her talent.


Resources:

FIT. “1898–1981 — Ann Lowe.” Fashion History Timeline, Fashion History Timeline, 13 July 2020, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1898–1981-ann-lowe/.


Kwateng-Clark, Danielle. “How a Little-Known Black Pioneer Changed Fashion Forever.” Racked, Racked, 30 Sept. 2016, www.racked.com/2016/9/30/13064294/fashion-designer-ann-lowe.


Melissa Locker February 19, Melissa Locker, and Melissa Locker. “The Story of Ann Lowe: The Alabama Designer Behind Jackie Kennedy’s Iconic Wedding Dress.” Southern Living, Southern Living, 19 Feb. 2020, www.southernliving.com/fashion-beauty/southern-fashion/ann-lowe-jackie-kennedy-dresses.


Powell, Margaret E. “Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts.” The Corcoran College of Art + Design, 2012.

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