Ann Cole Lowe was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer. Lowe’s one-of-a-kind designs were a favorite among high society matrons from the 1920s to the 1960s. Her most famous design was Jacqueline Kennedy’s ivory silk tafetta wedding dress. Lowe’s amazing designs still live on in museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Black Fashion Museum and The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. Her interest in fashion, sewing and designing came from her mother, Janey Lowe, and grandmother, Georgia Cole, both of whom worked as seamstresses for the first families of Montgomery and other members of high society. Lowe 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.
Lowe’s mother died when she was 16 years old. At the time of her death, her mother had been working on four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal. Using the skills she learned from her mother and grandmother, Lowe finished the dresses and she took over her mother’s business. In 1912, she married Lee Cohen with whom she had a son, Arthur Lee. After her marriage, Lowe’s husband wanted her to give up working as a seamstress and stay home with her family. Yet she never stopped designing—instead of sewing for socialites, she fashioned beautiful clothing for herself.
One day, Josephine Lee, a wealthy socialite from Florida, saw Lowe in an Alabama department store. Josephine Lee was so impressed by Lowe’s chic clothing that she asked her about them, and when she found out that Lowe made her clothing, herself, Lee hired Lowe on the spot as her live-in dressmaker. Lee had four daughters who all needed fashionable clothes for the social season and Lowe was to make them. Lowe’s husband was against the move, but she left him and went to Florida where her career flourished.
In 1917, Lowe and her son moved to New York City where she enrolled at S.T. Taylor Design School. As the school was segregated, Lowe was required to attend classes in a room alone. After graduating in 1919, Lowe and her son moved to Tampa, Florida. The following year, she opened her first dress salon, “Annie Cohen”. The salon catered to members of high society and quickly became a success. Having saved $20,000 from her earnings, Lowe returned to New York City in 1928. For a time, she worked on commission for stores such as Henri Bendel, Chez Sonia, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1946, she designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each His Own, although the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg.
As she was not getting credit for her work, Lowe and her son opened a second salon, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, in New York City on Lexington Avenue in 1950. Her one-of-a-kind designs made from the finest fabrics were an immediate success and attracted many wealthy, high society clients. The Saturday Evening Post later called Lowe “society’s best kept secret”. Throughout her career, Lowe was known for being highly selective in choosing her clientele. She sew for the families of the Social Register,” creating designs for several generations of the Auchinclosses, the Rockefellers, the Lodges, the Du Ponts, the Posts and the Biddles.
In 1953, she was hired to design a wedding dress for future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier and the dresses for her bridal attendants for her September wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Lowe was chosen by Janet Auchincloss, the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier, who had previously commissioned Lowe to design the wedding dress she wore when she married Hugh D. Auchincloss in 1942. The voluminous, off-the-shoulder dress was constructed out of fifty yards of “ivory silk taffeta with interwoven bands of tucking forming the bodice and similar tucking in large circular designs swept around the full skirt.” Just 10 days before the wedding ceremony a water line broke in Lowe’s New York City studio and ruined the former First Lady’s gown along with all 10 pink bridesmaids dresses. Lowe worked tirelessly to recreate all 11 designs in time for the Rhode Island nuptials. Sadly, while the Kennedy wedding was a highly publicized event, Lowe did not receive public credit for creating the wedding dress. Jackie Kennedy is said to have told people that her gown was made by a “colored woman dressmaker” and Lowe was only mentioned by name in the Washington Post where fashion editor Nine Hyde simply wrote “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”
Bridal portrait of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (1929 – 1994) shows her in an Anne Lowe-designed wedding dress, a bouquet of flowers in her hands, New York, New York, 1953. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)
Throughout her career, Lowe continued to work for wealthy clientele who often talked her out of charging hundreds of dollars for her designs. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit on her designs. Lowe later admitted that at the height of her career, she was virtually broke. In 1962, she lost her salon in New York City after failing to pay taxes. That same year, her right eye was removed due to glaucoma. While she was recuperating, an anonymous friend paid Lowe’s debts which enabled her to work again. Soon after, she developed cataract in her left eye which was saved after surgery. In 1968, she opened a new store, Ann Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue.
Lowe was married twice and had two children. She married her first husband, Lee Cohen, in 1912. They had a son Arthur Lee who later worked as Lowe’s business partner until his death in 1958. Lowe left Cohen because he opposed her having a career. She married for a second time but that marriage also ended. Lowe later said, “My second husband left me. He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.” Lowe later adopted a daughter, Ruth Alexander.
Since the 1930s, Lowe lived in an apartment on Manhattan Avenue in Harlem. Her older sister Sallie later lived with her. Both were members of St. Marks United Methodist Church. In the last five years of her life, she lived with her daughter Ruth in Queens. She died at her daughter’s home on February 25, 1981 after an extended illness.