Society's Stylish Secret
August 29, 2019 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Ann Lowe was one of the most sought-after midcentury American designers, but since she was black, her name was virtually unknown to the general American public. Born in 1898 to a family of dressmakers (her grandmother made clothes for her plantation mistress as a slave), she began completing commissions when she was only 16. She went on to create dresses for some of the most elite members of New York society, though she did not receive credit for many of her most famous pieces (The wedding dress and attendant’s dresses for Jackie Bouvier’s wedding to John F. Kennedy; Olivia de Havilland’s 1946 Oscar dress). Her dresses can now be found in collections at the Met (2,3,4) and The National Museum of African American History and Culture, among other museums.

Hat tip to this twitter thread that got me to dig up sources.
posted by dinty_moore (20 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Damn, fuck Jackie Kennedy. "A colored dressmaker". Really Jackie, you were so racist you couldn't even bring yourself to say her name?
posted by sotonohito at 12:04 PM on August 29 [12 favorites]


The thing that gets me about this is that all of these people underpaid her and refused to give her credit. They were the richest people in America, they could afford to pay for a dress.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:14 PM on August 29 [18 favorites]


Ann Lowe's craftsmanship is exquisite. That Duxbury debutante ball gown is amazing.
posted by crush at 12:14 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Thanks, OP! Really enjoying learning about Ann Lowe.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:15 PM on August 29 [5 favorites]


Wow, what a life! What a body of work!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:21 PM on August 29


This post is fascinating. First the pretty dresses and then the utter bullshit:

She studied alone in a separate classroom because white students did not want to attend class with a “Negro.” Ironically, her designs were often upheld as examples in the same classes she was forbidden to attend, and she successfully completed her two-year design program in half the time.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:36 PM on August 29 [9 favorites]


The thing that gets me about this is that all of these people underpaid her and refused to give her credit. They were the richest people in America, they could afford to pay for a dress.

How do you think rich people get richer?
posted by jacquilynne at 12:37 PM on August 29 [5 favorites]


Damn, fuck Jackie Kennedy. "A colored dressmaker". Really Jackie, you were so racist you couldn't even bring yourself to say her name?

Pretty illuminating toward whom Jackie chose to be gracious and whom she did not consider worth any respect at all.

(Judge not by how a person behaves in public but how they treat people when nobody is looking.)
posted by sobell at 1:06 PM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Despite the international acclaim, Jackie wasn't fond of the dress. It wasn't even the type of design she wanted. Like most of her wedding, it was chosen by the Kennedy family without her input.

I thought this was a really interesting detail in the twitter thread. Fucked up hierarchical systems that have everybody kicking the person below them because they got kicked. It's just getting kicked all the way down. Also was interested that Low didn't have the support in running her business that any talented white person with the right connections gets from each other.
posted by bleep at 1:08 PM on August 29 [12 favorites]


(And obviously of course yes, the racism , I didn't mean to leave that out or downplay its extreme importance)
posted by bleep at 1:27 PM on August 29 [4 favorites]


How do you think rich people get richer?

Yeah, I know - but also there's this massive social pressure to not pay more than you absolutely need to, and the period's racism means that all of these people - Rockefellers and Kennedys and Hollywood stars - knew that they could get away with paying her dirt and she wouldn't say shit. I dislike the way that a lot of these links portray Ann Lowe as being too meek or just not business savvy enough to sell her dresses at the right price, when they've got to know that Ann was aware that she had not only have the most beautiful dresses, but the cheapest too - otherwise these women wouldn't even bother whispering her name among each other.

Not to mention - we don't know if the suppliers charged her more because she was black or how much a social network helps when you're trying to figure out what you can charge.

Americans (and others!) have a longtime tradition of not paying people what they're worth and calling it virtue. It's just that this case is so stark.
posted by dinty_moore at 1:55 PM on August 29 [17 favorites]


And, of course, she really had no choice except to eat the costs and burden her workers to replace the ruined dresses. Can you imagine the Kennedys paying to replace the ruined goods? I can't. They would, more likely, have seen to it she lost customers over it. Remember, they already rejected her once because she was too costly. But it gets spun as a favor or pride in her work, not the knowledge of how much was stacked against her, not the fear of the casual cruelty of rich, white Americans with political power.

It would be so wonderful to read her unvarnished words about the work. Given the detail and craft in those dresses, I'm sure she probably would have loved to sew every stitch on every piece herself, but otherwise, I wonder about the masks she wearing in interviews.

At any rate, I don't really want to go back to DC, but I'm planning to, just to see her collection in the National Museum.
posted by crush at 3:31 PM on August 29 [4 favorites]


The part about Jackie Kennedy calling her a "coloured dressmaker" appears to be conflated with an article/interview on Jackie Kennedy, which I found via this article by Hidden Fashion History.
posted by toastyk at 4:17 PM on August 29 [7 favorites]


Toastyk - good catch. You'd expect better fact-checking from a major newspaper like the Washington Post. But there's exciting news from the author of the post of you linked to:
Early 2021 will be a busy time for me. [My] book about Ann Lowe, her biography, Sophisticated Lady will be released by Simon and Schuster.
On the same page linked to above, Margaret Powell has a lot of great links to pictures of other Ann Lowe gowns. I'm really looking forward to seeing her book when it comes out.
posted by Transl3y at 6:23 PM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately Transl3y, Ms. Powell passed earlier this year before she was able to finish the book.
posted by toastyk at 6:58 PM on August 29


Thanks for the link, Toastyk. They have an entry explaining some of Ann Lowe's financial issues in the early 60's (including glaucoma, oof).
posted by dinty_moore at 7:08 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


For clarity, toastyk’s link goes to a carefully-researched post establishing that the “colored dressmaker” line was not said by Jackie Kennedy. Instead it was written by the author of an article about Jackie Kennedy — that author’s own words, not attributed to Jackie Kennedy in that article — and then later, it got misreported as a quote from Jackie Kennedy. (It’s entirely likely that my reading comprehension is failing me, but I didn’t quite pick up on that from toastyk’s post, so I thought I would spell it out explicitly for anyone else who didn’t quite pick up on it. Go read the link, though — it’s detailed and interesting, and toastyk rules for posting it.)
posted by snowmentality at 7:42 PM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Although Anne Lowe did write to Kennedy and ask how she could have approved language like that, knowing that she approves everything said about her. Which, I wouldn't be surprised if she did approve it.
posted by bleep at 8:44 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Toastyk - how tragic! A double loss.
posted by Transl3y at 9:56 PM on August 29


Thank you for the point of clarification, Toastyk, and the further addendum, Bleep.
posted by sobell at 11:14 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


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