Ann Lowe made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress as a personal couturier for the American aristocracy
Ann Lowe (pictured above on an undated photo) learned to sew from her grandmother, who was a freed slave who worked as a seamstress on a plantation. As a child, Lowe helped her mother and grandmother with their lucrative clothing industry in Montgomery, Alabama
Roosevelt, Dupont, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Rothschild, Whitney, Post, Auchincloss. Lodge. Ann Lowe’s client list reads like a who’s who from the American aristocracy.
Virtually unknown to a man on the street, Lowe became known as “the best kept secret of society” because of her reputation with the blues-blooded millionaires she cared for. But by the time she died in 1981, she was broke and faded into relative darkness for a long time.
It was a tragic end to a remarkable life determined by hope, courage, determination and indomitable will. With no more than an 8th grade education, Ann’s talent and good taste, she embarked on her journey from the cruel humiliations of segregation to a design powerhouse in the most illustrious social circles.
It was thanks to the inheritance of her grandmother, (a slave who worked on a plantation that sewed beautiful antebellum dresses for her mistress) that Lowe became an expert dressmaker and one of the most sought after courtiers in the country – the celebrated wedding dress design worn by Jacqueline Kennedy before her marriage to the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy in 1953.
Ann Lowe, pictured above at the age of 67 in her studio in New York, while a model poses in one of her designs. Every dress that Lowe has designed is hand-sewn and unique in its kind, tailor-made to fit exactly the size of the wearer. Her excellent work, excellent coordination and attention to finding an audience in the most prosperous social circles of New York City
Ann Lowe had already designed a number of pieces for the Bouvier family before she was commissioned to make Jackie’s wedding dress in 1953. Jackie was apparently very dissatisfied with the outcome of her dress and later said it looked like a lampshade and accentuated her flat chest . Anyway, it was a huge sensation on the front pages of every newspaper in America, but when she was asked about the designer, the future First Lady failed 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 rural Alabama under the oppressive thumb of the Jim Crow laws in 1898. Her grandmother Georgia’s sewing skill was taught at Tompkins Plantation, where she was born a butcher and daughter of an unnamed seamstress and the master of the plantation. The independence of Georgia was purchased in 1860 by a freedman and carpenter named General Cole, whom she married and founded a family.
Ann was just a young girl when her family moved from rural Alabama to Montgomery, where her grandmother Georgia and mother Jane founded a successful company designing tailor-made evening dresses for women from society and debutantes. It was during those formative years that Ann mastered the art of haute couture.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s neckline dress was made of 50-meter ivory silk taffeta. Intertwined fabric bands formed the figure that embraced the body, while the voluminous skirt was adorned with rows of ruffles and concentric circles. Speaking to Lowe’s attention to detail, she decorated the skirt with small, hidden wax flowers everywhere
Ann’s fascination with the native bloom of Alabama began as a child. Inspired by lively lilacs, roses, dogwoods and magnolias, she spent her time creating intricate three-dimensional rosettes from residual material in her mother’s and grandmother’s studio. “Her little 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 appliques of flowers became Ann’s characteristic design element – characterized by the dozens of winding vines that wrapped themselves around the delicate layers of satin and tulle around countless waistbands, necklines and covered sleeves.
She learned to sew on the knees of her mother and grandmother. “Yet she embraced all the beauty of European couture,” said Andre Leon Talley, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue.
By the time she was a teenager, Ann was proficient in the more complicated aspects of dressmaking – she knew how to make intricate embroidery, learned the boring technique of trapunto quilting, processed difficult fabrics such as silk and lace and flawlessly executed her seams with small, imperceptible stitches.
The Montgomery business flourished. The three generations of Cole women, Georgia, Jane and Ann, became famous in the capital of Alabama for their keen sense of sophistication. Jane was eventually hired as a personal tailor for the governor’s wife. “Governor O’Neal himself was the son of a former governor of Alabama. So he grew up in society and always dressed to impress that society, “Smith wrote.
Ann’s official entry into the family business was a baptism of fire. She was only 16 years old when her mother fell ill and died halfway through finishing an order for O’Neal ball dresses. Although she was sad, Ann accepted the challenge and meticulously completed the four dresses on time – with her career and lifelong romance of beautiful clothing.
Lowe is putting the finishing touches to an evening dress for a socialite from New York. Stylistically her work reflected a French influence: every dress and decoration is sewn by hand using traditional couture methods that were extremely labor-intensive. By the mid-1950s, Lowe’s work became a status symbol among the heirs of Fifth Avenue and appeared to release 1,000 tailor-made debut and wedding dresses a year
She was only 18 when she had her first major breakthrough. She was scouted in a local department store in Montgomery by a woman named Josephine Lee who admired her clothing. (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 resident dressmaker. ‘I could not believe it.’ Ann recalled years later in the Saturday Evening Post: “It was a chance to make all the beautiful dresses that I had always dreamed of.”
At that time Ann was married and gave birth to a son named Arthur – but her marriage did not last long. She said her husband “wanted a real wife.” Nobody jumped out of bed forever to sketch dresses. “He didn’t want her to leave for Florida.” But I grabbed my baby and got on that Tampa train, “Ann recalled the Saturday Evening Post in 1964.” He divorced me a little later. “
As a child, Lowe began making appliqués with scraps of fabric in her grandmother’s studio. They later became her distinctive design motif – marked by the dozens of winding vines that were wrapped around numerous waistbands, necklines and covered sleeves
Josephine Lee and her daughters were well connected and Ann soon became the best custom tailor in Tampa. She showed her interest in attending fashion school and with the financial support and blessing of Josephine Lee, Ann left for S.T. Taylor’s School of Design in New York City.
Although she was far from Jim Crow South in New York City, Ann was still the victim of discrimination. Students refused to work in the same room with an African-American woman and Ann had to work at a desk in a corridor near the bathroom. Nevertheless, Ann excelled and graduated in six months. “After a while, seeing the work I did, he started taking samples to show the others. Before you knew it, they came to me, “Ann recalled in 1964.
She returned to Tampa in 1919 and saw an opportunity to take advantage of the annual celebration of the city, known as the Gasparilla Ball, where a court and queen is crowned and a week-long festivities. (Gasparilla is still known today as the Mardi Gras version of Tampa). “What started as the city’s first May festival in 1904 had become one of the social highlights of the year, not only for the ruling social class, but also for all residents and visitors to the area,” Smith explains in Something To Prove.
Lowe’s wheelhouse in Tampa was formal clothing for social mavens. By the time she turned 21, there was so much demand for her services 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 at this time that she developed one of her most iconic motifs – silk roses in various flowering states that wrapped around the garment made from scraps off the floor of the workshop. It was something she had done since her earliest childhood memories in Montgomery.
Part of Lowe’s earliest work can be seen on this photo of the Gasparilla Ball from 1928 in Tampa, Florida. Thanks to the annual tradition (which required elegant costumes), Lowe was able to give free rein to her creativity. Queen Emala Parkhill (seated) shows a dress with the characteristic floral pattern of Ann. Lowe was invited to Tampa in 1916 as a personal dressmaker for Josephine Lee, a local socialite who explored Lowe while she was shopping in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama
The royal court of the Gasparilla ball from 1929 poses in Ann Lowe originals. In 1934, a socialite reminded Ann’s form of government over Tampa of the local newspaper: “If you didn’t have Annie’s Gasparilla dress, you might as well stay home.” Lowe would remember that her time in Tampa was “the happiest days” of her life
By 1928, Ann wanted to fulfill her dream as a fashion designer in New York City. As a tailor of the Tampa social register, she managed to save $ 20,000 (more than $ 300,000 in money today) and went north for the second time in her life. “I just knew that if I could come to New York to make dresses for society, my dreams would come true,” she later told the Oakland Tribune in 1966.
So beloved in the Tampa community, Ann’s departure was faced with despair, their local newspaper reported: “There is a lot of weeping and wailing and perhaps grinding teeth, to use the old expression among the girls of the Tampa society about it The fact that Annie New York City … female society wonders how it will be able to survive the future social seasons without her help. “
Years later in 1976, from her hospital bed in New York City in 1976, Lowe reminded her time in Florida of a Tribune reporter: “Bring a message to the women of Tampa who may remember me. Tell them I love everyone. Those were the happiest days of my life and I will always have the feeling that Tampa is my real home. People there were so nice and so good to me. I notice that I am reliving those days and those memories bring me good luck. “
Ann settled with her son in the fashionable part of Harlem. She established her business in a rented workspace on the third floor on West 46th Street, but the stock markets collapsed in 1929 and her money ran out shortly thereafter.
