Words Edel Cassidy
The little-known African American couturier who designed gowns for debutantes and society brides, including the iconic gown worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married Senator John F Kennedy
Celebrity endorsement has long been a powerful public relations tool in the fashion industry. David and Elizabeth Emanuel were relatively unknown when chosen to design Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding gown for her marriage to the Prince of Wales. Little-known designer Jason Wu was catapulted to international fame overnight when Michelle Obama chose him to design the iconic white gown that she wore to President Obama’s first inauguration ball.
When Jacqueline Bouvier walked down the aisle of St Mary’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island to marry the then junior senator John F Kennedy, she wore an exquisite silk taffeta gown. The voluminous off-the-shoulder portrait neckline dress full of intricate detail has gone down in sartorial history as one of the most iconic wedding dresses of all time. Considered the social event of the season, the wedding was reported in almost every newspaper in the country and, of course, everyone wanted to know who designed Jackie’s dress.
It seems at the time no one was able to figure out who the designer was. The dress had been made by Ann Lowe, a little-known African American designer who specialised in custom formal wear for the elite, white society. Sadly, despite the dress being one of the best-remembered bridal gowns of all time, Ann did not get the credit she deserved for her exquisite creation.
Through the 1940s to the end of the 1960s, Lowe had become known as the Big Apple’s ‘best-kept secret’, designing outfits for famous socialites like the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, du Ponts, Vanderbilts and Bouviers.
‘I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,’ Lowe once told Ebony Magazine. ‘I am not interested in sewing for… social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.’
While these wealthy socialites loved her work, they were not inclined to boast that their beautiful gowns had been made by an African American designer. They may have also wanted to keep the designer’s name a secret, for fear that she would be inundated with work and perhaps not have time to continue supplying them with her wonderful creations. This lack of recognition and appreciation did not help her business.
It was Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss who commissioned Ann to create her daughter Jackie’s wedding dress and the dresses for all of the bridal party for the 1953 wedding. The designer had made Janet’s own dress for her second wedding to Hugh Auchincloss.
Born in the small town of Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Ann was the great-granddaughter of a skilled seamstress slave whose name is now unknown. This seamstress made dresses for the family that owned her and taught her daughter, Georgia, how to sew hoping that it would keep her out of the fields and save her from some of the worst fates of the plantation. Georgia became a free woman in 1860 and after the Civil War she set up a business with her daughter Jane, Ann’s mother and an expert seamstress. They made dresses for affluent Southern society women. Even as a young child Ann would gather scraps from the workroom and create beautiful intricate fabric flowers that would later become one of her signatures.
At the age of eighteen, Ann enrolled in a couture course in New York’s S T Taylor Design School. Not realising that he had admitted a black woman, the head of the school attempted to turn her away. Ann resisted but she had to study alone in a separate classroom because the white students refused to sit in the same room as her.
When Ann Lowe was selected to design Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress it was to be the assignment of a lifetime that would spur on her career and build her reputation. The beautiful debutante daughter of an elite New England family was marrying a newly minted Democratic senator who was a member of the rich and powerful Kennedy family. Instead, the project turned out to be a nightmare.
It took two months for Lowe and a team of seamstresses and assistants working overtime to complete the work on the dresses and all were ready well on time. But, with just ten days to go to the wedding, a freak flooding accident in the designer’s studio destroyed ten of the fifteen dresses, including the wedding gown.
Ann knew that if this important commission was not complete on time, it would ruin her reputation and she would possibly lose her entire business. She purchased more of the expensive fabrics and hired extra seamstresses, who all worked day and night to have the order ready for delivery on time. She had expected to make a profit of $700 for her work on the wedding but instead suffered a loss of $2,000, approximately $20,000 in today’s money.
After her ordeal, when Lowe arrived to hand-deliver the gowns to Jackie’s home in Newport, Rhode Island, a member of staff told to enter through a service entrance in the back. She refused, saying she would take the dresses back to New York if she had to use the back door — and she walked right in.
The Bouvier-Kennedy wedding was a highly publicised event and while the dress was described in detail in news reports, the designer did not receive any public credit. The only mention of her by name was in the Washington Post where fashion editor Nina Hyde wrote, ‘the dress, designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.’
Throughout her career, Lowe faced constant racial discrimination and continued to work for a wealthy clientele who often talked her into reducing her prices, making it impossible for her to turn a profit. Her name was really not known outside of these elite circles. She once said, ‘Too late, I realised that dresses I sold for $300 were costing me $450.’ By 1963, she was forced to declare bankruptcy as she was thousands of dollars in debt to suppliers and owed a large tax bill.
A mysterious benefactor eventually paid off Lowe’s taxes. It was rumoured to have been Jackie Kennedy, who some years after the wedding learned of the dramatic story of the wedding dress disaster and admired Ann’s integrity in righting the situation.
Ann Lowe fell into obscurity before she passed away in 1981 but in recent times has finally received the acknowledgement she deserved with exhibits dedicated to her work at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.