Ann Lowe (1898–1981)
Considered one of America’s most significant designers, Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, around 1898 and reared in Montgomery.
Her mother, Janie Cole Lowe, and her grandmother, Georgia Thompkins, were skilled dressmakers who sewed for wealthy white families in the state. And they taught Lowe to sew as early as age five. By the time Lowe was six, she had developed a fondness for using scraps of fabric to make small decorative flowers patterned after the flowers she saw in the family’s garden. This childhood pastime would later become the signature feature on many of her dresses and gowns. By age 10, she made her own dress patterns.
Based on the extensive scholarship of Margaret Powell, there are numerous inconsistencies related to Lowe’s early life, including her actual year of birth, age at the time of her first marriage, and whether she was widowed when she left Alabama for Florida. Powell writes that Lowe indicated she dropped out of school at 14 to marry. In the same document, Powell cites U. S. Census records indicating that Lowe was “living in Dothan, Alabama, with her first husband, Lee Cone, in 1910.” Based on the 1898 date of birth, she would have been 12 years old at the time of her marriage. In a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article, the reporter noted that Lowe married a man 10 years her senior shortly after her mother died in 1914, when Lowe would have been 16 or 17 years old. Lowe’s son and later business partner, Arthur Lee Cone, was born a year after she married.
Lowe’s mother’s death was unexpected. At the time, her mother was working on four dresses for a New Year’s Eve ball, at least one of which belonged to the first lady of Alabama. Lowe’s successful completion of the gowns helped establish her as a skilled dressmaker in the state.
In 1916, a chance encounter in a department store with influential Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee changed Lowe’s life. Mrs. Lee observed that Lowe’s outfit was fashionable and exceptionally well-made. Lowe informed her that she made the ensemble, which prompted Lee to invite Lowe to Florida (as a live-in dressmaker) to make the bridal gowns and trousseau for her twin daughters. After discussing the offer with her husband, who wanted her to remain a housewife, Lowe accepted the offer and moved with her son to the Lee family estate at Lake Thonotosassa in Tampa. She later described the opportunity as “. . . a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed of.” In Tampa, she developed a list of loyal clients and supporters.
While reading a fashion magazine, Lowe, who was eager to enhance her skills, learned about the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. With Mrs. Lee’s encouragement, she applied for admission and was accepted.
In April 1917, Lowe left Tampa for New York. When she arrived at the S.T. Taylor School of Design, she was shunned by the school’s director because of her race. He allowed her to attend the school, but segregated her in another classroom because her classmates refused to be in the same space with an African American. The sad irony was that Lowe’s design abilities were far superior to her classmates, and her creations were used as models of exceptional work for the other students. Due to Lowe’s advanced skill and ability, she successfully completed the program in half the required time, though accounts differ on the program’s length.
Lowe worked briefly in New York before returning to Tampa. According to Powell, there are more incongruities about what she did during this period. In 1966, the Oakland Tribune quoted Lowe as saying she “. . . worked as a finisher in a Manhattan dress shop for several months.” A Sepia magazine article in the same year reported that she made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a dress shop in New York after finishing design school.
Lowe returned to Tampa at a time when there were growing demands for ball gowns, cotillion wear, and other formal attire. To respond to those needs, she hired and trained 18 seamstresses and opened her own shop, the Annie Cone boutique.
Around 1920, Lowe married Caleb West, her second and last marriage. A hotel bellhop and day laborer, West and Lowe were officially married until 1942. Although initially supportive of her work, agreeing to establish her shop at their home at 1514 Jefferson St. in Tampa and moving to New York with her in 1928, the difficulties of being a successful dressmaker eventually took a toll on their marriage.
Gasparilla Celebrations, 1924–1929, 1957
Beginning in 1904, the city of Tampa organized numerous festive events named for 18th century pirate Joseˊ Gaspar. These annual celebrations were major social affairs, and each attendee wanted a lavish one-of-a-kind dress to wear. From 1924 to 1929, dressing the elite women who attended the Gasparilla balls was a primary source of creative expression for Lowe. According to information on the Plant Museum website, Lowe designed at least one dress for the Gasparilla festivities in 1957. This suggests she maintained her connections to the Gasparilla events long after she moved to New York.
New York, 1928–1972
Lowe long aspired to establish her own salon in New York, where she could make beautiful, custom gowns for women listed on the Social Registry. She left Tampa to pursue that dream. She also had $20,000 in seed money, an impressive amount of money for the time. During various interviews, she implied that the money was either from her personal savings, the Lees and a few of their friends, or a loan from Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., an African American fraternity. It was quite possible that her savings were a combination of all those sources.
In 1928, Lowe closed the Annie Cone boutique and permanently moved to New York, where she continued to design for elite women and their families. Over the course of her life, she operated several shops in New York, including Ann Lowe Inc. at 667 Madison Ave. during the late 1940s and early 1950s; Ann Lowe Gowns at 973 Lexington Ave. in 1955; A.F. Chantilly Inc. at 558 Madison Ave. in 1965; and Ann Lowe Originals in Manhattan on Madison Avenue in 1968 until she retired in 1972. The Madison Avenue locations solidified Lowe as the first African American to have a shop on the famed fashion retail strip, and it attested to her significance as an American couturier of note.
