The Story of Ann Lowe: The Alabama Designer Behind Jackie Kennedy's Iconic Wedding Dress
Born in Clayton, Alabama, she went on to be the best-kept ballgown secret of Olivia de Havilland, the Rockefellers, and Jackie O.
When Jacqueline Bouvier walked down the aisle to marry John F. Kennedy at St Mary’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island, she wore an exquisite white gown. It had a portrait neckline, and a bouffant skirt with gorgeous, intricate details that has gone down in history as one of the most iconic wedding dresses of all time. While it’s hard to imagine today (between Instagram and breaking celebrity news every second), at the time no one was able to figure out who had designed the stunning gown. There’s even some speculation that the newly-minted Jackie Kennedy actually wanted to keep the designer’s name a secret, so that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed with work and would still have time to keep making extraordinary clothing for her. Now, that designer is finally getting the credit she so clearly deserves and earning her place in history as America’s first haute couture fashion designer.
Ann Cole Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898, and inherited her dressmaking sense and skills from her mother, who made dresses for Southern society women. She in turn had learned to sew from her mother, Georgia Tompkins, a woman who became a free woman in 1860, according to Racked.
When Ann Lowe was 16, her mother suddenly passed away. In the midst of her grieving, she had to finish her mother’s last job—creating four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Lizzie Kirkland O'Neal. The dresses were a hit and Lowe’s career was launched. Well, it would have been, except for the fact that her husband didn’t really support her passion to work. Lowe, however, felt like it was her life’s mission to make beautiful things.
One day, according to the Memory Palace podcast, a wealthy woman approached her in a department store in Montgomery, and asked Lowe where she had purchased the dress she was wearing. She happily explained that she had made it herself. The woman then said she would pay her to move to Tampa to make all of the dresses for her daughter’s wedding. Lowe accepted the offer. She picked up her young son, Arthur Lee, left her husband, and followed her dreams, first to Florida, and then to New York City to study design.
Lowe enrolled at S.T. Taylor Design School in New York. With racial segregation the common practice, Lowe "was separated from the other students and had her own space where she worked." After receiving her diploma, she continued making dresses for the social elite.
In 1950, she opened Ann Lowe's Gowns, a boutique in Harlem, and then became the first African-American to have a business (Ann Lowe's Originals) on the ritzy Madison Avenue in 1968. She was a society smash, making dresses for du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, Posts, Bouviers and Auchinclosses. Her gowns became the mark of high society as Lowe restricted her clientele to wealthy white women on the Social Register. “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,” Lowe told Ebony magazine, according to The Root. “I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue.”
In what should have been an incredible boost for her business, Lowe made the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar for the 1946 film To Each His Own, but her name was not on the label. When Jackie Bouvier Kennedy wore Lowe’s dress down the aisle, that should have made her a household name like Dior or Chanel. Instead, when Kennedy was asked who made her dress, according to the Memory Palace podcast, Kennedy simply said it was “not haute couture”—even though it clearly was.
Lowe’s clients liked to keep her to themselves—or because they didn’t want to admit it was a relatively inexpensive dress from an African-American designer in New York when people might think it was straight from Dior’s atelier in Paris. Whatever the reason, and as unfair as it was for them to deny Lowe the credit she was surely due, her name was barely known outside of those elite circles with a 1966 Saturday Evening Post article even calling her “Society’s Best Kept Secret”. And the quality of her designs were unbelievable. Nancy Davis, Curator Emeritus for the National Museum of American History said about her designs: "Everything is so perfect—and she didn't charge enough for the cost of the fabrics or the handwork that went into them…Sewing was her lifeblood. It was her gift, but also her being. She just wanted to sew. She just wanted to make beautiful dresses that gave her clients joy."
And that was true. Being Society’s Best Kept Secret didn’t properly compensate Lowe, who could barely break even on the gowns she made. "Too late, I realized that dresses I sold for $300 were costing me $450," Lowe once noted. By 1963, she was forced to declare bankruptcy when she was surprised with a large bill for back taxes, which is always a possibility when an artist is forced to run a business. The designer had no choice but to close her business. While a mysterious benefactor eventually paid off Lowe’s taxes (it’s rumored to have been Kennedy herself), she never opened another shop.
Despite that, she had made her mark and lived a life full of creation and beauty. Lowe died in 1981 at the age of 82.
“All the pleasure I have had, I owe to my sewing,” Lowe told Ebony in 1966. Last year, the nation's first high-fashion designer, finally got the acknowledgement she deserves, with an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.