Ann Lowe was born and raised in Clayton, Alabama in 1898. Her mother and grandmother were both accomplished dressmakers to wealthy Alabama elites. Her grandmother Georgia Cole, an enslaved woman, made clothes for the plantation mistress before becoming a free woman in 1860. Ann’s mother, Jane Cole, was an expert seamstress and embroiderer. As a child, Ann Lowe amused herself by shaping cloth flowers out of the scraps leftover from their dress work, this would later become one of her signatures.
Before Ann’s mother died, all three ladies moved to Montgomery, Alabama where they ran a successful dressing making business for the wealthy. Her mother died when Ann Lowe was only 16, leaving four ball gowns for the first lady of Alabama unfinished. Lowe successfully completed the order herself.
At 18, she shocked administrators at a New York fashion school when she showed up for class; they hadn’t realized they had admitted a black woman until that moment. She was segregated from her classmates and was required to attend classes in a room alone. Despite the racist environment she excelled and graduated early.
After working 10 years in Florida, Lowe returned to New York, where she began designing for Saks Fifth Avenue. She soon opened up her first shop in Harlem. Then, in 1968, Ann Lowe became the very first African-American business owner on Madison Avenue when she opened up shop in this prestigious location. She quickly became the go-to dress designer for the highest of high society — the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the duPonts.
In 1953 Ann Lowe was commissioned to create Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress as well as all the dresses for her bridal party. When Jacqueline Kennedy was asked by the media who made her dress she declined to name the designer, saying it was made by “a colored dressmaker”. Lowe never received credit for creating the wedding dress during her lifetime and was written out of what would have been a career-making gown for anyone else.
Sewing made her happy, beautiful couture was always her dream and passion. She continued to make dresses for high society year after year, often selling her work for far less than it was worth. She didn’t have an easy path to becoming one of the most sought-after dressmakers. She faced constant racial discrimination while working for America’s most elite.
America’s first black high-fashion designer is finally getting recognition. Three of Ann Lowe’s gowns are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. A collection of five of Ann Lowe’s designs are being held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan included several of her pieces in an exhibition on black fashion.
This brilliantly talented designer and impeccable dressmaker deserves a place of honor in our history books, she can not be written out of fairytale weddings or the fashion world any longer.