World Changer of the Month — October 2023: Ann Cole Lowe
Ann Lowe was born in rural Clayton, Alabama in 1898 to Jane and Jack Lowe. Lowe's interest in fashion, sewing and designing came from her mother Janey and grandmother Georgia, both of whom were skilled dressmakers who sewed for wealthy white families in the state. They taught Lowe to sew as early as age five. By the time Lowe was six, she had developed a fondness for using scraps of fabric to make small decorative flowers patterned after the flowers she saw in the family’s garden. This childhood pastime would later become the signature feature on many of her dresses and gowns. By age 10, she made her own dress patterns.
Lowe's mother died unexpectedly when Lowe was 16 years old. At the time, her mother was working on four dresses for a New Year’s Eve ball, at least one of which belonged to the first lady of Alabama. Lowe took over the project, and her successful completion of the gowns helped establish her as a skilled dressmaker in the state.
In 1916, a chance encounter in a department store with influential Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee changed Lowe’s life. Mrs. Lee observed that Lowe’s outfit was fashionable and exceptionally well-made. Lowe informed her that she made the ensemble herself, which prompted Lee to invite Lowe to Florida to make the bridal gowns and trousseau for her twin daughters as their live-in dressmaker. After discussing the offer with her husband, who wanted her to remain a housewife, Lowe accepted the offer and moved with her son to the Lee family estate at Lake Thonotosassa in Tampa. She later described the opportunity as “a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed of.” In Tampa, she developed a list of loyal clients and supporters.
While reading a fashion magazine, Lowe, who was eager to enhance her skills, learned about the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. She applied for admission and was accepted. When she arrived at the Design School, the school’s director initially turned her away because of her ethnicity. Based on her portfolio, he had assumed she was white. She refused to leave. He eventually allowed her to attend the school, but segregated her in a separate classroom because her classmates refused to be in the same space with an African American. Lowe’s design abilities were far superior to those of her classmates, and her creations were used as models of exceptional work for the other students. Due to Lowe’s advanced skill and ability, she successfully completed the program in half the required time.
The 1950s marked a significant turning point in Lowe’s life and career. She opened Ann Lowe Inc. which was located at 667 Madison Avenue. Lowe was the first African American to own a couture salon on this fashionable street. Lowe’s fairytale-like gowns appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. She earned key commissions and obtained greater geographical exposure from high-end luxury department stores such as Montaldo’s, Neiman Marcus, and I. Magnin.
Lowe was known for being highly selective in choosing her clientele. She later described herself as "an awful snob,” adding: “I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them. I am 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.”
Lowe’s most historically significant commission was the bridal gown and bridal party dresses for the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who would become president of the United States in 1961. Lowe was chosen by the bride’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, with whom she had a long-standing relationship, as Lowe had created her wedding gown. Lowe also designed the debut gowns of Jacqueline Bouvier, her sister Caroline Lee Bouvier, and their step-sister Nina Auchincloss, which appeared in Vogue.
About 10 days before the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding, a ruptured pipe in Lowe’s building destroyed the wedding gown and 10 of the 15 bridesmaid’s dresses. Lowe and her team of seamstresses recreated the dresses in under a week, but ultimately, she sustained a $2,200 loss in income. She never reported the loss to the Kennedy family. While the wedding was a highly publicized event, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Despite being a celebrated designer of one-of-a-kind dresses for the powerful and wealthy, many clients did not pay her for the costs of the labor and materials, or they asked her for prices that they knew were substantially below what they would have paid a white designer. Those circumstances left Lowe with a minimum amount of funds after paying her staff. In 1962, the U.S. Department of Revenue closed Lowe’s New York shop due to $12,800 owed in back taxes. The debts were later paid by an anonymous donor, who Lowe believed to be Jacqueline Kennedy.
Between 1968 and 1972, Lowe opened and operated the Ann Lowe Originals shop on Madison Avenue until her retirement. At that time, she moved to Queens to live with Ruth Alexander, who formerly worked in Lowe’s salon and whom she identified as her adopted daughter. On February 25, 1981, she passed away in Queens, New York.
A collection of five of Ann Lowe's designs are held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Several others were included in an exhibition on Black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016. From September 2023 through January 2024, the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library will exhibit a collection of Ann Lowe's works from the 1920s-1960s.
This text is excerpted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Lowe, https://nmaahc.si.edu/biography/ann-lowe, and https://www.winterthur.org/ann-lowe-american-couturier/. To view footage of an interview of Ms. Lowe, visit: https://youtu.be/wgZHWvmEqX8.