Ann Lowe was the nation’s first widely recognized African-American fashion designer, most known for designing Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. Today, the iconic Ms. Lowe is finally getting her just due.
Lowe, born in Clayton, Alabama. In 1898, was raised by her grandmother, a former slave who went on to open her own dress shop. Lowe’s mother and grandmother put a young Lowe to work. After her mother died at the age of 16, she took over the family business but was later hired by a Tampa, Florida. tycoon’s wife to design dresses exclusively for her and her daughters.
In 1917, just 18 at this point, Lowe traveled to New York to take a couture course. The school’s headmaster didn’t want to admit her based on the color of her skin and white classmates shunned her, but Lowe kept her head in the books and graduated ahead of schedule. Lowe was married and then divorced but the pair had a son. She returned to New York a decade later and began working as a seamstress for large companies like Saks Fifth Avenue among others.
When word of Lowe’s prodigious talent began to spread, many were shocked to find a Black woman behind the work. After working for a series of fashion houses, some of Lowe’s high society clients and friends pushed her to open her own shop on New York’s famed Madison Avenue in 1950.
Tragedy struck Lowe after she was commissioned to designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress. Her shop’s basement flooded just days ahead of her delivery date for the dress, prompting Lowe to spend more to make the dress than what she charged Bouvier. Lowe routinely undercharged and charged the future First Lady just $500.
That lack of business savvy eventually led to the demise of Lowe’s business and wrecked her finances. Her son did help her tone down the spending, but after his tragic death in a car accident in 1958, Lowe was broke and owed the IRS. After losing an eye to glaucoma and without a shop to work in, an anonymous person Lowe suspects was Mrs. Kennedy paid off her IRS bill of $12,800 and she briefly returned to work.
After retiring in 1969, Lowe lived the rest of her life quietly. She passed away in 1981 at the age of 82. By then, the fashion world had forgotten her.
But Ms. Lowe’s contributions are finally being heralded. While the lavish dress she designed for the Kennedy wedding rests in Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, some of Lowe’s work is also being displayed at the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
PHOTOS: Ebony Magazine, Public Domain