Updated: Jan 8
She was an oddity fo her time, her aspirations were to see her designs worn by the most elite, those who could appreciate and well, afford her craftsmanship. Her gift was attention to detail and the way she crafted art using fabric her medium.
She was alive and trying to thrive during a time, along with many others who shared her skill set, maybe you've heard of them, Christian Dior, just to name one. They actually met once or twice, him complimenting one of her gowns, after seeing it worn by Joan Dillion daughter of a Parisian Ambassador. "Send her my love" was his reply.
The careers of these two designers however, took very different turns in history as the Dior, label is alive and well decades after his death in 1947. This designer that caught the eye of Christian Dior, the daughters of Parisian ambassadors and yes even Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, in her iconic wedding dress. What if I told you this designer died in obscurity penniless, along with her label and perhaps her legacy.
So who was the hidden figure and why was she so hidden?
Ann Cole was an African American fashion designer born on December 14, 1898, Clayton AL. A great granddaughter of a slave women and a plantation owner, she and her older sister Sallie both lovers of fashion, sewing, and designing, probably as a result of a mother and grandmother being seamstresses for high society families in Montgomery. After Lowe's mother died (when Ann was 16). Lowe had the task of completing ball gowns that were left incomplete due to her mothers passing. Ann became a mother, and a wife to a husband that wanted her to leave her seamstress and designing aspirations behind for simpler life. After trying to comply for a while she eventually decided to pursue her passions and end the marriage.
Ann move to NYC in 1917 and enrolled at St. Taylor Design School (at the time she attended, the school was segregated she was required to attend classes in a room alone) She graduated despite all these obstacles and after moving to Tampa Florida, in 1919 she opened her first dress design salon, which quickly became a success. With her $20,000 of earnings in 1928 she returned to NYC. During this time she worked on commission in stores like Saks Fifth Ave, Henri Bendel & Neimen Marcus.
Who did she dress?
Aside from Parisian Ambassador daughters Ann dressed Olivia De Havilland (black and white image below) for her Academy award for best actress. (although the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg, it was clear no matter the craftsmanship Ann's race would not allow her to be credited for her designs).
Olivia De Havilland dress close up
Over the course of her career she created designs for several generations of high society; The Auchinclosses, The Rockerfellers and The Du Ponts. In 1953 she was hired to design a wedding dress for the future First Lady Jacquline Bouvier to John F. Kennedy. The dress was describe in detail in the NY times coverage of the wedding a highly publicized event. Lowe however, did not receive public credit for her work.
Although she worked with wealthy clientele who could easily afford her work, she was often talked out of hundreds of dollars for her designs. Which meant she could not make a profit. She later admitted that at the height of her career she was virtually broke.
Her Death & Legacy
After having to close her shop due to unpaid taxes and health issues, Ann spent the last years of her life living with her daughter Ruth in Queens. She died in 1981. A collection of five of Ann Lowes's designs are held at the costume Institute at the MET, three at the Smithsonian Natural Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. There was also an exhibit at FIT in December 2016.
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My Thank You
As an African American designer and seamstress, I could relate so much to her design aesthetic and how important creativity, excellence, and craftsmanship meant/means.
I thank her for being a pioneer for women like me. I wish history was kinder to her, she was more than just an African American designer she was an American Designer.
To learn more about her, I read and enjoyed "Something to Prove" by Julia Faye Smith.
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Jasmine Terry-Ankobil owner and operator of LAIDIECLOTH fashion house, where I create custom designs and perform alterations for formal occasions. As well as my ready to wear shop. & Online Couture Sewing School LAIDIECLOTH U. Please feel free to share this article and/or visit my site www.laidiecloth.com