To make ends meet, she had to postpone her independent design career and look for jobs Anonymous design 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 dress that she wore for the Academy Awards to accept her Academy Award for her best actress in “To Each his Own.” Although she was not appreciated for the project, the strapless, powder blue dress made of layers on layers of tulle was typical ‘Ann Lowe’ with its bright hand-painted and spangly embellished floral embroidery. “Only Sonia could design such a dress,” Vogue declared in 1947.
Lowe supported her finances with freelance commissions from a steady stream of independent customers. Through word-of-mouth advertising, her reputation for beautifully constructed, unique dresses began to grow among New York 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 dress for her second marriage to Hugh Auchincloss (stepfather of Jackie and Lee) and continued to work with the hostess on various occasions. Lowe was eventually commissioned to make Jackie and Lee’s debut dresses and later one for their step sister, Nina Auchincloss.
This became a common theme among Lowe’s customers; she worked with different generations of the same family to design coats for the two most important days in the life of a socialite: their mainline debut and their subsequent marriage.
The Academy Award dress by Olivia de Havilland from 1947 was also a creation by Ann Lowe, but she never got the credit for the design because it was made for the department store ‘Chez Sonia’ while Ann (desperate for money) design assignments for other labels took care of himself. “Only Sonia could design such a dress,” Vogue explained. Although, the strapless, powder blue dress made with layers of delicate tulle is a typical ‘Ann Lowe’ design with its vibrant, hand-painted and sequined embellished embroidery
Lowe also designed the dresses for Jackie’s wedding party. Ann was expected to earn a $ 700 profit from the entire marriage committee, but after the hookah disaster, 14 out of 22 pieces were destroyed. She was forced to buy the fabric back, hire extra hands and pay overtime for the clock to complete the order in time for the wedding, and Ann eventually suffered a loss of $ 2,200
Stylistically her work reflected a French influence. Each dress and ornamentation was sewn by hand using traditional couture methods that were extremely labor intensive. She spared no detail in their creation – from the beautiful fabrics she used to the seams that were always finished with lace.
To ensure the perfect fit, Lowe’s pieces are designed with built-in belts and undergarments: “If they wear one of my dresses, they just get in, connect and leave,” she told Saturday Evening Post.
By 1950 the spring stones in Lowe’s career began to align and she eventually launched her own label with a small store on Madison Avenue. “I worked for others for twenty years. I rode one person after the other to boast on my back, “she remembered.
Soon, she turned out to be 1,000 coats a year with a staff of 35 dressmakers. Her fascinating princess-style dresses were present everywhere at every cotillion, the New York Times reported in 1957: “This fall, she is sending more than a hundred 18-year-olds into the world, all in” one-of-a-kind “remote-controlled jackets look like kissing cousins. ”
“I want my dresses to be admired,” Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post. “As someone tells me,” Ann Lowe’s dresses were already dancing in the cotillion last night, “that’s what I like to hear.”
In 1953, Lowe received her most important assignment so far – she was hired to design Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, as well as the dresses for her wedding party. Ann drew inspiration from the coats she remembered that her grandmother made for Montgomery’s southern belles.
It was made of 50 meter ivory silk taffeta and had a modest portrait neckline. Intertwined fabric bands formed the figure that embraced the body, while the voluminous skirt was adorned with rows of ruffles and concentric circles. “Lowe was known for her unusual decorative techniques, inspired by the work of her grandmother, Georgia,” wrote biographer, Margaret Powell.
Unknown to the bride and everyone at the wedding party, the disaster that struck just a week earlier was what newspapers called “the wedding of the year.” A broken water pipe flooded Ann’s workplace and flooded the wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses with rust and dirt – two months of labor-intensive work immediately destroyed. Kennedy would hear of this disaster years later.