Work for Other Design Houses
When Lowe arrived in New York, she rented a workspace at West 46th Street, where she struggled to cultivate patrons. By 1929, she had exhausted her funds. At the same time, the American stock market crashed, plunging the country into the Great Depression which lasted for 10 years. Coupled with her personal financial losses and the national disaster, Lowe was forced to work for other fashion houses, including Hattie Carnegie, Sonia Gowns, Inc., and Chez Sonia. Through those connections, she met affluent clients who were members of the Social Registry and who appreciated her unique designs and the fine quality of her craftsmanship.
Academy Award-Winning Design, 1947
In 1946, when Olivia de Havilland accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie To Each His Own, she wore a hand-painted floral Ann Lowe original design. At the time, Lowe was working for Sonia Gowns, Inc., and that fashion house was given high praise for the gown.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lowe made several trips to Paris fashion shows, not as a designer but as a guest fashion reporter for The New York Age, an African American newspaper. She recounted one instance in which Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post, a client, introduced her as “Miss Lowe, head of the American house of Ann Lowe.” At the time, she was operating Ann Lowe Gowns on Lexington Avenue.
The 1950s marked a significant turning point in Lowe’s life and career. She opened Ann Lowe Inc. with business partner Grace Stelhi, wife of the owner of Stelhi Silks. Located at 667 Madison Ave., Lowe was the first African American to own a couture salon on this fashionable street. By the end of 1953, the partnership had dissolved, and Lowe’s son joined her as bookkeeper and supply manager. Her financial affairs improved, as she was less a businesswoman and more a couture artist.
Lowe’s fairytale-like gowns appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. Her creations were respected by renowned designers such as Christian Dior and Edith Head, and she earned key commissions and obtained greater geographical exposure from high-end luxury department stores such as Montaldo’s, Neiman Marcus, and I. Magnin.
The Bouvier-Kennedy Wedding, 1953
Lowe’s most historically significant commission was the bridal gown and bridal party dresses for the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who would become president of the United States in 1961.
About 10 days before the wedding, a ruptured pipe in Lowe’s building destroyed the wedding gown and 10 of the 15 bridesmaid’s dresses. Lowe and her team of seamstresses recreated the dresses, but ultimately, she sustained a $2,200 loss in income. She never reported the loss to the Kennedy family.
Lowe was chosen by the bride’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, with whom she had a long-standing relationship. When Janet Auchincloss married Hugh Auchincloss in 1942, Lowe created her wedding gown. She also designed the debut gown of Nina Auchincloss, Jacqueline’s stepsister, which appeared in Vogue in 1955. Lowe worked for the Auchincloss family until 1957.
Evyan Perfume, 1957
In 1957, for the launch of their Great Lady perfume, the Evyan perfume house commissioned several designers, including Lowe, to duplicate 29 inaugural gowns of the American first ladies in miniature form. She created six sets of inaugural gowns based on the originals, which are on exhibit in the First Ladies’ Hall at the Smithsonian Institution.
While there were many highs during this period, there were an equal number of lows for Lowe. In 1958, her son was killed in a car accident. The tragic loss marked a general decline in her financial stability, her health, and eventually her career. There was no evidence that she hired an accountant or financial adviser after her son’s death. And the eyesight in her right eye continued deteriorating as a result of glaucoma. Mounting tax debts forced her to close her business in 1960.
Saks Fifth Avenue, The Adam Room, 1960–1962
In 1960, Saks Fifth Avenue was one of the leading American luxury department stores specializing in debutante and wedding gowns for elite women in the country. In 1956, Saks dedicated a space for exclusive services for these customers. Mrs. Edward Ewen Conner, the founding manager, named the space The Adam Room, in honor of Adam Gimbel, the head of Saks.
Shortly after Lowe closed her salon, Saks invited her to work in The Adam Room. The offer, a prestigious affiliation for Lowe, came with some fanfare. Saks’s official ad, with a silhouette of Ann Lowe, publicized the business arrangement, declaring, “Saks Fifth Avenue takes pride in announcing that the Debut and Bridal Gown Collection created by Ann Lowe can now be found exclusively in The Adam Room.”
The contract was extremely uneven and not to Lowe’s advantage. In exchange for a workroom, she brought with her a coveted list of select clients. She had to purchase her own supplies and fabrics, which were of the highest quality, and she had to pay her staff. Saks set the final sale prices for the garments. Ultimately, Lowe was paid significantly less than the labor and materials she put into the dresses. By the time she realized the extent of her losses, she was deep in debt. In 1962, she left Saks and opened a small workshop on 53rd Street.
Commissioned for Balls and Coronations, 1961–1962
During her tenure at Saks, Lowe designed gowns for several major balls and coronations across the country. The Texas Rose Festival and the Nebraska Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball were two of the most outstanding.
