Ann Lowe loved her clothes and was particular about who was wearing them. “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,” the trailblazing African-American designer, who worked for much of New York’s high society throughout the ’50s, told Ebony Magazine.
There was nothing she wouldn’t do to make her clients happy. And so when she was tasked to design both the wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses for the 1953 Kennedy wedding and disaster struck just about completion, she rose to the task and ensured that a new set was made on time.
Reports said Lowe had taken about two months and over 50 yards of silk taffeta to create the intricate bridal gown of Jackie Kennedy and some 10 other gowns for the bridesmaids. But just 10 days to the ceremony, a pipe burst in Lowe’s New York studio and destroyed the original wedding dress alongside some bridesmaids’ gowns. Without mentioning a word of this the bride and her family, Lowe and her team worked day and night to remake the intricate gowns. But instead of a $700 profit she originally expected, she made a loss of $2,200 (about $21,000 in today’s money). She kept that also to herself.
And on the wedding day between Jackie and John F. Kennedy at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island, that attracted hundreds of people, the future first lady’s ivory portrait-neckline dress became the talk of the town. The spectacular gown, which was widely photographed and made newspaper headlines, would influence average American wedding dresses and ball gowns.
Yet the designer was never mentioned. Sources say it was only The Washington Post’s Nina Hyde who shared Lowe’s name. When reporters later asked Jackie who designed her gown, she reportedly said, “a colored dressmaker did it.” It later emerged that Jackie did not really like the style of the dress as she wanted something simple but her father-in-law-to-be, who wanted to “create an American royalty moment,” would have none of that. Lowe felt snubbed by Jackie. All these factors, alongside the racial discrimination she faced throughout her career, did not however stop her from becoming a trailblazer in the fashion industry.
Becoming a distinguished fashion designer was not surprising. Born in 1898, both Lowe’s mother and grandmother were seamstresses in Alabama who catered to a wealthy clientele. At just 16, Lowe had to take her mother’s place after her death in 1914, finishing four ball gowns for the first lady of Alabama, a job her mother was yet to complete before she died. At 18, Lowe enrolled at a New York fashion school where she was segregated from her white classmates. She nevertheless worked so hard that she even graduated early, spent 10 years working in Florida before settling in New York.
Throughout her career, she designed for elite families such as the du Ponts, the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, and celebrities like Olivia de Havilland, who wore one of Lowe’s floral designs during the 1947 Academy Awards. Still, it is recorded that Lowe’s most famous client was Jackie Kennedy (née Bouvier), whom she met through Jackie’s sister, Lee Bouvier. The fact that she had to show much greater skill in recreating the bridal gown in just two weeks for the ceremony was one of the highlights of her career.
Lowe never became a household name, however. “Everything is so perfect—and she didn’t charge enough for the cost of the fabrics or the handwork that went into them,” said Nancy Davis, a curator at the National Museum of History. “Sewing was her lifeblood. It was her gift, but also her being. She just wanted to sew. She just wanted to make beautiful dresses that gave her clients joy.”
But the fact that she was frequently taken advantage of by her clientele, who talked her into lowering her prices, made her lose so much money from commissions, according to a report. In 1963, Lowe declared bankruptcy, and many believe that Jackie was the anonymous benefactor who paid her debt to the IRS. By the time the talented Black designer retired in 1972, she was penniless. Since her death in 1981, many have come to realize her amazing job in a field where Black women are relegated to the background.
Having paved the way for other talented Black men and women who came after her, she is now receiving several recognitions. Her designs were recently exhibited at the National Museum of African American History and Culture while an Ann Lowe biography and an Ann Lowe children’s book have been published.