Lowe had to start again. She bought more fabric, hired extra dressmakers to work day and night and the weekend. It took two days to sew the dress again and three days to sew it. What should have earned her a profit of $ 700 ended in a debt of $ 2,200. Lowe himself delivered the gowns to Newport, Rhode Island via the train on the Thursday before the event on Saturday.
The wedding went smoothly and her dress was a tailor’s sensation. What should have been a career-changing moment for every fashion designer eventually became a missed opportunity for Lowe. While newspapers shouted to know who designed the wedding dress, Jackie stubbornly replied: “I wanted to go to France, but a colored dressmaker did it.”
Lowe was devastated. Jackie apologized for her comment in a letter and would make up for it later years later, when Ann ran into financial trouble.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s step sister, Nina Auchincloss wore an original by Ann Lowe for her debut in 1955 and this time – on Vogue’s pages, Lowe was honored for her work
Jacqueline Kennedy (seated) with her sister Lee Radzi will pose for a photo made by Cecil Beaton in their Ann Lowe designed on a debutante ball in 1951
Despite the huge popularity among the valid aristocracy, Ann Lowe remained completely unknown to everyone, giving her the nickname “the best kept secret of society.”
Exclusivity was her trademark, but it was perhaps also one of her biggest shortcomings – one that prevented her from achieving commercial success with greater reach.
The self-described ‘terrible snob’ told Ebony Magazine in 1966: ‘I love my clothes and I am special about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I don’t care for Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the social register. “
Another of her shortcomings was the management of money. Throughout her career, she had earned nearly $ 1 million dollars, but died almost without money. Lowe’s only son, Arthur, kept her business finances in perfect condition, but she was left to her fate after he died tragically in a car accident in 1958.
When 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. “I realized too late that the dresses I sold for $ 300 cost me $ 450.”
Moreover, she was often deceived by many customers who were too cheap to pay for her dresses that were already below the price in the beginning. She was easily negotiated – partly because her education in the segregated South taught her to respect what goes on in the United States as “aristocracy.”
And partly 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 make clothes that I can just jump up and down with joy.”
Sewing gave Ann a lot of pleasure and once she was enthusiastic about a project, she wouldn’t stop at anything to perfect it, even if it meant a financial hit.
Exclusivity was the trademark of Ann Lowe, she famously told Ebony Magazine in 1966: “I love my clothes and I am special about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I don’t care for Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the social register ‘
The Saturday Evening Post recalled a situation in which a socialite (whose name was withheld) insisted on an extravagant design for her debut dress. After Lowe had signed a prototype, the mother said they could only afford to pay $ 250 after spending $ 10,000 on a location, flowers, food, and an orchestra. ‘Miss Lowe, de jurk die al in haar gedachten danste, stemde in, hoewel $ 250 slechts het break-even punt was,’ schreef de Post.
Op dezelfde manier vertelde een andere maatschappij Doyenne de Evening Post: ‘Ze moet veel geld hebben verloren op mijn bruiloft. Ze rekende $ 70 per stuk voor bruidsmeisjesjurken die minstens $ 200 hadden moeten kosten. ”
Binnen een jaar na de dood van Arthur was Lowe $ 1.000 verschuldigd aan verschillende schuldeisers die haar dure materialen en $ 3.000 aan achterstallige belastingen leverden. Ze werd gedwongen haar Madison Avenue-winkel te sluiten en te gaan werken voor Saks Fifth Avenue, die haar een werkruimte en een salon voor haar jurken aanbood. Ze hoopten de samenleving te lokken door de ontwerper van de samenleving in te huren.
Als de jurk versieringen bevatte, stond Ann op een arbeidsintensieve techniek waarbij elke pailletten of kraal afzonderlijk moest worden aangebracht in plaats van aan een lange draad geregen om de integriteit van de jurk te behouden en aanzienlijk kraalverlies te voorkomen. Geen detail werd gespaard in hun creatie – van de prachtige stoffen die ze gebruikte tot de naden die altijd met kant waren afgewerkt
Die regeling duurde niet langer dan een jaar voordat Lowe het warenhuis verliet om een nieuwe winkel te openen, dit keer op 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.’