Ann Lowe, America’s first successful Black fashion designer, created dresses for debutantes, heiresses and society brides, but one of her most notable gowns was worn by Jacqueline Bouvier for her 1953 wedding to freshman Sen. John F. Kennedy. In 1946, Olivia de Havilland accepted her first Oscar in a swirl of aqua tulle embellished with Lowe’s trademark flower petals.
Yet Lowe wasn’t publicly acknowledged for either of those high-profile couture confections. In the 1960s, the Saturday Evening Post referred to the designer as “Society’s Best-Kept Secret.”
Today, Lowe’s accomplishments are unveiled in Ann Lowe: American Couturier, an exhibition at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library that celebrates the first retrospective of the designer’s work in 40 years. The show displays 40 gowns gathered from other museums and private collections, and includes everything from full-length frothy debutante gowns to a knee-skimming metallic cocktail sheath. All are infused with Lowe’s unabashed femininity and penchant for detail.
Curator Kim Collison, who led the search for undiscovered Lowe dresses, points to a red silk floral frock in which the back is constructed from straps with flower detail. “You can see the way she cut out the flowers and sewed them over the seams to keep the pattern flowing,” she points out.
Margaret Powell, a textile historian at Winterthur who was devoted to unraveling the details of Lowe’s life and work, was writing an in-depth biography of the designer when she died of cancer at 43 in 2019. Elizabeth Way of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology took the reins as guest curator for the Winterthur exhibit.
“Whenever you think of fashion, please think of Ann Lowe,” she says.
Much of Lowe’s personal life is a mystery. The designer gave her birth date as 1898, although in the 1910 census she is listed as 21 and living with the first of her two husbands. What is certain is that she was born in Alabama. Her mother was a dressmaker who taught Lowe the art of needlework. Young Ann gained a following of her own in 1914 when her mother passed away, and she stepped up to finish four ballgowns for the first lady of Alabama.
Two years later, the wife of a wealthy citrus grower met the chic Lowe in a department store and wooed her to Florida as the in-house dressmaker for two daughters’ upcoming weddings. Soon Lowe was designing gowns for Tampa’s elite, yet she couldn’t rent space for a showroom in the segregated South. In 1928, she moved to New York.
For the next decade, she freelanced for other houses. The exhibition includes one of the first dresses made in 1941 under her eponymous label, a sigh-inducing ivory satin trumpet-style gown with a neckline of appliquéd lilies and embroidered seed pearls.
Lowe’s designs were fanciful, yet her personal style was stark: a plain, form-fitting black dress, broad-brimmed black hat and sunglasses. Red lipstick became her signature, with her hair pulled into a tight bun. Design icons Christian Dior and Edith Head became personal admirers.
The designer’s later years were marred by bankruptcy and blindness. She worked until 1972, dictating her vision to assistants. Millionaires prized her perfect fit and glamorous embellishments yet routinely haggled over prices.
Jackie Kennedy’s off-the-shoulder gown features a fitted bodice and a full skirt embellished with large circular panels pleated to resemble flowers. The dress is too frail to exhibit, so Winterthur teamed with Katya Roelse, a professor of fashion and apparel studies at University of Delaware, to create a precise replica. Roelse and three of her students spent more than 200 hours fashioning 50 yards of fabric into the gown, to be displayed at the Kennedy presidential library after the Lowe show closes.
Ann Lowe: American Couturier runs through Jan. 7, 2024. winterthur.org