The untold story of Ann Lowe, the Black designer behind Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress

The untold story of Ann Lowe, the Black designer behind Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress

The gown, like those worn by Kennedy's bridesmaids, was the work of African American designer Ann Lowe, who died in February 1981.

"That dress she made for Jackie Kennedy was widely photographed. A lot of people saw it and it no doubt influenced average American wedding dresses and ball gowns," said Elizabeth Way, an assistant curator at The Museum at FIT. "The fact that (the dress) came from the creativity of a Black woman really speaks to how instrumental Black people have been in shaping American culture."

At that point, Lowe was an established arbiter of American high-society style, delighting wealthy clients across the country (including Jaqueline's mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss, who commissioned Lowe to create her daughter's debutante and wedding dresses) with made-to-order princess silhouettes and couture-level embellishments. Years later, The Saturday Evening Post described her as "society's best kept secret" and "unfamiliar except to the very rich."
An unrepentant snob, Lowe was selective about her clients. Only the most elite were deserving of her efforts -- the Rockefellers and the du Ponts of the world, as well as stars like Olivia de Havilland, who wore one of Lowe's hand-painted floral designs the night she won best actress at the 1947 Academy Awards.
"I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them," Lowe said in an interview with Ebony magazine. "I'm 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."

 

Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898. Her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, and her mother ran an exclusive dressmaking business for wealthy patrons, and Lowe learned their craft from a young age.

At 16, Lowe took over the family business after the death of her mother. She later studied design in New York, segregated from her White peers (she graduated after only six months because of her exceptional abilities) before setting up shop in Florida, where she built her reputation for extravagance and exclusivity. After a decade, she returned to Manhattan to do the same on the East Coast.
But the extreme wealth of the clients she so cherished wasn't enough to buoy her business. They would routinely talk her into lowering her prices, and she would often end up losing money from commissions. In 1963, she declared bankruptcy. By the time she retired in 1972, she was penniless.
Since her death, the name Ann Lowe has meant little outside of fashion history circles. But in recent years, there has been a sharp increase in interest around the designer. Both an Ann Lowe biography and an Ann Lowe children's book have been published, and a historical fiction novel, by Piper Huguley, is in the works. Her designs have been exhibited at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and as part of FIT's 2017 exhibition "Black Fashion Designers."
Lowe's skill and success in a field where Black women are still routinely erased and excluded disrupts prevailing narratives about not just fashion industry, but American history.

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