Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Get to Know: Ann Lowe!

My amazing friend and graduate school peer Margaret Powell is in the midst of writing her master's thesis and she has a very cool and original topic.

Margaret was an intern at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in the Spring of 2011 and while prepping their current Wedding Belles exhibit, Margaret and a co-worker noticed that some of Margorie Merriweather Post's dresses seemed to be designed by designer Ann Lowe.

Before I butcher everything you need to know about Ann Lowe, I'll cut to a Q&A I had with Margaret to fill us in better about who Ann Lowe was.

Ann Lowe with model in a Lowe design, Ebony Magazine, December 1966.

Who is Ann Lowe?
Ann Lowe was an African-American dressmaker from Alabama. She worked between 1914 and 1972. While she is best known for creating Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953, Lowe made thousands of dresses for ‘high society’ customers listed in the social register.

Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress.
What makes her significant?
Lowe’s body of work is incredible. The core of her work was sold to debutantes and brides who socialized in the same circle. This meant that each dress needed to be unique. In a newspaper interview from 1976 she said, “You know, I never made two dresses alike except for bridesmaids. I filed the sketch away with swatches of the material and it was never used again.”
She is also significant because of the way she has managed to fade right out of history. This is a woman who had a gown salon inside of Saks Fifth Avenue for several years beginning in 1960, along with several showrooms in Manhattan. She was the first black woman to do this, Saks even advertised for the dress salon with her likeness (which was a big accomplishment for a black woman in 1960) and 50 years later nobody knows about her. Did this happen because she was a woman? Did this happen because she was a Black woman? Did this happen because she didn’t advertise and she was terrible with the business end of her work? Ten of her gowns are in the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute. Ten! People should know about her.
What type of people were her designs for?
Her couture clients were all from the Social Register: daughters of important American businessmen, daughters from political families, etc. Between the 1930s and 1960s she would design for wholesale at other design houses. These designs were simplified, to allow for reproduction on a wholesale scale. In her last shop on Madison Avenue named Ann Lowe’s Originals, you could come in as a regular retail customer and purchase a dress.
Anyone famous or memorable?
Olivia de Havilland wore one of her designs (created for another designer’s house) to the Academy Awards when she won an oscar in 1947. Jackie Kennedy’s debut and wedding gown were both by Lowe. Jackie’s mother Janet Auchincloss hired Lowe for a number of gowns for herself and Jackie’s sister and stepsister. For the most part however, Lowe clients were not celebrities.
What’s her signature style?
She learned to make really ‘big’ ballgowns when she was a child in Alabama. Her mother was a seamstress for the first Lady of Alabama around 1911, so she worked on very stunning dresses for the women in that area. Through my research though, I am finding that she was very open to adapting her work to the customer’s personal style. Her debutante dresses are just amazing to look at.
How have you been going about your research?
For bibliographical information, I started by reading a few books on African-American fashion designers. These were not very satisfying.They had a few pages about Lowe with very basic (and often incorrect) information and notes listing their main sources (two magazine articles from the 1960s.) I tracked down the articles and then began to look for any mention of Lowe in newspaper archives and those kinds of sources. This led me to my own primary source discoveries in the U.S. Census.
A dressmaker's work is all about the dresses though, so I started a hunt to find previous clients. These were women listed in those magazine articles and old society columns as clients of Lowe. A little online detective work helped me to find current addresses for some of these women. I've heard back from two women so far: one of Lowe's clients from the 1960s, and it has been amazing to get a first hand account of what it was like to order a wedding dress from Ann Lowe! And the other is a relative of the family Lowe lived with in Florida when she first arrived. She is being incredibly generous about access of objects for research purposes, and she’s filled with amazing family stories about the woman she knew as Annie Coan (Lowe).
The internet has been essential to my research, but good old fashioned letter writing has been extremely important. I was very shy at first about writing to these women. Getting a letter that basically says ‘I saw your name in a magazine from 50 years ago. Did this woman make your wedding dress? Will you tell me about it?’ must be very strange!! But I’ve heard back from several so far, and everyone has been so friendly and interested in my work! Getting back such friendly responses has been a great confidence boost!
Has it been challenging?
Definitely! Trying to follow the life of a Black woman who began her career in the segregated South around 1914 has been a huge challenge. You have to take yourself out of your 21st century mind and remember that the world was very different back then. Lowe was a dressmaker in Tampa for 10 years before she moved to NY in 1928. In interviews, she called her business a dress shop. A 21st century woman would try to find a business license and evidence of a storefront in order to confirm this dress shop, but it is important to remember the time period. A Black woman in Florida during the 1920s who worked only for white clients would not be able to have a physical shop for the clients to visit. Affluent white women were not going to leave their neighborhood to shop in the Black side of town, and property owners would never rent a shop to a black woman in the white part of town. The homes in the black sections of Tampa at this time had outdoor bathrooms and were without electricity. Lowe must have sewed at home, but visited clients at their own houses to conduct her fittings. Can you imagine this woman getting on the back of a segregated streetcar while lugging around an unfinished ball gown?
There are holes in Lowe’s biography that I REALLY want to try to find, and there isn’t anyway to know when you are running off on a tangent and need to pull yourself back in, or if you really are about to uncover some important or helpful clue. I’ve found amazing leads a moment before I was about to quit for the evening. You just have to keep wading through and looking.
> What’s your favorite thing you’ve learned so far about Ann Lowe after beginning your research on her?
Her work in Florida during the 1920s intrigues me. Very little (almost nothing!) has been written about it, and my biggest goal with my thesis research is to record this part of her story. Talking to relatives of her Tampa clients has been fascinating. One woman’s great grandmother and grandmother told stories about “Annie” all the time while she was growing up, and she even told me a story about meeting her in the 1960s. Ann Lowe must have been such a memorable and incredible woman to leave such a memory on this family she met in 1917! I've read a bunch of oral history transcripts from black women from her part of Tampa who lived there in the 1920s and it was quite depressing to hear about the social and economic conditions at the time. And then I read a newspaper article from a Tampa paper in 1976 where Lowe, who had lived in New York for almost 50 years at this point and was being interviewed from her hospital bed, blind and suffering from a heart condition. She described her time in Tampa as, “the happiest years in my life and I will always feel that Tampa is my real home. People were so kind and so good to me there.” As a Black woman, that just floored me. How could the happiest time in your life have happened in an area where you had to sit in the back of a streetcar and the African-American people in the Tampa City Directory from this period had asterisks next to their names and business to indicate their race? One of her most lucrative jobs was to create costumes and evening gowns for an annual festival that she would never attend because it was only for White residents of Tampa. But she talks about her time in Florida with such warmth! I want to try to find out what made her 10 years in Florida so special to her.
> What do you want readers to remember about Ann Lowe?
I want people to know that she existed. That there was a woman who was born in rural Alabama in the late 1890s who would grow up to make thousands of couture dresses for some of the most affluent families in the United States. When I was first introduced to her story, I didn’t know very much about her at all. I remembered hearing that a Black woman made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, and just figured that she was an Auchincloss family maid who sewed dresses on the side. That is the image that I want to correct.

Thanks for the info Margaret!
I think what's most amazing about Margaret's research is that not much has been known about Lowe so Margaret is doing some of the first research about the designer. Margaret is an ultra talented writer (she once wrote a research paper about feed sack dresses and I was so hooked I was ready to order some old feed sacks off ebay and start sewing!) and is a dedicated scholar. I am so looking forward to reading her final paper. I'll keep you posted on her progress.


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