Ann Cole Lowe | Profiles in Sewing HistoryThe African American seamstress designed Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding dress
Welcome to the Profiles in Sewing History online series. In this collection of blog posts, Threads highlights some lesser-known individuals who made a difference in the world of fashion and sewing. While you may have heard of some of these trailblazers, you may be unaware of others who have failed to receive the recognition they deserve. We begin by recognizing the accomplishments of Ann Cole Lowe. An incredible seamstress, she was responsible for making the elaborate wedding dress Jacqueline L. Bouvier wore when she married Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953. Designing a garment for such a grand event typically would result in a great deal of publicity and business. However, this dressmaker went virtually unnoticed after the big day.
Early life and career
Ann was born into a family of seamstresses in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898, although sources vary on many of Ann’s early childhood details. Her grandmother, who was previously enslaved, and mother owned a small dressmaking shop where they sewed gowns for well-off white Alabama society women. As a girl, Ann learned how to sew from both matriarchs in her family and would refashion remnants from her mother’s designs into flowers based on what the youngster found in the garden. Ann’s affinity for sewing delicate fabric flowers only grew with time, as they became a staple in many of her future designs.
In 1914 when Ann was just 16 years old, her mother died, leaving behind unfinished business. In particular, Ann’s mother had agreed to sew four ball gowns for the first lady of Alabama. Ann rose to the occasion and not only finished the order but subsequently decided to take over her mother’s business.
Ann’s time as a dressmaker in Alabama was short-lived, nonetheless. In 1916, she was asked to become a live-in seamstress for Josephine Lee, a wealthy socialite from Florida. Ann jumped at the opportunity and immediately uprooted her life and headed to Tampa. There, Ann’s career continued to thrive. Lee and her four daughters weren’t the only ones donning Ann’s designs. Gown requests were coming in from all over town. While Ann’s career was taking off, she decided she wanted to refine her skills and enrolled in design school in 1917. With support from the Lee family, Ann went on to attend the S.T. Taylor Design School in New York City.
When Ann arrived, the school realized they had admitted an African American student by mistake. The director agreed to let her stay, but Ann was forced to learn in a separate room from the rest of her white classmates. This didn’t discourage her, as she finished her studies in half the time and proved to be a stellar student. Once she received her degree, Ann returned to Florida and eventually became the head of one of the most popular dress shops in Tampa.
The time came for Ann to make another life change. In 1928, she took the $20,000 she had saved and moved to New York City. Ann managed to find work at various salons and later became the in-house seamstress at Saks Fifth Avenue. By 1950, she opened her own store on Madison Avenue. This business decision made Ann one of the first African American women to open a couture dress shop along what is one of Manhattan’s most lavish shopping streets.
The Kennedy dress
By the early 1950s, Ann’s name had made the rounds. In 1953, she was asked to make the famous bridal gown Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married JFK on September 12, 1953. In addition to the wedding dress, Ann was responsible for making all the bridal party gowns and the dress worn by Jacqueline’s mother.
A week before the wedding, however, a flood in Ann’s workroom ruined 10 of the 15 dresses, including Jacqueline’s gown, which had taken eight weeks to make. Nevertheless, Ann ordered another 50 yards of the ivory silk taffeta and, together with her workers, spent the next seven days re-creating all the damaged dresses. This resulted in a huge financial loss for Ann. The commission should have resulted in a $700 profit. Instead, she lost $2,200 in the ordeal.
To make matters worse, reports show few, if any, news sources recognized Ann as the bride’s dressmaker. When asked who made the famous wedding dress, Jacqueline replied that it was by a “colored woman dressmaker.”
Struggles to stay afloat
Circumstances worsened for Ann. Initially, her son, Arthur Lee, from her first marriage to Lee Cohen, was in charge of making sure her finances were in check. But when he died in an automobile accident in 1958, Ann was left to pick up the pieces.
Truth be told, making money was never a priority for Ann. She was primarily enamored with the process and the art of sewing. “All the pleasure I have had, I owe to my sewing. I enjoy it so much, I wish I were physically able to do all the work myself,” Ann was quoted in an Ebony article in 1966.
In addition, Ann didn’t realize just how much money she was losing until it was too late. At one point, she recalls charging clients $300 for dresses that cost her $450 to make. The damage was done, and Ann realized she owed $10,000 to suppliers and $12,800 in back taxes. The Internal Revenue Service closed Ann’s shop, and she filed for bankruptcy in 1963.
In an unusual turn of events, Ann had such good connections with businesses and suppliers that she eventually worked her way out of debt. She even managed to open another shop on New York’s Madison Avenue in 1968. Ann continued to work there until she retired at age 71. On February 25, 1981, at age 82, Ann passed away.
Ann Cole Lowe’s lasting legacy
Although Ann’s business strategy was far from admirable, she was proud of her work and did what she loved every day. Ann’s dream was to dress elite upper-class American women, and that’s exactly what she did. In addition to sewing for Jacqueline Kennedy, Ann dressed the DuPonts, the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the Lodges, the Posts, and more.
Her success didn’t end there. Throughout her life, Ann’s designs were featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Town & Country magazines (although the designs were uncredited). Ann even dressed Olivia de Havilland for the 1946 Academy Awards where the star won Best Actress for her part in To Each His Own.
In 1961, Ann was awarded the Couturier of the Year plaque.
Ann was well-respected by her clients and by renowned designers, including Christian Dior and Edith Head. Numerous department store executives admired her work, too.
In her professional prime, Ann had 35 workers and produced about 1,000 dresses, which yielded approximately $300,000, a year. She truly was an extraordinary couturiere and was lauded for making beautiful designs inside and out.
Ann’s designs now reside in various museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.
There’s even an inspiring children’s book about Ann’s life by Deborah Blumenthal. Check it out here.
Have you heard of designer Ann Cole Lowe? What do you think about her story? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Illustration: by Steven Fleck, based on images published in “Dean of American Designers,” Ebony, December 1966.
Blumenthal, Deborah, and Laura Freeman. Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe. Bonnier Publishing, 2017.
Brockell, Gillian. “Jackie Kennedy’s fairy-tale wedding was a nightmare for her African American dress designer.” The Washington Post, WP Company, Aug. 28, 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/28/jackie-kennedys-fairy-tale-wedding-was-nightmare-her-african-american-dress-designer/.
Kwateng-Clark, Danielle. “How a Little-Known Black Pioneer Changed Fashion Forever.” Racked, Sept. 30, 2016, www.racked.com/2016/9/30/13064294/fashion-designer-ann-lowe.
Laneri, Raquel. “Why Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress designer was fashion’s ‘best kept secret’.” New York Post, Oct. 16, 2016, nypost.com/2016/10/16/jackies-wedding-dress-designer-is-finally-recognized/.
Major, Gerri. “Ebony.” Google Books, Johnson Publishing Company, Dec. 1966, books.google.com/books?id=_5q3AoSbTGAC.
Nancy Davis. “Sewing for Joy: Ann Lowe.” National Museum of American History, March 12, 2018, americanhistory.si.edu/blog/lowe.
Powell, Margaret. “The Life and Work of Ann Lowe: Rediscovering ‘Society’s Best-Kept Secret’”, Master’s thesis for The Smithsonian Associates and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, 2012).
“Pretty in Pink.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, July 5, 2019, nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/collection/pretty-pink.
Way, Elizabeth. “Ann Lowe’s Early Career.” The Fashion Historian, www.thefashionhistorian.com/2014/02/ann-lowes-early-career.html.
Wilson, Julee. “Ann Lowe: Black Fashion Designer Who Created Jacqueline Kennedy’s Wedding Dress,” HuffPost, Dec. 6, 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/ann-lowe-black-fashion-designer-jacqueline-kennedy-wedding-dress_n_2624316?guccounter=1.