The Texas Rose Festival, Tyler, Texas, 1961 and 1962
Tyler, Texas, was considered the “Rose Capital” of America because the flower was a staple of the community. The first Tyler Rose Festival was organized by the Tyler Garden Club in 1933 to celebrate the rose industry in the area. Three years later, the annual festivities were renamed the Texas Rose Festival.
In 1961, Lousanne (Orr) Wise was chosen as the Texas Rose Festival Queen. Her gown and train were created by Lowe.
In 1962, Harriet Sue (Caldwell) MacArthur, a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was crowned Queen of the Festival. That year was the silver anniversary for the Texas Rose Festival. Lowe created several dresses for Caldwell—a yellow dress for a photo shoot, her coronation gown and train (the most expensive gown created by Lowe), and her queen’s ball gown of candlelight satin, accented with gold beading in a floral motif on the bodice and skirt.
Nebraska (Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball), 1961
From the time it was established in 1895, the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball was one of the most sought-after dress commissions in Omaha. Initially created as a form of family entertainment that coincided with the Nebraska State Fair, Ak-Sar-Ben events evolved into the state’s biggest social occasion. Unlike similar events, it was not a beauty pageant or a debutante ball. The festivities celebrated the prosperity of the state’s agricultural industry. In 1961, the Ak-Sar-Ben Women’s Ball Committee looked for a well-respected couture designer, and Lowe was the designer of choice. She created 33 gowns under The Adam Room brand, and it appears that she was grossly underpaid.
Mounting Debts and Eyesight Problems
In 1962, the U.S. Department of Revenue closed Lowe’s New York shop due to $12,800 owed in back taxes. She believed the debt was later paid by Jacqueline Kennedy. She stated, “One morning, I woke up owing $10,000 to suppliers and $12,800 in back Taxes. Friends at Henri Bendel and Neiman-Marcus loaned me money to stay open, but the Internal Revenue agents finally closed me up for non-payment of taxes. At my wits end, I ran sobbing into the Streets.” Ongoing issues with glaucoma resulted in the removal of Lowe’s right eye, even as she was experiencing cataracts in the other eye.
Madeleine Couture/The Mike Douglas Show
After the foreclosure of her salon, Lowe began working for Madeleine Couture from 1962 to 1965. The small, custom salon, located at 510 Madison Ave., belonged to Benjamin and Ione Stoddard. The Stoddards were instrumental in helping Lowe obtain the risky operation to remove cataracts in her left eye. In addition, they organized a major fashion show at the Berkshire Hotel. The runway models included former clients wearing the designs Lowe created for them. The Stoddards also arranged two television interviews of Lowe on The Mike Douglas Show in 1964.
In late July 1965, Women’s Wear Daily reported, “Ann Lowe and Florence Cowell have formed A. F. Chantilly Inc., at 558 Madison Ave. . . .” The magazine said the company provided wholesale, as well as retail clothing, through its boutique, and said Lowe would design the gowns. The publication noted that Cowell, a former retailer in Pennsylvania, would create cocktail dresses, coats, and suits.
Throughout her career, Lowe was a celebrated designer of one-of-a-kind dresses for her powerful and wealthy clients, although some of them did not pay her for the costs of the labor and materials, or they asked her for prices that they knew were substantially below what they would have paid a white designer. Those circumstances left Lowe with a minimum amount of funds after paying her staff.
Sally Mathis, Lowe’s beloved older sister, was an integral part of Lowe’s success. An expert dressmaker, Mathis was also Lowe’s close friend and caretaker. In September 1967, Mathis passed away, having lived and worked with Lowe from the time Lowe moved to New York.
Between 1968 and 1972, Lowe opened and operated the Ann Lowe Originals shop on Madison Avenue until her retirement. At that time, she moved to Queens to live with Ruth Alexander, who formerly worked in Lowe’s salon and whom she identified as her adopted daughter.
On February 25, 1981, Ann Lowe passed away in Queens, New York.
Ann Lowe will likely be best remembered for creating the 1953 wedding gown and bridal party dresses for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, even though Lowe did not receive any public acknowledgment at the time. Her life and work were an incomparable mix of tragedy, triumph, and perseverance that was balanced with the unmatched mastery of her craft.
Her legacy as a couture designer of excellence paved the way for many other Black designers to establish themselves in the fashion world. She continuously invented and reinvented herself, even though she encountered many devastating obstacles—discrimination, financial challenges, loss of close family members, health problems, and people who took advantage of her kindness and lack of business acumen. While she was regarded as elite society’s “best kept secret,” Lowe was well-known to those for whom it mattered—her clients and peers in the world of fashion. On the surface, being noted as society’s best kept secret seemed to be a compliment to Lowe’s skill level, breadth of success, and clientele. On the other hand, wearing Dior and Chanel were badges of honor. Given that Lowe’s designs rivaled the best of the best, why was there a different standard for her? Ultimately it speaks to the manner in which she was undermined by the world of fashion—and race, and perhaps gender, were contributing factors.
Through it all, she maintained her ambitions to manifest her choices—to work for families on America’s Social Registry and to establish salons that bore her name as the creative director of Ann Lowe fashions.