Jacqueline Bouvier glided down the aisle; en route to marry soon-to-be-president John F.
Kennedy. Rivaling the company at the event, the location it took place, the man she was
marrying, and the person Jacqueline Bouvier, later, Kennedy, was, was her dress. Jackie
Kennedy’s wedding dress was a timepiece; elegantly current and immaculately designed.
Photographed and remembered, this dress is a quick memory that comes to mind when Jackie
Kennedy is mentioned. But many do not know where, rather, whom, the dress came from.
Black seamstress Ann Lowe famously designed Kennedy’s iconic wedding dress, and was
notable in many more ways than that.
Ann Lowe was instrumental in opening the door for seamstresses and designers of all races.
She was born with a knack for design and sewing in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898; her
grandmother made clothes for her plantation mistress before while she was enslaved before
being freed 1860, and her mother, Jane Lowe, specialized in embroidery. Ann Lowe excelled in
creating floral adornments on clothing, an evident influence from both her grandmother and her
mother. The three generations of Lowe women started a dress company in Montgomery,
Alabama, but when her mother suddenly passed away in 1914, Lowe took over all of the
commissions at the tender age of 16, including one for the First Lady of Alabama; perhaps
solidifying her place in designing for women of social standing and class.
Despite hardship, Lowe’s talent made her renowned, and she was accepted to New York's S.T.
Taylor Design School, which was segregated. Lowe was forced to work in her own space, but
was made a spectacle due to her immense talent and creativity; it was rare to see a Black
woman in such a scholastic setting, but Lowe was determined. Following her formal education
to supplement her insane natural talent, she graduated and opened her own shop by the name
of Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem, a city with a rich history of art and cultural and racial
revolution. Catering to Manhattan’s elite, her inexpensive prices for her work had buyers
flocking to obtain a piece from the Big Apple’s “best kept-secret.”
But Lowe was not interested in selling to just anyone: social climbers or fakes were not who she
wanted in her pieces; she wanted the best of the best; she wanted and had families of the
Social Register. In accordance with this list, Janet Lee Bouvier commissioned Lowe to create
Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, as well as all of the bridal party dresses. Despite Bouvier,
Lowe and Kennedy having their own opinions on what Kennedy should have worn for the
wedding, ultimately, Joe Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s father had the final say of the design.
Lowe and her team worked diligently for months on the pieces for the Kennedy wedding, and
even just ten days before the wedding, when her studio flooded due to water damage, instead
of perhaps giving up and throwing in the towel, Ann and her team purchased an even better
fabric than originally used, sewed all hours of the day, and finished the dresses in time for the
Kennedys’ special day. In the end, Lowe made only a $700 profit after using $2,000 to
purchase the new fabric. Lowe’s dedication to her clientele and place in society’s events far
surpassed her income goal.
Like many other Black designers of yesteryear, Lowe was and is largely unheard of. But, when
a society wedding such as the Kennedy’s happens, it is written up in every single paper and
post. When asked who designed her dress, however, Jackie Kennedy is cited to have said,
more kindly at one point, “a colored seamstress designed it.”
Upset, years later, Lowe called the Kennedy’s, specifically, Jackie. Her secretary said that
Kennedy did not know that Lowe would be referred to in such an archaic, belittling way, and
while the White House sought retraction, the publication was never resolved. Still, Lowe held no
grudge against the Kennedy family, which is quite amicable. Lowe and Kennedy continued a
respectful work relationship through the years, through the good and the bad.
Lowe passed away at the age of 82, and with it almost went her legacy and her achievements.
The insanity that many have forgotten the seamstress to the elite; the one who created one of
the most notable first lady’s dresses; in addition to being a pioneer for Black women and women
of color in fashion and design. In addition to almost being forgotten, Lowe and her legacy
represents how Black designers then, and even now were and are treated; as lesser and almost
unworth of recognition. Ann Lowe’s legacy should be learned and known so that we may know
one of the great predecessors of Black women in design and fashion. Emily Goldberg