Everyone is currently flocking to theaters to see Hidden Figures in the hopes of learning more about the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Black female mathematicians who worked for NASA and helped the U.S. achieve some great things in space. With the success of that book and film, what better time to uncover and share more stories about little-known Black women who’ve done great things in history? One story you should make yourself more aware of is that of designer Ann Cole Lowe.
Lowe is recognized as the first Black woman to become a noted fashion designer, and she he made dresses for everyone from wealthy socialites to Jackie O. Lowe created then Jacqueline Bouvier’s dress for her wedding to John F. Kennedy. Her story is being brought to the masses in a new book called Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe. The large picture book, written by Deborah Blumenthal with illustrations by the incredibly talented Laura Freeman, may be targeted to younger readers, but it’s both informative and engrossing enough to capture the attention of adults as well. Trust me, I read it.
Fancy Party Gowns takes you back to Lowe’s childhood, from the days she spent in Alabama helping her mother sew gowns to taking over the business and eventually opening up her own salons. Of course, because Lowe came up in the early 1900s, she faced a great deal of adversity as a Black woman. From having to attend design school classes in New York City in a separate classroom by herself to working anonymously so that people wouldn’t know a Black woman made the gowns of certain clients, Lowe went through a lot to follow her dream. But in the end, her one-of-a-kind designs are finally being attributed to her and have been placed and showcased in the JFK Presidential Library Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The picture book is beautiful and gives Lowe the credit and respect that she went without for so long. We would recommend ordering the book, which was released today (you can buy here), for your children. But if you want to get it for yourself in order to learn more about Lowe’s legacy, you will be greatly rewarded with a rich story.
In honor of the book’s release and Lowe’s story, here are 9 things you should know about Ann Cole Lowe.
Her Husbands Didn’t Approve of Her Dreams
According to Lowe, her first husband wasn’t crazy about her choice to leave Alabama for Florida in order to make gowns for a prominent business tycoon’s family. Still, she picked up, took their son and got to work in Tampa. He sent her divorce papers.
As for her second husband, Lowe said about the marriage, “My second husband left me. He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.”
At the Height of Her Career, Lowe Was Broke
Her clients were able to talk her out of charging them the grip they would have paid if they’d sought out gowns from major fashion houses like Dior. Because of that, Lowe often failed to turn a profit on her dresses after paying her workers. You wouldn’t believe that she only charged Jacqueline Bouvier’s family $500 for her iconic wedding dress, inevitably incurring a loss of more than $2,000 in her effort to make it.
She Took a Stand for Her Work
While she may not have charged an arm and a leg for her designs, at a certain point in her life, Lowe was tired of the disrespect she faced as a designer due to her skin color. When she hand-delivered Bouvier’s gown for her wedding, along with the dresses for the bridemaids, she was told she would need to enter the back service door. Lowe wasn’t having it.
According to Fancy Party Gowns author Deborah Blumenthal, Lowe said, “‘If I have to use the backdoor, they’re not going to have the gowns!'” Of course, they let her in.
She Wasn’t Credited for Her Greatest Design
Despite working tirelessly to get all the gowns done for Bouvier’s wedding, Lowe didn’t even receive proper credit for her work. According to The Huffington Post, Bouvier allegedly told people her dress was designed by a “colored woman dressmaker.” When a Washington Post fashion editor finally mentioned her, the designer was credited as “a Negro, Ann Lowe.”
She Was Made to Attend Design School by Herself
When Lowe moved to New York to enroll in a couture course to take her business to the next level, she was met with hate. The designer’s White classmates reportedly refused to learn in the same classroom as her, so she was put in a separate classroom where she was made to learn all by herself. She still managed to graduate early.
Her Pieces Were High in Demand
Within a six-month period, Lowe, along with her small team of seamstresses, would churn out around 35 debutante gowns and nine wedding dresses.
She Designed for Big Names
Lowe reportedly described herself as an “awful snob.” She made dresses for some prominent parties, particularly socialites. That included everyone from the Auchinclosses and the Rockefellers to the Du Pont family and Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland.
She Struggled with Her Eyesight
Lowe stated that she had to sew from time to time “by feel” due to poor vision. She had her right eye removed after dealing with glaucoma. Unfortunately for Lowe, her left eye also was a struggle after she developed cataract. Thankfully, that eye was able to be saved after having surgery.
The Point of It All
While Lowe genuinely loved creating dresses, she said during an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show in 1965 that she wasn’t doing it in the hopes of becoming a huge name or raking in dough. Instead, her motivation to create her iconic gowns came from her quest “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.”
Images via Laura Freeman, Instagram