The African American designer that became 'society's best kept secret'

The African American designer that became 'society's best kept secret'

How the granddaughter of a former slave escaped Jim Crow to design Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic wedding dress and become ‘society’s best kept secret’ as the personal couturier for the Rothschilds, Roosevelts and Rockefellers

  • Ann Lowe was born into segregation in the rural South became the first African American woman to be recognized as a fashion designer
  • She had no formal education but learned to sew from her grandmother who was a freed slave that worked as a seamstress on a plantation 
  • She was known as ‘society’s best kept secret’ for her aristocratic clients that included Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Whitneys and Vanderbilts
  • Lowe hand-sewed everything and specialized in creating one-of-a-kind ball gowns and wedding dresses for socially prominent debutantes like the Bouvier sisters
  • She described herself to Ebony Magazine in 1971 as ‘an awful snob’ and said ‘I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I only sew for families of the Social Register’
  • Lowe designed Jackie Kennedy’s iconic 1953 wedding gown to JFK; but later felt insulted by her when she simply referred to Ann as ‘a colored woman dressmaker’  
  • Just one week before the wedding, Lowe was forced to remake the entire dress because it was destroyed by a burst water pipe in her salon, Jackie never knew  
  • Mounting debts forced Lowe to close her shop in 1963, she also lost vision in one eye due to glaucoma which affected her ability to work 
  • She fell into obscurity before her death in 1981 until recent efforts made by the Smithsonian to revive her legacy with an exhibit dedicated to her work 

Ann Lowe (pictured above in an undated photo) learned to sew from her grandmother who was a freed slave that worked as a seamstress on a plantation. As a child, Lowe helped her mother and grandmother with their lucrative dressmaking business in Montgomery, Alabama 

Roosevelt, Dupont, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Rothschild, Whitney, Post, Auchincloss. Lodge. Ann Lowe’s client list read like a who’s who of American aristocracy. 

Virtually unknown to a man on the street, Lowe became known as ‘society’s best kept secret’ for her reputation among the blue-blooded millionaires she catered to. But by the time of her death in 1981, she was broke and already long faded into relative obscurity.

It was a tragic end to a remarkable life defined by hope, courage, determination and indomitable will.  With no more than an 8th grade education, Ann’s talent and good taste propelled her journey from the cruel indignities of segregation, to becoming a design powerhouse in the most illustrious social circles.

It was by virtue of her grandmother’s legacy, (a slave who worked on a plantation stitching resplendent antebellum frocks for her mistress) that Lowe became an expert seamstress and one of the most sought-after courtiers in the country – going on to design the celebrated wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Kennedy for her nuptials to the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy in 1953.

Ann Lowe, pictured above at 67-years-old in her New York atelier while a model poses in her one of her designs. Every dress Lowe designed was hand-sewn and one-of- a- kind, tailor made to fit the wearer’s exact measurements. Her superb work, exquisite tailoring and attention to found an audience among New York City’s most affluent social circles

Ann Lowe had already designed a number of pieces for the Bouvier family before she was commissioned to make Jackie’s wedding gown in 1953. Jackie was apparently very dissatisfied with the outcome of her gown and later said it looked like a lampshade and accentuated her flat chest. Regardless,it was a massive sensation on the front pages of every newspaper in America but when asked about the designer, the future First Lady neglected to mention Ann by name, instead she replied: ‘I wanted to go to France, but a colored woman dressmaker did it.’ Ann was devastated

Ann Cole Lowe was born in in rural Alabama under the oppressive thumb of Jim Crow laws in 1898. Her grandmother Georgia’s dexterity for sewing was learned on Tompkins Plantation where she was born into slavery as the daughter of an un-named seamstress and the master of the plantation. Georgia’s independence was purchased in 1860 by a freedman and carpenter named General Cole, with whom she married and started a family.

