Fashion designers have long rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. Once the elite deem a designer "noteworthy," their business is often sought after like a Birkin bag, and they're inducted into the special club of clothing-makers whose legacies go beyond their time on earth.
Designers of this caliber are undeniably vital to this country's history, and through their work, shape how we view some of our most important cultural figures. Their names aren't just embedded into historical narrative, though; they also pave the way for the next generation.
This is certainly true for Ann Cole Lowe, the first internationally-recognized African American fashion designer, who carved out a space for herself through talent alone in the Jim Crow-era United States.
Little has been written about Ann — it's hard to find much beyond an Ebony magazine profile from 1966 and a paperback biography — but this month, an exhibit at the just-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. highlights her work, alongside other "trailblazers, innovators, visionaries, and history makers." This is her story.
Born in the small town of Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Ann was the great-granddaughter of a skilled seamstress slave and white plantation owner. Her mixed-race grandmother, Georgia Tompkins, was given clemency from slavery after being purchased by a freedman named General Cole. Ann learned to sew from Georgia and from her mother, who made dresses for Southern society women.
One skill the women perfected was trapunto quilting on garments, a technique that adds another dimension to fabric, creating a more full, elegant finish. Ann also had a penchant for making small flowers out of satin and building bras into her dresses.
At 16, Ann's passion was tested when she was challenged to create four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Lizzie Kirkland O'Neal, an assignment her mother had taken on before suddenly passing. Ann made the dresses, and they served as her launching pad.
She funneled all of her energy into her work, and ultimately lost two husbands because of it — something that was completely unorthodox for a woman in the South during the early 1900s. She abandoned the first, a man 10 years her senior whom she married when she was 14, after being approached in a shopping center by a wealthy Floridian who wanted Ann to be her in-house seamstress in Tampa.
"Her husband was unhappy with the situation and soon demanded that Ann give up her involvement with the business," says Julia Faye Dockery Smith, the biographer behind Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe: America's Forgotten Designer.
"She was, however, never happy with those demands and submission to them," she continues. "Thus when Mrs. Lee made her offer, Ann made the daring decision to leave her husband, take her young son, and follow Mrs. Lee to Tampa."
As for the second husband: "He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses," Ann told Ebony.
Nonetheless, soon after moving to Tampa, she was afforded the opportunity to go to the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. The high school dropout went and flourished (her designs were often used as an example to other students), despite being put in a different room from the other students because of her skin color.
In a year, she had mastered her studies and came back to Tampa to become the head of a leading dress shop at age 21. From 1919 to 1928, she owned a dressmaking salon, restricting her clientele to wealthy white women on the Social Register, a catalog of American families with deep documented lineage and even deeper pockets.
"I love my clothes and am particular about who wears them," Ann told Ebony. "I am not interested in sewing for cafe society of social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register."
In 1929, at the age of 31, she moved to New York City with $20,000 in savings and a mission to open up her own boutique.
After she moved, Ann got the opportunity through New York World, a leading African American publication, to go to Paris Fashion Week in 1947. An omen of good things to come, she was introduced to Christian Dior on the trip, and they hit it off.
Once she returned, she got a design job with Saks Fifth Avenue, becoming one of their most sought after designers. She also worked for Hattie Carnegie, a milliner who discovered Lucille Ball and is thought to have gotten Ann's dresses featured in Vogue— although her designs' inclusion in the magazine went uncredited. From there, she opened up her first shop in Harlem, and later, the American House of Ann Lowe on Madison Avenue, making her the first black designer to open a store on the prestigious strip.
Her shop was a haven for society's upper crust, with a framed photo wall dedicated to the women whose gowns she made for their most important life events. Sketches for the dresses of debutants, brides, and gala invitees were laid in piles in the intimate shop.
The gowns she made were stunning enough to earn her the Couturier of the Year plaque in 1961, and get her listed in the National Social Directory and the Who's Who in American Women list.
Her dresses were also sold in Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, and Saks, in addition to her own boutique.
It is said that her most famous gown, the dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953, cost $700 — even though a freak flooding accident put her in the red by $2,200, something Kennedy had no idea about until years later. In 2016, that would be equivalent to a $13,000 loss.
No two dresses were ever alike, and her prices typically "began in the hundreds and [ran] into the thousands of dollars." But she never made much money. If anything, Ann just broke even given the time it took for her to complete her intricate designs.
After her son — who served as her business partner — died in a car accident in 1958, Ann had her sister Sallie Mathis by her side. Sallie became Ann's seeing eyes to double-check sketches (Ann was partially blinded by glaucoma) and provide domestic help.
Ann told Ebony that, at one point in her career, she was able to "turn out an average of 1,000 gowns a year, had a staff of 35, and grossed $300,000 annually." However, by 1963, she was forced to declare bankruptcy.
"One morning I woke up owing $10,000 to suppliers and $12,800 in back taxes," she said. "Friends at Henri Bendel and Neiman-Marcus loaned me money to stay open, but the Internal Revenue agents finally closed me up for non-payment of taxes. At my wits end, I ran sobbing into the street."
The mystery of who finally paid her IRS bill will perhaps forever be unknown, but it's believed that Jackie Kennedy found out about Ann's troubles around the time the bill was settled.
Ann was buried in Queens following her death in 1981. Her family says her funeral was "dignified."
There are entire decades of her life that remain lost to time, and her place in history isn't known to many. Though she never marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and there are no arrest records for protesting, it's clear Ann fought injustice in her own way. She did the impossible in the Jim Crow-era by making a name for herself solely from her talent.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on September 24th, has an exhibit featuring some of Ann Lowe’s gowns. Learn more about the designer here.