About Ann Lowe
Ann Lowe is best known for her barrier-breaking mid-century couture. Much like Elizabeth Keckley, Lowe designed dresses for some of the most prestigious white women that society knew. However, Lowe’s story is unique and deserves to be resurfaced as we honor her and the work that she did as a seamstress in trying times, especially for a designer of color.
It was Lowe’s mother and grandmother who taught her to sew. Both women established themselves as society dressmakers by the 20th century after the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. They worked in the capital of Montgomery, sewing for political wives and daughters.
Lowe went to school during segregation and dropped out by age 14. She wanted to prove that a person of color could be a major designer by using her extraordinary sewing skills to earn a respectable living. Unfortunately, her husband, Lee Cone, forbade her to sew because he wanted a stay-at-home wife. Lowe was destined for more, and this rang true when her mother passed in 1914 and Lowe was called in to finish four major gowns for Montgomery’s First Lady. Sewing these dresses ignited a fire for Lowe.
2 years later in a department store, Lowe was spotted by a wealthy white woman, Elizabeth Lee, who admired her style. She offered Lowe a job to design gowns for one of her eldest daughters’ wedding parties and then extended the offer to full-time. Lowe moved to Tampa, bringing her newborn boy and ditching her husband.
The Lee family paid for Lowe to attend a dressmaking school in Manhattan, realizing her potential to create sophisticated haute couture. It was in Tampa that Lowe’s work became a status symbol as her couture gowns were known for her handmade surface embellishments, craftsmanship, and perfectly tailored fit.
Because she was a single Black mother in the Jim Crow South, she lived in the staff quarters in a rich man’s home. Her skills and connections didn’t change the way society viewed her, so she was still forced to navigate life staying within the strict race and class boundaries of the day.
She continued her stay in Tampa for the next decade, where she married a bellman in 1919 and started a business in a workroom behind their house. She was able to hire and train staff, teaching them hand-beading, trapunto (an Italian quilting style), and other sewing skills. Her proteges went on to work independently. Still, she struggled to compete with white designers who had advantages she did not.
In 1961, she made one of the most famous dresses of all time with no true recognition for her masterpiece. Jackie Kennedy’s captivating wedding dress was the work of Elizabeth Lowe. Lowe’s skills helped put her on the map in major bridal shops and department stores, but it wasn’t long after that financial turmoil followed. Lowe was underpaid by many companies and agreed to many bad business deals that put her at a loss each time she designed a dress.
Pressing onward, she moved to New York with a few assistants, where they worked in a rented third-floor studio for one year. Her second marriage was shaky, and her business wasn’t flourishing, so she divorced and went to look for work in the garment district. She made dresses on a speculative basis and freelanced for carriage-trade houses such as Sonia Gowns.
It wasn’t until Kennedy’s assassination that Lowe received credit for designing Jackie’s wedding dress. Then her work began to appear in national magazines. In 196,7 Lowe was asked to design a gown to be auctioned off at a Tampa Gala. This was the first time during her 50 years of sewing that she was invited to attend a great event, instead of simply designing gowns for other attendees. Her attendance at the historically white event was a true break in tradition. While Lowe didn’t play a public role as an activist for people of color, she often defied exclusion during her life. She did design dresses for distinguished Black clients, but this, of course, wasn’t exactly deemed headline-worthy.
Lowe, who struggled with cataracts that she had removed, was plagued by the condition until she could no longer see or care for herself. She went to live with a friend, where she eventually passed away. Ann Lowe left a legacy on the fashion world that continues to be remembered and brought to light, especially by activists such as Michelle Obama, who speak out and give credit to fashion pioneers and designers of color.