In 1953, aback Ann Lowe accustomed a agency to actualize a bells clothes for association swan Jacqueline Bouvier, she was thrilled. Lowe, an African-American artisan who was a admired of the association set, had been assassin to dress the woman of the hour, the absolute conjugal affair and Jackie’s mother. But 10 canicule afore Jackie and Sen. John F. Kennedy were to say “I do,” a baptize aqueduct bankrupt and abounding Lowe’s Madison Avenue studio, antibacterial 10 of the 15 frocks, including the bride’s busy dress, which had taken two months to make.
In amid her tears, Lowe, afresh 55, ordered added ivory French taffeta and candy-pink cottony faille, and corralled her seamstresses to assignment all day. Jackie’s dress, with its archetypal account neckline and bouffant brim bizarre with wax flowers, went on to become one of the best iconic bells gowns in history, but, decades later, Lowe would die bankrupt and alien at age 82.
Now, the country’s aboriginal atramentous high-fashion artisan is assuredly accepting her due. Three Lowe gowns are on affectation at the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC. On Dec. 6, the Museum at the Appearance Institute of Technology in Manhattan will affectation several Ann Lowe gowns in an exhibition on atramentous fashion. And there are two children’s books about the artisan in the pipeline.
“She was exceptional; her assignment absolutely moves you,” says Smithsonian babysitter Elaine Nichols.
Lowe was built-in in Clayton, Ala., in 1898. Her grandmother was an apprenticed clothier who stitched frocks for her white owners and opened her own business afterwards the Civil War. Little Ann abstruse to sew from both her grandmother and her mother. Alike at age 6 it was bright that she was absolutely talented.
“She would accumulate the debris from her mother’s branch and go to the garden and actualize these admirable bolt flowers,” says Elizabeth Way, a curatorial abettor at the Museum at FIT, which has three Lowe dresses in its collection.
Through the 1940s to the end of the ’60s, Lowe was accustomed as society’s “best-kept secret.”
When she was 16, Lowe took over the ancestors business afterwards her mother died and larboard an amateurish adjustment of gowns for the governor’s wife that bare to be finished. About this time, Lowe additionally affiliated an earlier man called Lee Cohen and gave bearing to a son, Arthur, but the abutment was short-lived. About a year into the marriage, the wife of a Tampa business administrator arrive her to appear to Florida and actualize dresses for her and her daughters. Lowe jumped at the opportunity.
“It was a adventitious to accomplish all the admirable gowns I’d consistently dreamed of,” Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “I best up my babyish and got on that Tampa train.” Cohen, who banned of her ambition, beatific her annulment papers.
Lowe, however, capital to be added than a dressmaker. In 1917, at the age of 18, she took a breather from her job in Tampa to accept in a couture advance in New York City. Aback she arrived, the arch of the academy was afraid that he had accustomed a atramentous woman, and he approved to about-face her away. Her white classmates banned to sit in the aforementioned allowance as her, but she acquainted abroad and accelerating early.
Ten years later, Lowe confused to New York for acceptable with $20,000 she had adored alive in Florida and acclimatized in Harlem with her son. She started demography jobs as an centralized clothier at administration food like Saks Fifth Avenue and for custom-built clothiers like Hattie Carnegie. It didn’t booty continued for chat of this young, accomplished artisan to spread.
Through the 1940s to the end of the ’60s, Lowe was accustomed as society’s “best-kept secret,” designing apparel for acclaimed socialites like the Rockefellers and du Ponts and Hollywood stars like Olivia de Havilland. Aback Christian Dior aboriginal beheld her handiwork, he exclaimed, with apparently a bit of envy, “Who fabricated this gown?”
“She had accomplished technique,” says apparel historian Margaret Powell, who is alive on one of the kids’ books about Lowe. “Even the abdomen [of her dresses] are beautifully accomplished . . . Her audience accomplished that they could get the aforementioned affection as Dior at a abundant lower price.”
In 1950, two barter abiding her to accessible her own salon, and her white business ally helped her snag a amplitude on chic Madison Avenue. “It was difficult for a atramentous woman at that time,” says Powell.
Unfortunately, Lowe’s business faculty did not bout her architecture acumen. She answerable audience almost abundant to breach even, and her agency for the Kennedy bells about bankrupted her.
“She bought added fabric, assassin bodies overtime and aloof swallowed all the absent money [after the accident],” says columnist Deborah Blumenthal, who is autograph addition children’s book about Lowe.
Plus, Lowe was already aback giving the ancestors a bargain, charging aloof $500 for Jackie’s ensemble, compared with the $1,500 the dress acceptable would accept amount from a competitor. She concluded up incurring a blow of $2,200. “She never told Jackie or her ancestors . . . It’s aloof heartbreaking,” Blumenthal says.
Worse, aback Lowe took an brief alternation to Newport, RI, to hand-deliver the dresses herself, the guards at the bells area told her she had to use the account aperture because of the blush of her skin.
“She said, ‘If I accept to use the backdoor, they’re not activity to accept the gowns!’ ” says Blumenthal. “They let her in.”
For a aeon of time in the 1950s, her son, Arthur, managed her books, and he helped rein in his mother’s abundant spending and accumulate the aggregation afloat. But in 1958, he was dead in an auto accident, and she was frequently bankrupt already again.
In 1962, Lowe was in a bad spot. She had bankrupt her salon due to outstanding costs, taken a job as an centralized clothier at Saks, abdicate that, absent her eye to glaucoma — an operation she couldn’t allow and which the doctor provided chargeless — and owed $12,800 in aback taxes. But afresh she got a alarm from the IRS adage an “anonymous friend” had taken affliction of her costs. Lowe told both the Saturday Evening Post and Ebony that she believed it was Jackie, who Lowe had remained abutting with.
“[She] was so sweet,” Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “She would allocution with me about anything.”
That acceptable allowance accustomed Lowe to reopen her business, and it was anon bustling. In a archetypal six-month aeon she and her three to bristles pattern-cutters and seamstresses would complete 35 babe gowns and nine bells dresses. But she was still bleeding money, and accident her eyesight, to boot. “I’ve had to assignment by feel,” she told the Saturday Evening Post. “But bodies acquaint me I’ve done bigger activity than others do seeing.”
Around this time, Ann Bellah Copeland commissioned Lowe to actualize a dress for her bells to Gerret van Sweringen Copeland, the son of Lammot du Pont Copeland.
“Her administration hovered about her to be assertive that she got it all right,” Copeland, now in her 70s, wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “No one fabricated dresses as beautifully.”
Lowe retired in 1969, at age 71, and confused to Queens to be with her alleged “adopted daughter” Ruth Alexander — who had helped Lowe at her boutique for years.
“She lived a actual quiet, austere life. But anybody says that she was actual sweet, actual patient. About her ancestors she could be a funny person. And she was actual determined,” says Powell. “She showed that an African-American could be a above appearance designer. She fabricated it to that accomplished level. She’s an inspiration.”