Ann was just a young girl when her family relocated from rural Alabama to Montgomery where her grandmother Georgia and mother Jane established a successful business designing custom evening dresses for society women and debutantes. It was during those formative years that Ann mastered the art of haute couture.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s neckline gown was made of 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. Interwoven bands of fabric formed the figure hugging bodice while the voluminous skirt was decorated with rows of ruffles and concentric circles. Speaking to Lowe’s attention to detail, she embellished the skirt with tiny, hidden wax flowers throughout 

Ann’s fascination by the native blooms of Alabama began as a child. Inspired by vibrant lilacs, roses, dogwoods and magnolias, she passed her time creating intricate three-dimensional rosettes out of leftover material in her mother and grandmother’s atelier. ‘Her tiny hands used some of the most expensive fabrics available while perfecting her ability to make magical flowers,’ wrote Julia Faye Smith in her book, Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe.

Later in her career, these floral appliques became Ann’s signature design element – featured by the dozen across winding vines that wrapped around countless waistlines, necklines and capped sleeves over the gossamer layers of satin and tulle.

She learned to sew at the knees of her mother and grandmother. ‘Yet she embraced all of the beauty of European couture,’ said Andre Leon Talley, the former editor-at-large for Vogue. 

By the time she was a teenager, Ann was proficient in the more complicated aspects of dressmaking – she knew how to make elaborate embroideries, learned the tedious technique of trapunto quilting, finessed difficult fabrics like silk and lace, and flawlessly executed her seams with tiny, imperceptible stitches.

Business in Montgomery was booming. The three generations of Cole women, Georgia, Jane and Ann became known in Alabama’s state capital for their keen sense of sophistication. Eventually Jane was hired to be the personal dressmaker for the governor’s wife. ‘Governor O’Neal was himself the son of a former governor of Alabama. Thus, he grew up in society and always dressed to impress that society,’ wrote Smith.

Ann’s official entry into the family business was a baptism of fire. She was only 16-years-old when her mother got ill and died halfway through finishing an order of ball gowns for O’Neal. Although grieving, Ann stepped up to the challenge and painstakingly completed the four dresses on time – launching her career and lifetime romance of beautiful clothes.

Lowe puts the finishing touches on an evening gown for a New York socialite. Stylistically, her work reflected a French influence with every dress and embellishment being hand-sewn using traditional couture methods that were extremely labor intensive. By the mid-1950s, Lowe’s work became a status symbol among Fifth Avenue heiresses and she was turning out 1,000 custom-made debut and wedding gowns per year 

She was only 18 when she got her first big break. She was scouted at a local Montgomery department store by a woman named Josephine Lee who admired her clothes. (Ann herself, always made sure that she was fashionably dressed in her own designs). Lee invited Ann to her home in Tampa, Florida to design and make dresses for her daughter’s trousseau as their live-in seamstress. ‘I couldn’t believe it.’ Ann recalled years later in the Saturday Evening Post, ‘It was a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed about.’  

By that point, Ann had married and given birth to a son named Arthur – but her marriage didn’t last long. She said that her husband ‘wanted a real wife. Not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.’ He especially did not want her leaving to Florida, ‘But I picked up my baby and got on that Tampa train,’ recalled Ann to the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. ‘A while later, he divorced me.’

Lowe started creating floral appliques as a child with the leftover scraps of fabric in her grandmother’s atelier. They later became her signature design motif- featured by the dozen across winding vines that wrapped around countless waistlines, necklines and capped sleeves

Josephine Lee and her daughters were well connected and soon Ann was the premier custom dressmaker in Tampa. She expressed her interest in attending fashion school and with Josephine Lee’s financial backing and blessing, Ann left for S. T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. 

Even though she was far from the Jim Crow South in New York City, Ann was still subject to discrimination. Students refused to work in the same room with an African American woman and Ann was forced to work at a desk in a hallway near the bathroom. Despite this, Ann excelled and graduated in six months. ‘After awhile, when he saw the work I was doing, he began taking samples in to show the others. Before you knew it they were coming in to watch me,’ recalled Ann in 1964. 

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 and week long festivities. (To this day, Gasparilla has become known as Tampa’s version of Mardi Gras). ‘What began as the city’s first May festival in 1904 had become one of the social highlights of the year, not only for the reigning social class, but also for all area residents and visitors alike,’ explained Smith in Something To Prove. 

