• Zariah Jenkins

Society’s Best Kept Fashion Secret: Ann Lowe

Today, we will be rediscovering a black fashion legend. Meet the fashion designer, seamstress, dressmaker and businesswomen who paved the way for black designers all around the world.

Ann Lowe pictured in Ebony magazine in 1966.

Over 65 years ago, Jacqueline Bouvier walked down the aisle in the most magnificent wedding dress when she married John F. Kennedy. The silk gown was ivory, with a portrait neckline and the most intricate details. Everyone wanted to know the designer behind the dress, but it remained a mystery. Today, we take pride in giving credit when it is due. The designer of this dress was the one and only, Ann Cole Lowe, the first black woman to become a well-known fashion designer.

In 1898, Ann Lowe, a fashion legend was born in Clayton, Alabama. It almost seemed as if fashion ran in her bloodline. She was the granddaughter of skilled seamstress Georgia Cole and the daughter of skilled seamstress Janey Lowe. Her family was notably known to create dresses for high society women. Due to her family's background, Lowe had it better off than most black folks in her town during the Jim Crow era. In fact, her upbringing even allowed her to live better than most of her white counterparts. Lowe started her fashion journey at a young age after learning how to sew by her grandma and mother. In order to create her own designs, she started off using scraps from her family's work. Flowers were Ann Lowe’s thing. She loved to create pieces that were inspired by her home's garden. In the majority of her designs, you can always find a beautifully curated flower decorating her work.

Ann Cole Lowe  working in her dress studio.Source: Saturday Evening Post, 1964.
Ann Cole Lowe working in her dress studio.Source: Saturday Evening Post, 1964.

After Lowe’s mother died in 1914, she decided to finish up her work. This included designing gowns for prominent figures such as Elizabeth Kirkland O’Neal and the First Lady of Alabama. At the time, she not only had to grieve for her deceased mother but had to deal with a husband who constantly expressed his negative feelings about her being involved with this business. Luckily, Lowe did not allow these obstacles to stop her. Rightfully so, Lowe allowed this challenge to successfully launch her career. The success of these dresses prompted her to attend S.T Taylor Design School in New York to touch up on her skills. Despite having to get an education in a school that forced her to be segregated and unable to interact with other students, Lowe was able to graduate faster than she expected. Just one year after graduating, Lowe became the head of her own dress shop in Florida at age at 21. After decades she gathered her savings and permanently moved to New York City where she opened a new boutique called “Ann Lowes Gowns” in Harlem. Later in 1969, Lowe was recognized as the first black woman to have a business called “Ann Lowe Originals” in the luxurious streets of Madison Avenue. She continued on to make dresses for generations such as the Rockefeller, Biddle, Lodge, Post and Du Pot families. She even worked on commission for stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and other well-known retailers.

Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding dress to John F Kennedy designed by Ann Lowe
Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding dress to John F Kennedy designed by Ann Lowe

"I love my clothes and am particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for the cafe society of social climbers.” Lowe said to Ebony Magazine. “I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register." Lowe made it clear that she didn’t create dresses for just anybody. Her shop was the hotspot for the most wealthy, prestigious and high-class members of the social elite. While it was clear that her work was luxurious and made with high quality, not everyone treated her like so. Jacqueline Kennedy never exposed the designer of her wedding dress to others. When asked, she denied its magnificence by claiming it to be “not haute couture.” She even failed to clearly articulate Lowe’s name and would opt for “a color dressmaker did it” instead. We can also see these actions when we look at Olivia de Havilldad who wore a Lowe dress to the Oscars without a label. It seems as if people did not want to admit or embrace the fact that their beautiful well-crafted dresses were made by a black woman.

In this day and age, we choose not to hide or diminish the work created by the fashion genius, Ann Cole Lowe. In fact, people are now encouraging the world to acknowledge the woman that paved the way for black women designers all around the world. Lowe’s designs can be seen at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Additionally, Deborah Blumenthal has published Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe and Piper Hughley is anticipating publishing a fictional novel on the legend in the winter of 2o22.

Society’s best kept secret has now transformed itself into society’s most legendary story from the past. We live to support and acknowledge the black people who have shown individuality throughout their careers and open the doors for others. Ann Cole Lowe will always be remembered not just for her fashion but her creativity, passion, strength and ability to persevere through adversity!

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