Ann Lowe The Hidden Secret Who Dressed America’s Elite

Ann Lowe

In the fashion history, certain names gleam like diamonds in the rough, often overshadowed by the brilliance of more renowned designers. Ann Lowe, the gifted American designer, is a name that has long lingered in the shadows, despite her exceptional talents and groundbreaking achievements. Often dubbed “Society’s best kept secret,” Lowe’s remarkable journey through the world of fashion is a tale of creativity and determination. As we step into the fascinating world of Ann Lowe, we discover a designer whose legacy is as enduring as it is inspiring, and whose contributions to American couture deserve to shine as brightly as her creations.

From Alabama to the World

Lowe’s journey to becoming an American designer began in turn of the century Alabama, where she learned the art of dressmaking from her grandmother a woman who had once been enslaved. What makes her story particularly remarkable is that she and her family were among the few Black women in the Jim Crow South who managed to build a successful business serving elite white clientele. At a time when most Black women were relegated to sharecropping or domestic service, Lowe and her family defied the odds by turning dressmaking into both a creative outlet and a means of sustenance.

Ann Lowe’s Path to Excellence

Lowe’s talent and determination knew no bounds. When she moved to New York in 1917 to enroll at S. T. Taylor Design School, she encountered racial prejudice firsthand. The school administrators initially placed her in a separate classroom due to her race, but her exceptional skills quickly transcended these barriers. Her teacher recognized her prowess and shared her work with the other students, leading to her graduation in half the time. Ann Lowe‘s response to discrimination was clear: she would become the best in her field, and that’s exactly what she did.

Dressing the Elite

Ann Lowe’s reputation as a couturier quickly grew, and she found herself designing for some of America’s most influential families, including the Rockefellers and DuPonts. Her meticulous handwork and signature sculptural fabric flowers made her gowns instant status symbols among society women. It was not uncommon for a woman to spot a DuPont wearing one of Lowe’s creations and declare, “I want my wedding dress to be a little bit like that.” Lowe took immense pride in her connections to high society and famously remarked, “I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.”

The Jackie Kennedy Connection

One of Lowe’s most significant but often unattributed achievements was designing Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. However, history did not initially credit her for this iconic creation. In Ladies’ Home Journal, she was simply referred to as “a colored woman dressmaker.” This lack of acknowledgment deeply troubled Lowe, who wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy’s press secretary expressing her displeasure. The press secretary clarified that the quotes were not a direct statement from Mrs. Kennedy and issued an apology.

Recreating Jackie Kennedy’s Wedding Gown

For the Winterthur Museum’s retrospective, over 40 of Ann Lowe’s pieces are on display, including the meticulously recreated replica of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. The original gown was too fragile to travel, so Katya Roelse, an instructor at the University of Delaware’s fashion department, led the charge in recreating this iconic piece. The process involved extensive research, sourcing the right materials, and closely examining Lowe’s stitching techniques. The result a stunning recreation that offers a glimpse into Lowe’s artistry.

Challenges Faced in Later Life

In her later years, Ann Lowe faced significant challenges in both her health and finances. She openly shared the financial struggles she encountered, noting that she often put more money into her dresses than she earned. There’s even speculation that Jacqueline Kennedy herself may have stepped in as an anonymous benefactor to help pay off some of Lowe’s debts when she filed for bankruptcy in the 1960s. Despite her undeniable talent and contributions to fashion, Lowe’s later life was marked by adversity.

A Lasting Legacy

Ann Lowe’s legacy extends beyond her own designs. Contemporary Black designers like Tracy Reese and Dapper Dan draw inspiration from her work and admire her determination. They see in her a trailblazer who overcame racial and societal barriers to make her mark in the world of fashion. Lowe’s story resonates with the challenges that Black fashion designers continue to face today, making her an enduring source of inspiration.

A Look to the Future

While the Winterthur Museum’s exhibit offers a rare opportunity to explore Ann Lowe’s remarkable creations, there are no immediate plans for the exhibition to travel due to the fragility of the gowns. However, the hope is that her material culture will continue to be displayed, whether in a different iteration or at different institutions. Perhaps, as visitors immerse themselves in her work, they may stumble upon long forgotten pieces hidden in their own closets, contributing to the ongoing effort to preserve and celebrate this American designer’s contributions to the world of fashion.

In conclusion, Lowe’s journey from the Jim Crow South to the pinnacle of fashion is a testament to her talent, resilience, and unwavering determination. The Winterthur Museum’s retrospective, “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” shines a long overdue spotlight on this extraordinary designer, whose creations have left an indelible mark on fashion history. As we celebrate her legacy, we are reminded of the countless hidden gems in the world of fashion, waiting to be discovered and celebrated for their unique contributions to the art of couture. Ann Lowe may have been “Society’s Best Kept Secret,” but her name and her work will shine brightly for generations to come.

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