Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ann Lowe’s Early Career

February is Black History Month! To celebrate here on The Fashion Historian, I asked my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth Way if she would pen a couple of guest posts about two incredible African American fashion designers and dressmakers and she kindly agreed. Enjoy!


Ann Lowe pictured in Ebony magazine in 1966.

Ann Lowe was a leading society dressmaker in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Her designs were so exclusive that she restricted her clients to those found on the Social Register; people with names like Roosevelt, DuPont, and Rockefeller. Her most famous design was for Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, but she also made countless wedding and debutante gowns for American socialites. Anne Lowe made couture-quality gowns on par with the best French designers, true pieces of art that now reside in museums like the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. But before she came to New York, Lowe built her career as artistic and technically skilled fashion designer in Tampa, Florida.

Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. This was a rural town in the Jim Crow south, where most blacks struggled as sharecroppers, but Ann’s family was better off than even some white families because her grandmother, Georgia Cole, and her mother, Janey Lowe, were excellent dressmakers. Georgia was a former slave who had been bought and freed by her husband, a free black man named General Cole. When Ann was very young the family moved to Montgomery, and established a thriving business, fashioning gowns for the society ladies of the state capitol. Ann grew up picking up scraps from her grandmother and mother’s work and sewing them into beautiful replicas of the flowers she saw in the garden—these floral accents would become a signature of her designs. In 1914 Janey died suddenly, leaving her daughter to complete an important order for the governor’s wife. Sixteen-year-old Ann, not only finished the order, she took over her mother’s business. Her already advanced design and sewing skills made her a capable dressmaker, but when she married and gave birth to her son Arthur, her husband, Lee Cone, compelled her to give up her work and stay home with her family. Yet she never stopped designing—instead of sewing for socialites, she fashioned beautiful clothing for herself.


Gasparilla Court wearing gowns designed by Ann Lowe, 1927. Black Fashion Museum.

One day, Josephine Lee, a wealthy socialite from Florida, spotted a very fashionable young black woman from across an Alabama department store. Mrs. Lee was so impressed by Ann’s chic clothing she had to ask about them and when she found out that Ann made them herself, she hired the young woman on the spot as her live-in dressmaker. Mrs. Lee had four daughters who all needed fashionable clothes for the social season and Ann was to make them. Lee Cone was against the move, but Ann saw an opportunity to continue and expand the career she loved, and so she and Arthur boarded the train to Tampa.

In Florida, Ann’s career flourished. The Lee girls’ friends coveted their fashion-forward clothing and Ann was soon the most popular dressmaker in town. She was known for making original designs and working fast—sometimes a lady would drop by her shop in the morning with fabric for a dress that she could pick up and wear that night. The Lee family adored Ann and supported her growing talent—in 1917 they encouraged her decision to attend design school in New York City. Luckily for Tampa, its finest dressmaker returned after a year—Lowe was so skilled that she completed the course work of her design school in half the time, despite the fact that she was segregated to a separate classroom to work alone because of her race. Ann reopened her business and by the time she turned 21, she employed eighteen dressmakers in her shop.


Gasparilla Court wearing gowns designed by Ann Lowe, 1928. Black Fashion Museum.

Though Lowe made all types of garments, she was best known for exquisite ball gowns. Tampa hosted an annual social event called the Gasparilla festival, which was full of balls for the wealthiest residents. Young girls from the best families were elected to a Gasparilla court—the most popular was crowned the Gasparilla Queen—and they all wanted dresses by Ann. One socialite recalled, “If you didn’t have a Gasparilla gown by Annie, you might as well stay home.”

In interviews given late in her life, Ann Lowe always remembered her Tampa clients fondly and her time there as very happy. But she was destined for a bigger future. She made a permanent move to New York in 1928, again supported by the Lees who appreciated her talent and ambition. Yet, a local newspaper reported, “There is much ‘weeping and wailing and maybe gnashing of teeth’ to use the old expression, among Tampa society maids over the fact that Annie Cone [as she was known then] is going to New York City… feminine society is wondering just how it will be able to survive the future social seasons without her assistance.” Nearly forty years later, her Tampa clients still remembered their incredible designer. A Tampa Tribune article, written in 1965, included several interviews of Lowe’s Tampa clients and reported that, “everyone we spoke to who had an Ann Lowe gown remembers it distinctly and nostalgically.” The 1924 Gasparilla queen, Sarah Keller Hobbs, sentimentally recalled, “There was never anyone like Annie.”

Further Reading

Frye, Alexandria, “Fairy Princess Gowns Created By Tampa Designer for Queen In Gasparilla’s Golden Era”, Tampa Tribune, Feb. 7 1965, pp. 6-E.

Powell, Margaret, “The Life and Work of Ann Lowe: Rediscovering ‘Society’s Best-Kept Secret’”, (master’s thesis for the Smithsonian Associates and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, 2012).

Elizabeth Way, Curatorial Assistant at the Museum at FIT. Elizabeth wrote her master's thesis on the African American dressmakers Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe and continues to research the intersection of African American culture and fashion.

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