Ann Lowe, first Black fashion designer, immortalized in Ohio State collection
Lowe’s Jacqueline Kennedy wedding dress subject of first ladies’ library exhibit
As Black History Month gets underway, the accomplishments of legendary Black fashion designer Ann Lowe are being highlighted by The Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology’s (EHE) Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection. Widely regarded as the first nationally recognized Black American couturier, Lowe is also the subject of a new book and a recent presentation and upcoming exhibit at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton.
Lowe’s historical significance as the first Black designer to be recognized for her singular style cannot be overstated, said Gayle Strege, curator of the Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection.
“There were a lot of Black dressmakers and designers, but they weren’t necessarily whose name was on the label,” she said. “That recognition of the dressmaker was left out, so it’s nice to be able to bring that all to light.”
Lowe’s designs include a distinctive debutante dress that is housed at the Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection. Lowe also designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress for her 1953 nuptials to then-Senator and future President John F. Kennedy. A reproduction of the wedding dress will be on display at the National First Ladies’ Library beginning in May, said Alison Caplan, the library’s director of education.
Succeeding against the odds
Lowe was born in rural Alabama in 1898. The granddaughter of slaves learned to sew and make clothes from her mother and grandmother. The family ran a seamstress business that created fashions for Alabama’s governor and state dignitaries.
Lowe came to prominence as a designer in her own right in the mid-20th century. Her life and career have been documented in several books, including author Piper Huguley’s new release, “By Her Own Design: A Novel of Ann Lowe, Fashion Designer to the Social Register.” Huguley discussed Lowe’s accomplishments during a Feb. 1 virtual presentation hosted by the First Ladies’ Library.
In a conversation with Caplan, Huguley described how her work of historical fiction pays homage to Lowe. The book chronicles Lowe’s designs for high-profile clients like the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the du Ponts and Olivia de Haviland, the Academy Award-winning actress. De Haviland donned one of Lowe’s designs in 1946 when she won the Best Actress Oscar for “To Each His Own.”
“I could immediately see upon looking at what Ann’s life was that it could be made into a novel,” Huguley said. “It was clear from the things that I saw initially that a historical fiction novel could be told about Ann Lowe.”
As the heroine of her own compelling story, Lowe often triumphed over adversity – including succeeding in a highly competitive industry as a woman and an African American in an era in which both groups struggled to achieve equality. She also battled glaucoma and ultimately retired in 1972 due to eyesight challenges.
A thrift-store donation reveals a priceless artifact
Before Lowe’s debutante dress was acquired by the Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection, the garment was in the possession of Columbus resident Jim Gessner for several decades. Gessner is the son of Florence Cowell Gessner, one of Lowe’s collaborators at Lowe’s A.F. Chantilly fashion label. Jim Gessner ran the business that housed the label.
After the A.F. Chantilly New York shop closed, Gessner held on to a selection of dresses made by Cowell Gessner and the debutante dress made by Lowe.
“He took the Ann Lowe gown to First Community Church’s clothing resale shop and gave it to them,” said Elizabeth McAllister, Gessner’s niece and Cowell Gessner's granddaughter, who also lives in central Ohio. “He had that dress in a storage unit for 50 years.”
Fortunately, employees with the Tri-Village Trading Post thrift store recognized the unique quality of the gold debutante dress with handmade floral embellishments that Gessner had donated. They contacted Ohio State about the possibility of acquiring it.
When First Community employees reached out to Strege, “I said, ‘Yeah, and how did you get one of her dresses? They’re so rare,’” she said. “She only designed one-of-a-kind dresses, so there aren’t going to be that many out there.”
Lowe’s legacy endures
In addition to the Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection, Lowe’s designs are housed in prestigious museums such as the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The First Ladies’ Library acquired a reproduction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress from the private collection of Monte Durham, host of the TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“There’s no doubt that Jacqueline Kennedy’s dress is a masterpiece,” Caplan said. “It was kind of a showpiece that the Kennedys wanted to be created that would get the magazine coverage that they wanted to help propel (John F. Kennedy) into the spotlight.”
In a devastating turn of fate, the bridal and bridesmaids’ dresses that Lowe created for the Bouvier/Kennedy wedding were destroyed just 10 days before the ceremony when a pipe burst in Lowe’s New York City workroom. Forging ahead with her trademark tenacity, the designer painstakingly recreated the dresses at her own expense.
Losing money was unfortunately commonplace for Lowe and other Black designers of her day. Despite their wealth and privilege, many of Lowe’s clients devalued her work, refused to adequately compensate her and rarely gave her proper credit for designs because of her race, Huguley said.
“This is how someone who was Black in the first half of the 20th century, how you had to comport yourself,” she said. “It’s unpleasant to look back on and for us to think about, but that was a historical reality.”
Strege said she is hopeful that the inclusion of Lowe’s designs in the college’s collection, the First Ladies’ Library and other museums around the country will bring awareness to Black fashion designers’ contributions.
“Because so many African Americans have been written out of our history, it’s great to have an example of her work,” she said. “To be able to share that history is good to bring to light.”
Lowe’s debutante dress can be viewed in a video on the EHE Education and Learning Design YouTube channel. (The gown is currently in storage for an upcoming renovation of Campbell Hall on Ohio State’s Columbus campus, where the collection is located.)
For information about Ohio State’s Historic Costumes and Textiles Collection, visit Costume.osu.edu. For more information about the First Ladies’ Library upcoming exhibit of the reproduction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, visit Firstladies.org.