Formal wear for society mavens were Lowe’s wheelhouse in Tampa. By the time she turned 21, her services were in such demand that she had to hire 18 seamstresses to keep up with the growing workload.

Gasparilla costumes and ball gowns gave Lowe the opportunity to be imaginative. It was during this time that she developed one of her most iconic motifs – silk roses in different states of bloom that winded around the garment, made from scraps off the workshop floor. It was something she had done since her earliest childhood memories in Montgomery. 

Some of Lowe’s earliest work can be seen in this photo from the 1928 Gasparilla Ball in Tampa, Florida. The yearly tradition, (which required ornate costumes) allowed Lowe to flex her creativity. Queen Emala Parkhill (seated) showcases a dress with Ann’s signature floral motif. Lowe was invited to Tampa in 1916 as the personal seamstress for Josephine Lee, a local socialite who scouted Lowe while she was shopping in a Montgomery, Alabama department store 

The royal court of the 1929 Gasparilla Ball pose in Ann Lowe originals. In 1934, one socialite recalled Ann’s design-reign over Tampa to the local newspaper: ‘If you didn’t have a Gasparilla gown by Annie, you may as well stay home.’ Lowe would recall that her time in Tampa were ‘the happiest days’ of her life

By 1928, Ann was eager to fulfill her dream as a fashion designer in New York City. As the dressmaking darling of Tampa’s social-register, she managed to save $20,000 (over $300,000 in today’s money) and for the second time in her life, she headed north. ‘I just knew that if I could come to New York and make dresses for society people my dreams would be fulfilled,’ she later told the Oakland Tribune in 1966.

So beloved in the Tampa community, Ann’s departure was met with despair, their local newspaper reported: ‘There is much weeping and wailing and maybe gnashing of teeth, to use the old expression, among Tampa society maids over the fact that Annie is going to New York City…feminine society is wondering just how it will be able to survive the future social seasons without her assistance.’

Years later in 1976, from her hospital bed in New York City in 1976, Lowe recalled her time in Florida to a reporter from the Tribune: ‘Take a message to the women of Tampa who might remember me. Tell them I love each and every one. Those were the happiest days of my life and I will always feel that Tampa is my real home. People were so kind and so good to me there. I find myself reliving those days, and those memories bring me great happiness.’

Ann settled in the fashionable section of Harlem with her son. She established a her business in a rented third-floor workroom on West 46th Street, but the stock markets crashed in 1929 and her money ran out shortly after.

In order to make ends meet, she had to put her independent design career on hold and take jobs by designing anonymously for other labels and department stores such as Henri Bendal, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Chez Sonia.  

In 1947, while working for Sonia Gowns, Lowe designed Olivia de Havilland’s gown that she wore to the Academy Awards to accept her Academy Award for her Best Actress performance in ‘To Each His Own.’ Though she didn’t get credit for the project, the strapless, powder blue dress made of layers upon layers of tulle was quintessentially ‘Ann Lowe’ with its bright hand painted and sequined embellished floral embroidery. ‘Only Sonia could design a dress like this one,’ declared Vogue in 1947. 

Lowe buttressed her finances with freelance commissions from a steady stream of independent clients. By word-of-mouth, her reputation for superbly constructed, one-of-a-kind dresses began to grow among New York’s beau-monde.   

One of her earliest private clients was Janet Auchincloss, matriarch of the dazzling Bouvier sisters who became known worldwide as Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill. 

She was first hired to design Janet’s wedding gown for her second marriage to Hugh Auchincloss (stepfather to Jackie and Lee) and continued to work with the society hostess for various occasions. Eventually, Lowe was commissioned to make Jackie and Lee’s debut dresses and later one for their stepsister, Nina Auchincloss. 

This became a common theme with Lowe’s clientele; she worked with different generations of the same family designing gowns for the two most important days in a socialite’s life: their mainline debut and their subsequent wedding. 

