Ann Lowe’s Barrier-Breaking Mid-Century Couture

Ann Lowe’s Barrier-Breaking Mid-Century Couture

Lowe spent the next decade in Tampa. In 1919, she married a hotel bellman named Caleb West, and launched her own business in a workroom behind their house. She trained a staff in her exacting techniques of hand beading and trapunto (a style of quilting that creates an intricate raised design), and some of her protégées went on to prosper independently. Lowe’s most treasured creations from that era were her fancy-dress costumes for Gasparilla, a local festival with parties and parades akin to Mardi Gras. The revels included a themed ball; they were dogged by charges of racism until the nineties.

One of the earliest Lowes to have survived, a short flapper-style dress from 1926, is the costume for a Gasparilla courtier that might have come from les petites mains of Lesage. “The asymmetrical neckline has one jeweled shoulder strap,” Powell writes. “A large jeweled medallion in the upper left of the bodice and a series of small medallions towards the bottom of the skirt are connected with sprays of brilliants . . . in a pattern reminiscent of tree branches or curling smoke.” The cloth has decayed, but the embellishment is intact. Each tiny bead was attached individually.

Lowe may have distinguished herself in the South, but she was also stymied there. Her white competitors had an insuperable advantage, Powell writes. A Black dressmaker could not get credit or rent a workspace in the downtown business district; her clients had to visit her in a segregated neighborhood. Josephine Lee, for one, felt that Lowe was “too good to waste herself” in a provincial backwater.

By 1928, Lowe had moved to New York with several assistants and rented a third-floor studio on West Forty-sixth Street. “No one flocked in,” she told the Daily News, in 1965. “I kept afloat for a whole year making the wedding gown and trousseau for Carlotta Cuesta”—a former Gasparilla queen. In the early months of the Depression, Lowe went looking for a job in the garment district. (She claimed to have started her new business with twenty thousand dollars in seed capital, although that figure, more than ten times the average family’s annual income at the time, should probably be adjusted for exaggeration.) According to the census of 1930, Lowe was sharing her two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan Avenue with her husband, her son, her assistants, and “a roomer.” The marriage didn’t endure. Lowe told Ebony that Caleb West “wanted a real wife,” so he divorced her.

When no one hired Lowe, she offered to make gowns on spec. Her work, as usual, found appreciative buyers. For the next decade, she freelanced anonymously for carriage-trade houses such as Sonia Gowns and Hattie Carnegie. Eventually, she said, she met “the right people.” By then, she was using her maiden name. One of the earliest garments with an “Ann Lowe” label is now at the Met Costume Institute: a sublime wedding dress from 1941, with the silhouette of an Erté Tanagra. Embroidered trapunto lilies, bedewed with seed pearls, cascade down the bodice; molten satin bubbles at the hem like a pool of candle wax.

Some of the greatest designers have been hopeless with money. Paul Poiret and Charles James both died destitute. Yves Saint Laurent was a financial imbecile, but his partner, Pierre Bergé, managed their fortune cannily. Lowe never had a Bergé, not to mention a yacht, a country house, or an art collection—common perks of success in fashion. Her son, Arthur, kept her books and paid the bills. But after his premature death, in a car accident, no one capable took over. In 1962, the Internal Revenue Service shuttered Lowe’s salon for nonpayment of taxes.

The timing was ironic, since the new First Lady’s patronage, or even a public acknowledgment, might have rescued Lowe. But Jackie’s reported slight was more painful to her than any lost business, and she registered her chagrin in a letter of heartbreaking dignity. “My reason for writing this note is to tell you how hurt I feel,” she wrote. “You know I have never sought publicity but I would prefer to be referred to as a ‘noted negro designer,’ which in every sense I am. . . . Any reference to the contrary hurts me more deeply than I can perhaps make you realise.”

Letitia Baldrige, Jackie’s social secretary, called a few days later to assure Lowe that the reference to “a colored woman dressmaker” hadn’t been approved by Mrs. Kennedy, and to convey an apology for her distress—without, however, taking responsibility for it. Lowe then engaged an attorney and sought “tangible” redress from the Ladies’ Home Journal, in the form of a story about her career. The magazine never obliged, but Jackie may have tried to make amends. A year later, one of Lowe’s eyes was removed—it had been irreparably damaged by glaucoma. While she was in the hospital, someone paid off her debts to the I.R.S. Lowe always believed that the First Lady was her anonymous benefactor.

