Flashback Friday: Ann Lowe and the Intriguing Couture Tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben ∙ Margaret Powell
During the 1960s, one of the most respected couture designers on the New York fashion scene was also one of its least known. Ann Lowe was the first African American designer to establish a couture salon on Madison Avenue.
Her fairytale-like gowns appeared in Vogue and Town and Country magazines and at the Academy Awards in 1947 when Olivia de Havilland accepted the award for Best Actress in one of Lowe’s hand-painted floral designs. Jacqueline Bouvier and her bridal party also wore Ann Lowe’s gowns when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. It would be difficult to imagine a designer of this caliber remaining virtually unknown, but in the case of Ann Lowe, that is exactly what happened.
The Saturday Evening Post named Ann Lowe “Society’s Best-Kept Secret” in 1964 as a result of her extraordinary talent and limited public profile. Very little has been written about her since that time and outside of this early connection to Jacqueline Kennedy, most of her creations have been overlooked. There are some fortunate exceptions. Examples of Ann Lowe’s work are tucked away in the permanent collections of some of the country’s finest museums, although the fragile nature of textiles has limited their display.
Ann Lowe’s history is unusual for a fashion designer. She was born in the rural town of Clayton, Alabama, in the late 1890s. She learned to sew alongside her mother and grandmother, Janey Lowe and Georgia Cole. Her grandmother was a seamstress during slavery and in that role, Georgia created fine gowns for the mistress of the Tompkins plantation. After Georgia’s husband, a freedman and carpenter named General Cole, purchased Georgia’s freedom around 1860, Georgia used her dressmaking skills to build a business. Her clients included white women from elite families throughout Montgomery and all of the women in the Cole family learned to sew and contribute their work to the shop.
In 1916, Ann Lowe moved to Tampa, Florida, and established a dressmaker’s business of her own. The citrus and cigar industries, as well as an expansion of the railroad, created wealth for a number of Tampa’s residents. Lowe used her family’s Alabama shop as a model for her own and set herself up to exclusively serve Tampa’s elite upper class. The twelve years she spent in Tampa helped the young designer refine her skills and prepare for the move that had always been her dream: New York City. “I just knew that if I could come to New York and make dresses for society people,” she explained, “my dreams would be fulfilled.” She arrived in Manhattan in the winter of 1928 and set up a small shop that failed within a year, most likely in response to the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression. Lowe spent the years between the Depression and World War II moving from shop to shop as a finisher and designer for established dress salons like Hattie Carnegie. She would eventually reopen her own salon, specializing in wedding and debut gowns for clients who were regular customers of fashion houses in Paris. By the early 1950s, her clients included Jacqueline Bouvier, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and a number of women from the top of New York society. “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,” Lowe explained. “I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary or Sue. I sew for the families of the social register.”
In 1961, Lowe was working as a featured designer in the couture Adam Room boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue. This position made her a perfect candidate for one of the most sought-after dress commissions in Omaha: The Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball.