Ann Lowe: Designed to Dream
By Tara Mae
Ann Lowe was an in-demand designer to high society. But even as she was sought out by eminent families, Lowe was neither properly compensated nor recognized for her work. In fact, at the height of her career, she was nearly destitute. Lowe faced a problem many other women, especially Black women encountered: she was in danger of being erased from her own narrative.
Born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898, Lowe was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman and the plantation owner. Raised under the racist oppression of Jim Crow laws, both her grandmother and mother were seamstresses to the first families of Montgomery, sewing gowns for the governors’ wives and female relatives as well as other members of the upper class. Growing up, Lowe took scraps from her mother’s work to make fabric flowers, which later became a signature detail of her designs. When she was sixteen, her career was inadvertently launched by the unfortunate death of her mother. She completed the four gowns that her mother had been working on for the wife of the governor of Alabama.
Married for the first time at around 14 years old, Lowe’s husband was 10 years her senior and wanted her to focus on being a wife and mother. Initially, Lowe complied. She left him after being hired to design a wedding dress for a woman in Florida and offered a position as an in-house seamstress. Later married a second time, Lowe also attributed the breakup of that marriage to her husband’s inability to cope with her career. In 1918, Lowe and her son Arthur Lee headed North, coming to New York so Lowe could study at the S.T. Taylor Design School, a particularly impressive feat since she had not graduated from high school.
Apparently, she surprised school staff when she arrived. They were, until that point, reportedly unaware that she was a Black woman. Lowe was subsequently segregated: she was forced to take classes alone in a room. However her work was so remarkable that it was shown to other students as an example of excellence, and Lowe graduated early.
Following her graduation in 1919, Lowe and her son relocated to Tampa, where she opened her first dress salon in 1920. Catering to high society, the shop was a fast success, and by 1928, Lowe had saved $20,000 and returned to New York City, where she began building her brand. Having arrived on the cusp of the Great Depression, Lowe worked on commission as a seamstress and designer at some of the top department stores: Neiman Marcus, Chez Sonia, Henri Bendel, and Saks Fifth Avenue, yet was consistently unrecognized for her labor. In 1946, Olivia de Havilland wore a dress by Lowe to accept her Best Actress Oscar for her performance in To Each His Own. Lowe received no credit for the design; the name on the gown was Sonia Rosenberg.
Being snubbed both in name and payment was a chronic problem for Lowe throughout much of her career. She was not alone. Her situation was unfortunately all too common, but Lowe was resourceful. She and Arthur Lee opened a new dress shop, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, on Lexington Avenue in 1950 with the express goal of bolstering her reputation as a designer and seamstress. Wealthy clients soon became loyal customers, but Lowe was not a well-known name beyond that circle.
While the general public may not have been familiar with her work, other designers certainly appreciated her creations and women of high society sought her outfits. New York World, a leading Black newspaper, sent Lowe to France in 1947 to cover Paris’ first Fashion Week. Christian Dior, who she met in the city, was a fan of hers.
Dressmaker for families such as the Du Ponts, Rockefellers, Lodges, Biddles, and Auchinclosses, Lowe’s work was in demand. Lowe had created Janet Auchincloss’ dress for her second marriage in 1942. When Auchincloss’ eldest daughter was getting married, she hired Lowe to make the wedding dress. She and her younger daughter, Lee, had ordered a wedding dress for Lee’s nuptials, but canceled the order because they thought a gown by Pauline Trigère would be less expensive. It ended up costing more and so, when it was daughter Jackie’s turn to plan her wedding, Auchincloss commissioned Lowe to make the bride’s and bridal party’s dresses.
Jackie Bouvier married John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1953, wearing a Lowe original creation. Lowe’s experience was not without its challenges. Bouvier was not a big fan of her design and days before the wedding, there was a flood in the workroom, destroying 10 of the 15 dresses. Bouvier’s wedding dress, having originally taken eight weeks to construct, was duplicated in 5 days.
Repurchasing the fabric and working all hours turned a projected profit into a $2,200 loss for Lowe. Upon arriving in Newport to deliver the dresses, the house staff would not let her enter through the front door. Lowe declared that she would leave and take the dresses with her. She walked through the front door. Although the wedding was picked up in national papers and the wedding dress was described in detail in the New York Times and other publications, Lowe received no credit for her work.
HIghly selective about her clientele, the Saturday Evening Post once called Lowe “society’s best kept secret.” Her patrons were frequently reluctant to share the name of the Black designer who made their beautiful clothes. And Lowe was a self-described “snob,” purposely courting members of the social register. She offered lower prices than her competition and was too frequently persuaded by customers to sell her luxurious designs at a fraction of their costs. Once she had paid her staff for their efforts, Lowe often did not make a profit.
As a result, while business boomed, Lowe was deeply in debt. Arthur Lee, who had become her business partner, unfortunately died in a car accident in 1958. Her daughter Ruth Alexander, who she adopted at an undisclosed time, continued to work with her. Lowe received the Couturier of the Year award in 1961, but bills continued mounting and the IRS came to collect.
She was forced to declare bankruptcy the following year. Lowe then had her right eye removed due to complications from glaucoma. While she was recovering, an anonymous benefactor paid off her debt and Lowe was able to fully resume her career. Six years after Lowe nearly lost her business, she opened a new store, Anne Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue. She retired in 1972.
Lowe died at the age of 82 on February 25, 1981. The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art possesses five of Lowe’s designs. Three of her designs are displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian Institution museum.