Anne Lowe: THE First Lady of Style

Just Who Was Anne Lowe?

The Jan. 3, 2009 New York Daily News reported that conservative Ann Coulter’s new book, “Guilty: Liberal ‘Victims’ and their Assault on America,” attacks Michelle Obama and her style of dress. Coulter states, “Her obvious imitation of Jackie O’s style — the flipped-under hair, the sleeveless A-line dresses, the short strands of fake pearls — would have been laughable if done by anyone other than a media-designated saint.”

I’m going to be honest, I did not read the book, but the media has been having a wild time with this alleged comment.

As usual, this made me think.  You know, I don’t believe Jacqueline Kennedy was the first woman to wear her hair in a flip, or strands of tasteful pearls and a straight sheath. And, I do not believe our new first lady imitates her or anyone else for that matter. Her inspiration could have come from a number of women, i.e., Coretta Scott King, Lena Horne, Audrey Hepburn; any woman with classic taste and style.
 
Snide remarks from Coultergeist aside, I pondered history once again, snooping into the dark secrets and folklore of the African American. It was typical and common for white women to adopt style ideas from women of color without giving them credit. Elizabeth Keckley had been a slave for 30 years, and then lived in the White House for four as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress and confidante. Keckley designed Mrs. Lincoln’s inaugural gown.
 
A trailblazer in fashion whose name has fallen through the cracks of history is Anne Lowe. Born in Alabama in 1898, Ms. Lowe was the daughter and granddaughter of celebrated seamstresses who were known for sewing for the first ladies of Alabama. Anne’s mother passed away suddenly when Anne was 16, forcing her to complete her mother’s unfinished needlework for the governor’s wife.

Anne enrolled in S.T. Taylor Design School in New York. Although she was ignored and avoided by white classmates, she concentrated on her work. Moving to Tampa, Fla., she opened a small studio there, then returned to New York where she worked as a commissioned designer for some of the major houses in the Fashion District. The houses took all the credit, and Anne’s name was never mentioned. She pressed on, and soon she was designer to society’s top families, such as the du Ponts, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and notably, she designed and made the gown actress Olivia de Haviland wore when she received her Oscar for “To Each His Own.”
 
“Ann Lowe was known as society’s best kept secret…You would have thought her clothing was Parisian couture, but she charged much less to create the same thing. They all went to her for their debutante balls and weddings.” Michael Henry Adams.
 
Anne Lowe’s quiet claim to fame, however, was the wedding gown she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, when she married John F. Kennedy. Ms. Lowe was also commissioned to make the 10 pink bridesmaid’s gowns and hats. In an effort to promote Sen. Kennedy’s imminent political career, the wedding received high recognition, the designer’s name was left out of most newspapers. Nina Hyde, social, fashion editor of the Washington Post at the time, stated “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”
 
It is said that Jackie did not care for the dress because it was not her style, preferring more simple lines. The dress consisted of 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta, with a full bouffant skirt had interwoven tucking bands and tiny wax flowers. It took Anne two months to make. Her skill as an ultimate professional was put to the test when 10 days prior to the wedding a water line broke, flooding the store and ruining the gown. Nevertheless, Ms. Lowe worked around the clock and recreated the gown and all 10 dresses. Fate would dictate that Jackie would wear the dress anyway.
 
Anne Lowe’s luck began to fade. She was not very good with record keeping, and in 1962, her New York salon was seized by the IRS while she was undergoing surgery to remove an eye due to glaucoma. When she was released from the hospital, she learned that her debt had been paid by an anonymous benefactor. Could it have been the first lady?
 
Still going strong in her 70’s, she opened a store inside Saks Fifth Ave, then her own salon, Anne Lowe Originals, on Madison Ave, making over 2,000 dresses for New York’s society. She was awarded the Couturier of the Year Plaque and appeared in the National Social Directory and the 1968 Who’s Who of American Women.
 
Known for her trapunto work, a detailed needle technique, Anne Cole Lowe’s fashions can be seen in a permanent collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington D.C.’s Black Fashion Museum, and the Smithsonian. In 1997, the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum had the Textile Conservation Center of the American Textile History Museum in Massachusetts to restore the Kennedy gown. Ms. Lowe died in 1981 at the age of 83.
 
I wonder had Ms. Lowe been alive today, would she have been as famous and wealthy as Vera Wang? Would Mrs. Obama be a fan? And, what would Ms. Coulter think of her?
 
You can learn more about Anne Lowe and other notable African American fashion mavericks in “Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers, 1850 to Present,” by Rosemary Reed Miller.

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