Lowe’s misfortunes of the early sixties nearly crushed her. “I almost gave up dreaming about beauty and thought only of suicide,” she told the Daily News. Saks offered her a workroom and a title—the head designer of its Adam Room, creating bridal and début gowns. She brought Saks her clients, and it touted her collaboration. But Lowe agreed to a disastrous deal: she had to buy her own materials and pay her own staff. “I didn’t realize until too late,” she said, “that on dresses I was getting $300 for, I had put about $450 into it.”

Overwhelmed by debt, Lowe was forced to declare bankruptcy. She went to work for a small custom shop, Madeleine Couture, until cataracts blinded her other eye. In 1964, she underwent a risky operation to remove them. Once she could see again, she opened a new salon. When the cataracts grew back, she dictated her designs to a sketcher and her assistants realized them.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lowe finally got credit for Jackie’s wedding dress, and she liked to claim that it was exactly what the bride had asked for: “a tremendous, typical Ann Lowe gown.” (The logo on one of her labels is the dainty figure of a court lady in a hoop skirt and panniers.) Her work began to appear in national magazines. Vanity Fair featured one of her coming-out dresses in an editorial spread. The Saturday Evening Post ran a picture of three insouciant debs, riding the Central Park carrousel in their Lowe gowns. It accompanied a profile of the designer, whose headline became Lowe’s sobriquet: “Society’s Best-Kept Secret.” She played along. “I’m an awful snob,” she told Ebony, in 1966. “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I don’t cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.”

There is no evidence that Lowe’s society clients invited her to their affairs or their débuts. She heard about them secondhand: “When someone tells me, ‘The Ann Lowe dresses were doing all of the dancing at the cotillion last night,’ that’s what I like to hear.” But in 1967 Josephine Lee’s granddaughter asked Lowe to contribute a gown to be auctioned at a Junior League fund-raiser in Tampa. She was happy to oblige, though she added that—after fifty years—she was curious to attend the sort of gala that she had so often sewn for. The family brought her as a guest of honor, and she sat at the front table.

Lowe’s presence at what Powell called a “historically white event” was an audacious break with tradition. Lowe had defied exclusion countless times in her life. But, unlike Keckley, an activist for the impoverished former slaves who had flocked to Washington in 1862, and unlike Rosa Parks, a dressmaker by trade, she never played a public role in the civil-rights movement. Nor did she advertise the fact that she sewed for distinguished Black clients like Elizabeth Mance, a classical pianist, or Idella Kohke, a board member of the Negro Actors Guild. I found a picture of Kohke in the New York Age, a venerable Black newspaper. She was featured in an article on Easter finery, dated April 20, 1957. A caption describes her “fabulous ensemble—a gown of imported French black satin created by Ann Lowe.” Lowe’s name was unqualified by an epithet. It apparently needed none.

The historically white fashion press never paid attention to Harlem’s vibrant fashion scene. Yet Lowe’s name had such prestige in the Black community that the New York Age sent her to Paris, at exorbitant expense—an ocean crossing, a stay at the Hôtel Lutétia—to cover the postwar couture shows. A story from 1949 reports that Dior, Balenciaga, Paquin, Molyneux, Dessès, and other grandes maisons had received their correspondent graciously. (At one of the défilés, Lowe said, she met Mrs. Post, who introduced her as a prominent designer.) One longs to know what she made of the clothes—and of Europe. But perhaps the picture that ran with the story—of an outfit that Lowe had designed for the paper—was a form of reportage. Her “Paris-inspired creation” was a sexy black cocktail dress “with the new sheath skirt which dips very low to the right side. The overskirt is appliqued with cutwork of large dahlias. The wing collar is highlighted by a deep plunging neckline.”

There is nothing else so daring in the Lowe archives, and it made me wonder what she might have created had she been freer to innovate. “Her work was overwhelmingly pretty,” Elizabeth Way reflected. “It wasn’t radical, or meant to be. Even in the sixties, she was still inspired by the nineteenth century, and by a nostalgic ideal of femininity. Yet I also think it’s important to appreciate what breathtaking courage she had.”

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