History Nebraska Blog

Ann Lowe and the Intriguing Couture Tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben

How could such a prominent fashion designer remain so unknown to the public?

Ann Lowe’s fairytale-like gowns appeared in magazines, at the Academy Awards, and were worn by Jacqueline Bouvier and her bridal party when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953—but in 1964 The Saturday Evening Post called her “Society’s Best-Kept Secret.”

Her race may have been a factor. Lowe was the first African American designer to establish a couture salon on Madison Avenue.

Born in rural Alabama, Lowe opened a dressmaking business in Tampa, Florida, before moving in 1928 to New York City, where she spent the rest of her career. She has an important connection to Nebraska, one that offers “a treasure chest of information about the work of this mysterious fashion personality,” according to historian Margaret Powell, whose article, “Ann Lowe and the Intriguing Couture Tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben” is featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History.

For its annual coronation ball, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben commissioned top fashion designers to create gowns for its princesses and countesses. Lowe was the designer for 1961.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"3854","attributes":{"class":"media-image size-full wp-image-1777","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"400","height":"512","alt":"Ak-Sar-Ben"}}]] Ak-Sar-Ben's 1961 Queen Connie O'Neil remembers that her queen gown had to be modified after the coronation ball so it could be worn the next evening. Even with a portion of the underskirts removed, her escort "had to jump if I turned so he wouldn't step on it." Photo courtesy of Connie O'Neil

Details from that year’s ball—local press coverage and other documentation, plus interviews with participants—reveal much about Lowe’s methods, and provide insight into her eventual bankruptcy. Lowe, it turns out, was a brilliant designer, but not so good at the dollars and cents. Her son managed her business affairs until his death in 1958; after that, Lowe struggled along with the assistance of only a bookkeeper, and her partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue seems to have been weighted heavily in the retailer’s favor.

Lowe insisted on the use of labor-intensive techniques to create the hand beaded embellishments that were her hallmark. The detailed embellishments on each Ak-Sar-Ben gown would have taken dozens of hours of seamstress labor to complete.

For participants in the Ak-Sar-Ben coronation ball, the results were unforgettable; for fashion historians, the 1961 event provides a unique window into Lowe’s career.

An excerpt of the article is linked above. To order this issue of Nebraska History, contact the NSHS Landmark Store at 402-471-3447. Or better yet, subscribe.

- David L. Bristow, Associate Director / Publications

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