Ann Cole Lowe 1898 – February 25, 1981 - great granddaughter of a slave woman and her Alabama plantation owner. Humble beginnings for the first African-American fashion designer of note.
Both Ann's mother and grandmother worked as seamstresses for the first families and members of the high society of Montgomery, Alabama. Ann's mother passed away when she was sixteen leaving four ball gowns unfinished for the First Lady of Alabama. With the skill set learned from the matrons of her family, she was able to finish the projects in her mother's absence.
Anne Lowe Sets Off on Her Own
In 1912 Ms. Lowe married, Lee Cohen. This union produced a son Arthur Lee. Cohen wanted his new wife to give up her profession, which she did for awhile. Found that it wasn't her cup of tea and struck out on her own. A Florida woman hired her to design a wedding dress and history was born.
Ann and her son moved to New York City in 1917, where she enrolled at the S.T. Taylor Design School. Sadly, due to the segregation laws of the era and the fact that fellow classmates refused to occupy the same room as the student, she was forced to attend classes alone in a room.
The incident did nothing to squelch her tenacity or extinguish her passion. Lowe graduated early and returned to Florida and in 1920 opened her first dress shop the "Annie Cohen" catering to high society once again. In 1928 she returned to New York City, commissioned to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and other dress salons and designers. In 1946 Lowe designed the dress worn by Olivia de Havilland when she accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress in the movie "To Each His Own". The piece bore the name of the designer who commissioned the work, Sonia Rosenberg and not that of the actual designer Ann Lowe.
Fashion History Made
Fed up about not receiving credit for her designs Ms. Lowe and her son opened their second salon called "Ann Lowe's Gowns", located on Lexington Avenue in New York City, in 1950.
Soon she earned the monicker of "society's best-kept secret". Ann critiqued herself as "an awful snob", who also stated "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."
Those families included the Auchincloss, Posts, Rockefellers, DuPonts and many others for generations.
In 1953 Anne Lowe was commissioned to design the wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier (aka Jackie "O") and those of her bridal attendants for her upcoming nuptials to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Ms. Lowe was chosen by the bride's mother Janet Auchincloss.
Lowe's dress for Jacqueline Bouvier consisted of fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta with interwoven bandsof tucking forming the bodice and similar tucking in large circular designs swept around the full skirt and candy-pink silk faille. The dress cost $500 (approximately $4,000 in today's money) which took two months to complete. The event was the center attraction for media icons of the day. The design was explained in detailed with exception of the designer, who was never mentioned. This may have been due to racism or more likely to the fact that Jackie was not happy about the gown that had been forced on her, stating it looked like a lampshade. When asked the designer's name she told them "some colored woman".
The dress is now on display at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ann Lowe's Legacy
1968 saw the opening of the designer's last salon "Ann Lowe Originals" located on Madison Avenue, in New York City. In 1972 Ms. Lowe retired. Collections of her life's work can be found; three pieces are on display at the Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Several were on exhibition in black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016.
National Museum of African American History and Culture