Designer Ann Lowe - Fashion's Best Kept Secret. Costume Institute Makes Justice For Her

Though she created one of the most famous wedding gowns in the world - Jackie Kennedy's dress - designer Ann Lowe was "society's best-kept secret" in New York in the '50s and 60s.

Now, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art pays a tribute to her work: 10 of her dresses are exhibited in part two of the "In America" exhibition titled "An Anthology of Fashion".

Designer Ann Lowe - A Fairy-Tale Wedding Dress And a Huge Injustice

The beautiful Jacqueline Kennedy was perhaps one of the most admired brides in the world. On September 12, 1953, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (her maiden name) seemed floating near her husband, John F. Kennedy, in an ivory fairy-tale wedding gown.
The stunning gown stirred worldwide admiration, but no one knew who created it, for the designer was a black lady named Ann Lowe.

 Designer Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe, the first African-American fashion designer to open a store on New York's Madison Avenue, became known as "society's best-kept secret" in New York in the '50s and 60s.

Media all around the world wrote in detail about the wedding and about Jacqueline's exquisite wedding dress. But except for a single Washington Post journalist, nobody mentioned the name of the person who conceived the flattering gown. That was a huge injustice for Ann Lowe, a modest, dedicated but nevertheless talented designer who strived a lot to create beautiful clothes, though she was never appreciated and valued correctly because she was black.

It took decades for Ann Lowe to be fully and nationally recognized for her work. This year her name and 10 of her dresses will feature in part two of the "In America" exhibition, titled "An Anthology of Fashion" at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who Was Designer Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe's mother was also a seamstress and taught her daughter the trade. She died when Ann was just 16, leaving four dresses unfinished for the first lady of Alabama. Lowe completed the order.

At the age of 18, she shocked the management of the New York fashion school when she appeared in classes. They did not know that they had admitted a young woman of color. She was separated from her classmates, but she graduated without any problems.

Despite her brilliance and reputation, her clientele often took advantage of the fact that she was unknown. They underpaid her which is why in the mid-1960s, Ann Lowe had debts of tens of thousands of dollars. Then, as if by magic, an anonymous friend paid her taxes and cut her debts in half. Lowe suspected that friend was none other than Jackie Kennedy, the first lady of the United States at the time.

Ann Lowe Was Discriminated In School

Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898, into a talented family in tailoring. Her grandmother, born in slavery, designed dresses for her mistress, and her mother had a knack for embroidery, so Ann had someone to learn the trade from.

The two women started a small clothing business in Alabama. They were successful until 1914 when Ann's mother died. Lowe, who was only 16, took over her mother's work in no time, and her talent attracted more and more clients.

Her passion and hard work led her to New York, where she enrolled in the Taylor School of Design in 1917. Because she was the only student of color, she was separated from the others. She studied alone in a completely secluded room. This treatment did not discourage her. Her results were extraordinary, which is why the teachers constantly supported and praised her.

Soon after graduation, she became the head of a clothing store in Florida, where she saved $ 20,000 before returning to New York in 1927 to open the first of three stores in New York. Her first store was in Harlem and attracted the elite from Manhattan. Members of the Roosevelt, Rockefeller and du Ponts families were among her clients.

The Auchincloss family followed, whose youngest daughter, Jacqueline, was to marry. The wedding dress created for her made history.

The Wedding Gown Created For Jackie Kennedy Made History, And Broke Ann Lowe's Heart

Jacqueline's mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss, hired Ann Lowe to create the perfect wedding dress for her daughter. She said she wanted a fairytale dress, elegant, spectacular.

Ann Lowe got to work and worked side by side with her employees for several months, perfecting the intricate folds of the 50-foot long silk taffeta dress. But that dress was never worn by Jackie...

A flood destroyed her workshop with that wedding dress and 9 bridesmaid dresses. Lowe had only 10 days to recreate them, and he did without ever informing the bride and groom's family about what had happened.

Jackie Kennedy's wedding went smoothly, and everyone adored Ann Lowe's wedding dress with one exception: the bride herself. "Jackie didn't love the dress and people asked her who did the dress. She said, I wanted to go to France but a colored dressmaker did," said Rosemary E. Reed Miller, author of "Threads of Time, The Fabric of History".

 Designer Ann Lowe - A Fairy-Tale Wedding Dress

That statement devastated Ann Lowe, especially as she had to overcome so many problems with the delivery of the 15 dresses for Jackie's wedding.

When Lowe arrived in Rhode Island to bring the dresses, the entrance staff did not allow her to enter, telling her to use the back door. Lowe allegedly told them, "Then I'll take the dresses back," and she was allowed to enter. In the end, Ann realized that instead of making a profit, she lost about $ 21,000, estimated at today's value.

Ann Lowe Was "Fashions Best-Kept Secret" And Underpaid

That was the way Saturday Evening Post referred to Lowe in 1964, and they were right. Despite the fact that she worked for the American elite customers, her name was not well known.

Ann Lowe received very little from her wealthy clients, and her name was removed from conversations about her creations. Actress Olivia De Havilland (Melanie from 'On the Wings of the Wind') wore an Ann Lowe dress for the Oscars when she was awarded Best Actress in 'To Each His Own' (1946) and, like many other Ann's customers, she removed the label that marked a Lowe dress before wearing it to the awards ceremony.
Lowe never complained about this. She was more interested in creating her clothes, knowing who wore them and where, and less in profit. "Too late, I realized that the dresses I sold for $ 300 cost me $ 450," Ann Lowe said.

A Lowe's customer told Ebony in 1966: "Lowe's dresses are worth more than they cost. They are works of art, timeless, feminine, beautiful, always the most flattering dress a woman can choose."
Ann Lowe may have fulfilled her dream of creating for the cream of society, but as a woman of color, she found herself in a position where wealthy customers could easily take advantage of her.

Ann Lowe Reached The Brink Of Bankruptcy After Her Son's Death

In 1958, Ann Lowe's son and business partner died in a car accident, and she had no one to keep her accounts. In no more than one year, Lowe accumulated $ 4,000 in debt and, in 1962, filed for bankruptcy.
An anonymous benefactor, suspected of being Jacqueline Kennedy, appeared out of nowhere and paid her debts, but her workspace was confiscated. He continued to work in a small space and attracted more families of officials.

Ann Lowe is currently recognized as a talented African-American designer. Her pieces are exhibited in famous museum collections, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Museum, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art.
Unlike her competitors (Chanel, Dior), unfortunately, perhaps because of the color of her skin, Ann Lowe was undervalued and unable to build a sustainable business.

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