The Saturday Evening Post said she was, “society’s best-kept secret. Rich women pass her name around… But few outsiders have heard of Anne Lowe.”
Anne Cole Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama, a small town on the headwaters of the Pea and Choctawhatchee rivers. Racist Jim Crow Laws touched every aspect of daily life. The Encyclopedia of Alabama wrote that the formal legal rules of segregation were only a component of the regime. “Some historians list three other important elements contributing to the creation and reinforcement of the status quo: physical force and terror, economic intimidation, and psychological control exerted through messages of low worth and negativity transmitted socially to African American citizens.”
Lowe’s mother was a seamstress for the Governor’s wife; ivory silk taffeta, portrait necklines, and bouffant skirts would all feature in her daughter’s most famous creation. At the age of 14, Lowe married a man named Lee Cohen and moved to New York City, where she enrolled at the S.T. Taylor Design School. She told The Saturday Evening Post that the director “didn’t believe I could learn the things they had been teaching there.”
Unable to find work in New York City, she moved to Tampa, Florida with her son Arthur Lee. “Whites Only” signs restricted their passage into restrooms, churches, restaurants, beaches, and schools. Lowe travelled to the homes of her clients in the backs of segregated buses. Championed by a socialite named Josephine Lee (“No one in Tampa can sew like that!”), Lowe was exclusive from the beginning of her career.
“I’ve been as careful about the people I work for as any social climber. I don’t do many dresses, so I have to be selective.”
She made dresses for the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, an event African Americans were forbidden from attending. A dearth of biographical information about Ann Cole Lowe has been redressed by the work of a decorative arts historian named Margaret Powell. “[Lowe] described her time in Tampa as, ‘the happiest years in my life and I will always feel that Tampa is my real home. People were so kind and so good to me there,’” Powell told Slings and Arrows, “As a black woman, that just floored me. How could the happiest time in your life have happened in an area where you had to sit in the back of a streetcar and the African-American people in the Tampa City Directory from this period had asterisks next to their names and business to indicate their race?… But she talks about her time in Florida with such warmth! I want to try to find out what made her 10 years in Florida so special to her.”
Lowe moved back to New York in 1928. She had established her signature style, with flowers set on the garment and parallel rows of stitching to create designs. She made dresses for clients at Chez Sonia, Henri Bendel, and Neiman Marcus. Olivia de Havilland wore a Chez Sonia dress to accept an Academy Award in 1947. Lowe had designed and sewed the strapless, pale blue dress with appliquéd flowers down the bodice and skirt, but the label on the back said Sonia Rosenberg.
“For twenty years I worked for others. I rode one person after another to glory on my back.”
In 1953, she was commissioned to make the bridal gown and ten pink silk faille bridesmaid dresses for the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. It took eight weeks and fifty feet of ivory silk taffeta to make the dress. Ten days before the wedding the studio was flooded when a water line broke. Lowe bought new material and hired extra assistants. They made new wedding dress, ten bridesmaid dresses, and a dress for the mother of the bride in eight days. She lost $2,200.00 instead of making a $700.00 profit. Her name was mentioned only once, in The Washington Post, where Nina Hyde wrote, ‘The dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.’
Lowe was slowly recognized for her work in the ensuing decade. Her name finally appeared in the credits of Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and Vogue. In 1960, she appeared in a Saks Fifth Avenue advertisement, and Anne Lowe Originals opened in their Manhattan shop. She was listed in the 1968 Who’s Who of American Women.
Her dresses are preserved in the permanent archives of the Smithsonian, the Black Fashion Museum, and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite this, Powell told WDDE Delaware, “very little has been known about her.”
Ann Lowe died in Queens, New York in 1981 at the age of 83. She had witnessed almost the entire twentieth century.
Pursuing hidden history in Delaware Margaret Powell discusses Anne Lowe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGdkbHrEXl4