Today’s guest post comes from Margaret Powell, MA, a decorative arts historian from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her areas of concentration are textile and costume history. She is a graduate of the Smithsonian Associates–Corcoran College of Art and Design History of Decorative Arts Masters Program.
On September 13, 1953, the New York Times featured the wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier on the front page. The article contained a photograph of the bride’s intricate gown and a detailed description of its “ivory silk taffeta, embellished with interwoven bands of tucking, finished with a portrait neckline and a bouffant skirt.” The only thing missing from the coverage was the name of Ann Lowe, the dress designer.
Even today, as the Kennedy wedding gown resides in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, very few people realize that this dress is the work of an African American designer. It is no novelty or a fluke—it is just one example of the countless designs created by Lowe for the Auchincloss family between 1947 and 1957. In fact, when Jacqueline’s stepsister Nina appeared in a 1955 fashion editorial in Vogue, she was wearing an Ann Lowe debut dress.
Ann Lowe’s story is remarkable. With little more than a few years of education in the segregated schools of turn-of-the-century Alabama, sewing lessons from her mother and grandmother, and encouragement from her early clients, Lowe became a designing powerhouse. She learned her craft in her family’s custom dress shop in Alabama and then moved to Florida in 1916, where she quickly became a premier custom dressmaker.
Her success in outfitting the debutantes of Tampa for their weddings and fancy dress balls allowed Lowe to move to Manhattan in the fall of 1927. “I just knew that if I could come to New York and make dresses for society people,” she said in an 1966 Oakland Tribune interview, “my dreams would be fulfilled.”
Lowe designed dresses for other fashion houses at first, throughout the Great Depression and World War II, but by 1950 she was working steadily at her own Madison Avenue dress salon. Her elegant work was embraced by members of the Social Register, and in 1957 the New York Times celebrated Lowe as an expert in the field “who has been turning out impeccably dressed debutantes for twenty years, and charges up to $500 for her custom-made evening stunners.” Lowe’s gowns appeared with proper credit in Vogue, Vanity Fair. and Town and Country magazines throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After closing her shop for financial reasons in 1960, she became a featured designer at the prestigious Adam Room at Saks Fifth Avenue. Lowe reopened her salon in 1964.
During a 1965 appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, Lowe explained that the driving force behind her work was not a quest for fame or fortune but a desire “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.”
Lowe was also inspired by a true love for couture design and her lifelong exposure to custom dressmaking. “I feel so happy when I am making clothes,” she explained in the Oakland Tribune interview, “that I could just jump up and down with joy.”
Lowe’s dresses were important to her. “I like for my dresses to be admired,” she told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “I like to hear about it—the oohs and ahs as they come into the ballroom. Like when someone tells me, ‘the Ann Lowe dresses were doing all of the dancing at the cotillion last night.’ That’s what I like to hear.”
Through the highs and lows of her groundbreaking career, Lowe continued to live simply, wearing her own designs and focusing on her work in her modest Harlem apartment until her retirement in 1972.
The Kennedy wedding dress is part of the permanent holdings of the JFK Presidential Museum and Library. Other Ann Lowe creations are now part of the Smithsonian in the holdings of the Museum of African American History.