Olivia de Havilland’s 1947 Academy Award dress was also an Ann Lowe creation but she never received credit for the design because it was created for the department store ‘Chez Sonia’ while Ann (desperate for money) took up design jobs for other labels in order to make ends meet. ‘Only Sonia could design a dress like this one,’ declared Vogue. Though, the strapless, powder blue dress made with layers of delicate tulle is a quintessential ‘Ann Lowe’ design with its vibrant, hand painted and sequined embellished floral embroidery

Lowe also designed the dresses for Jackie’s bridal party as well. Ann was expected to net a $700 profit from the entire wedding commission but after the water pipe disaster, 14 of the 22 pieces were destroyed. She was forced to repurchase the fabric, hire extra hands and pay overtime for around-the-clock work to get the order completed in time for the wedding and in the end, Ann suffered a $2,200 loss 

Stylistically, her work reflected a French influence. Every dress and embellishment was hand-sewn using traditional couture methods that were extremely labor intensive. She spared no detail in their creation- from the exquisite fabrics she used, down to the seams that were always finished with lace.

To ensure the perfect fit, Lowe’s pieces were designed with built in girdles and undergarments, ‘When they wear one of my dresses, they just step in, zip up and they’re gone,’ she told Saturday Evening Post.   

By 1950, the stepping stones in Lowe’s career began to align and she finally launched her own label with a small storefront on Madison Avenue. ‘For twenty-years I worked for others. I rode one person after another to glory on my back,’ she recalled. 

Pretty soon, she was turning out 1,000 gowns a year with a staff of 35 seamstresses. Her captivating princess-style gowns were ubiquitous at every cotillion, in 1957 the New York Times reported: ‘This fall she is sending more than a hundred 18-year-olds into the world, all in ‘one-of-a-kind’ gowns that look like kissing cousins at a distance.’   

 ‘I like for my dresses to be admired,’ Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post. ‘Like when someone tells me, ‘the Ann Lowe dresses were doing all of the dancing at the cotillion last night,’ that’s what I like to hear.’    

In 1953, Lowe received her most important commission to date – she was hired to design Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown as well as the dresses for her bridal party. Ann derived inspiration from the gowns she remembered her grandmother made for Montgomery’s Southern belles.

It was made from 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta and featured a demure portrait neckline. Interwoven bands of fabric formed the figure hugging bodice while the voluminous skirt was decorated with rows of ruffles and concentric circles. ‘Lowe was known for her unusual decorative techniques, which inspired by the work of her grandmother, Georgia,’ wrote biographer, Margaret Powell.

Unknown to the bride and everyone in the wedding party, was the calamity that struck just one week before what was being called by newspapers as ‘the wedding of the year.’ A broken water pipe flooded Ann’s workshop and showered the wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses with rust and filth – instantly destroying two months of labor intensive work. Kennedy would learn of this disaster years later.

Lowe was forced to start over. She purchased more fabric, hired extra seamstresses to work day and night and through the weekend. It took two days to recut the dress and three days to sew it. What should have garnered her a $700 profit, ended in a $2,200 debt. Lowe herself, delivered the gowns to Newport, Rhode Island via the train on the Thursday before the Saturday event.

The wedding went off without a hitch and her dress was a sartorial sensation. What should have been a career changing moment for any fashion designer ended up being a missed opportunity for Lowe. As papers clamored to know who designed the wedding dress, Jackie callously responded: ‘I wanted to go to France, but a colored woman dressmaker did it.’ 

Lowe was devastated. Jackie apologized for her remark in a letter and would eventually made up for it years later, when Ann found herself in a financial bind. 

Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister, Nina Auchincloss wore an Ann Lowe original for her debut in 1955 and this time – in the pages of Vogue, Lowe was given proper credit for her work

Jacqueline Kennedy (seated) with her sister, Lee Radziwill pose for a photo taken by Cecil Beaton in their Ann Lowe designed at a debutante ball in 1951

Despite enormous popularity among moneyed aristocracy, Ann Lowe remained completely unknown to everyone else, earning her the moniker, ‘society’s best kept secret.’

