The untold story of Ann Lowe, the Black designer behind Jackie Kennedy’s wedding ceremony costume



Some 800 visitors noticed the costume on the ceremony at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and 400 extra watched it glide by means of the reception that night. After which there have been the three,000 well-wishers who broke by means of police barricades to witness Jacqueline Lee Bouvier’s arrival at her wedding ceremony to then Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

A photograph of the newlyweds ran on the entrance web page of The New York Instances on September 13, 1953. However the grainy black-and-white shot, the bride half obscured by her husband, could not do justice to the bouffant skirt and the layers of silk taffeta, the intricate scallop pintucks and tiny flowers of wax — a becoming alternative for the lady who would go on to grow to be American royalty.

The robe, like these worn by Kennedy’s bridesmaids, was the work of African American designer Ann Lowe, who died in February 1981.

“That costume she made for Jackie Kennedy was broadly photographed. Lots of people noticed it and it little doubt influenced common American wedding ceremony clothes and ball robes,” stated Elizabeth Means, an assistant curator at The Museum at FIT. “The truth that (the costume) got here from the creativity of a Black girl actually speaks to how instrumental Black folks have been in shaping American tradition.”

Jackie and John Kennedy are shown in their wedding attire.

Jackie and John Kennedy are proven of their wedding ceremony apparel. Credit score: Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Image Assortment/Getty Photos

‘Society’s greatest stored secret’

And whereas the costume delighted the American public, the identical can’t be stated for the bride’s personal response. In line with vogue historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, who’s the creator of the not too long ago launched ebook “The Means We Wed: A World Historical past of Wedding ceremony Vogue,” Kennedy was no fan of the costume she wore to stroll down the aisle.

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“Despite the fact that it is a ravishing costume, it was not what she needed, and she or he truly in contrast it to a lampshade,” Chrisman-Campbell defined. “It was chosen by her father-in-law-to-be, who needed to create an American royalty second and actually arrange his son because the inheritor to the household dynasty.”

This bridal portrait of Jackie Kennedy captures the finery of her Ann Lowe-designed wedding dress.

This bridal portrait of Jackie Kennedy captures the finery of her Ann Lowe-designed wedding ceremony costume. Credit score: Bachrach/Archive Images/Getty Photos

At that time, Lowe was a longtime arbiter of American high-society model, delighting rich shoppers throughout the nation (together with Jaqueline’s mom, Janet Lee Auchincloss, who commissioned Lowe to create her daughter’s debutante and wedding ceremony clothes) with made-to-order princess silhouettes and couture-level gildings. Years later, The Saturday Night Publish described her as “society’s greatest stored secret” and “unfamiliar besides to the very wealthy.”

An unrepentant snob, Lowe was selective about her shoppers. Solely essentially the most elite have been deserving of her efforts — the Rockefellers and the du Ponts of the world, in addition to stars like Olivia de Havilland, who wore certainly one of Lowe’s hand-painted floral designs the night time she received greatest actress on the 1947 Academy Awards.

“I really like my garments and I am specific about who wears them,” Lowe stated in an interview with Ebony journal. “I am not inquisitive about stitching for cafe society or social climbers. I don’t cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the households of the Social Register.”

To cater to her clientele, there was seemingly nothing she would not do. After a flood in her Manhattan studio destroyed the Kennedy clothes simply 10 days earlier than the ceremony, she and her staff labored day and night time to make sure a brand new set was accomplished on time. She by no means talked about a phrase of it to the household, and absorbed the extra prices herself.

Inherited excellence

Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898. Her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, and her mom ran an unique dressmaking enterprise for rich patrons, and Lowe discovered their craft from a younger age.

“She had been working in dressmaking since she was a little bit woman, so she actually had many years of expertise by the point we get to the making of those ballgowns, these wedding ceremony robes, these debutante robes within the Fifties,” Means stated.

At 16, Lowe took over the household enterprise after the dying of her mom. She later studied design in New York, segregated from her White friends (she graduated after solely six months due to her distinctive skills) earlier than establishing store in Florida, the place she constructed her popularity for extravagance and exclusivity. After a decade, she returned to Manhattan to do the identical on the East Coast.

However the excessive wealth of the shoppers she so cherished wasn’t sufficient to buoy her enterprise. They would normally speak her into decreasing her costs, and she or he would usually find yourself dropping cash from commissions. In 1963, she declared chapter. (A longstanding rumor suggests Kennedy might need anonymously paid off her money owed to the IRS.) By the point she retired in 1972, she was penniless.

African American designer Ann Lowe created one-of-a kind designs.

African American designer Ann Lowe created one-of-a type designs. Credit score: Alamy

“She does the identical superb sort of job that Mainbocher does,” vogue columnist Eugenia Sheppard as soon as remarked, referring to Important Rousseau Bocher, Lowe’s modern and the primary American couturier. “The distinction is that Mainbocher is a businessman in addition to a designer, and he fees what he has to, to remain in enterprise.”

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Rediscovering a vogue legacy

Since her dying, the identify Ann Lowe has meant little exterior of vogue historical past circles. However lately, there was a pointy enhance in curiosity across the designer. Each an Ann Lowe biography and an Ann Lowe youngsters’s ebook have been revealed, and a historic fiction novel, by Piper Huguley, is within the works. Her designs have been exhibited on the Nationwide Museum of African American Historical past and Tradition, and as a part of FIT’s 2017 exhibition “Black Vogue Designers.”

Lowe’s talent and success in a subject the place Black ladies are nonetheless routinely erased and excluded disrupts prevailing narratives about not simply vogue business, however American historical past.

“With all of the political actions occurring proper now, which have been constructing over the past century, persons are within the historical past of Black artists and Black creatives in so many industries, and it is nice to know that (Black folks’s participation in vogue) did not begin at first of the 2000s,” Means stated. “Black designers have at all times been working within the business. There’s a legacy there.”



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