Exclusivity was her trademark but it might have been one of her biggest failings too –  one which prevented her from achieving commercial success with a wider reach. 

The self-described ‘awful snob’ told Ebony Magazine in 1966: ‘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.’

Another one of her failings was in money management. Over her entire career she had grossed close to $1 million dollars but died almost penniless. Lowe’s only son, Arthur, kept her business finances in perfect order, but she was left to her own devices after he tragically died in a 1958 car accident.  

In trying to make the garments as beautiful as possible, she often ignored the cost of materials and the price for her own time and labor. ‘Too late, I realized that the dresses I sold for $300 were costing me $450.’ 

Furthermore, she was often cheated by a lot of customers who were too cheap to pay for her dresses that were already well under priced to begin with. She was easily out-bargained in negotiations – partially because her upbringing in the segregated South taught her to have reverence for what in the United States passes as ‘aristocracy.’   

And in part because she had what the Saturday Evening Post called, ‘sentimental recklessness’ for her art. She told Ebony Magazine in 1966, ‘I feel so happy when I am making clothes that I could just jump up and down with joy.’ 

Sewing gave Ann great pleasure and once she was excited about a project, she would stop at nothing to make it perfect, even if it meant taking a financial hit. 

Exclusivity was Ann Lowe’s trademark, she famously told Ebony Magazine in 1966: ‘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’

The Saturday Evening Post recalled a situation when a socialite (whose name was withheld) insisted on an extravagant design for her debut gown. After Lowe sketched a prototype, the mother said they could only afford to pay $250 after having already spent $10,000 on a venue, flowers, food and an orchestra. ‘Miss Lowe, the dress already dancing in her mind, acquiesced although $250 was merely the break-even point,’ wrote the Post. 

Likewise another society doyenne told the Evening Post, ‘She must have lost a lot of money on my wedding. She charged $70 a piece for bridesmaids dresses that should have cost at least $200.’ 

Within one year of Arthur’s death, Lowe owed $1,000 to various creditors who supplied her expensive materials and $3,000 in back taxes. She was forced to close her Madison Avenue shop and go to work for Saks Fifth Avenue who offered her a work space and a salon dedicated to her dresses. They hoped to lure society by hiring society’s designer. 

If the gown featured embellishments, Ann insisted on a labor-intensive technique that required each sequin or bead to be applied individually rather than strung on a long thread so as to preserve he integrity of the gown and prevent substantial bead loss. No detail was spared in their creation- from the exquisite fabrics she used, down to the seams that were always finished with lace

That arrangement did not last longer than a year before Lowe left the department store to open a new shop, this time on Park Avenue. But more financial problems ensued: ‘I opened another shop but I couldn’t get trained help so I couldn’t fill my orders,’ she explained to Ebony Magazine how Saks poached valued members from her staff – her top assistant, a drawer and her cutter. ‘One morning I woke up owing $10,00 to suppliers and $12,800 in back taxes.’ 

Friends at Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus tithed over some cash to keep Lowe’s business afloat but the IRS came after her and she was forced to close shop for a second time. 

Meanwhile Lowe had to undergo surgery to remove her left eye due from complications with glaucoma. When she emerged from the hospital she discovered that her IRS debt had been paid in full by an anonymous friend. Though she never knew for certain, Lowe always though her benefactor might have been Jacqueline Kennedy. 

By the late 60s, fashion had drastically changed. Lowe’s elaborate, princess-style aesthetic fell out of vogue en favor of more streamlined, silhouettes. A cataract in her remaining eye threatened the only vision she had left; forcing her to retire the needle and thread once and for all. 

Ann Lowe passed away in relative obscurity in 1981 but renewed interest by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has finally given her the place in history she deserved. 

‘Ann Lowe is creating art,’ said Arthur Dages, an importer of very-expensive fabrics to the Saturday Evening Post. ‘Dresses are her art, and nobody these days wants to pay for it.’

‘She deals in elegance,’ he added. ‘And that’s an idea that has been forgotten in this country – flamboyance has replaced it. She’s the only person left who has the courage to continue along these lines.’    

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