Over sixty years ago, on September 12, 1953, Jackie Bouvier walked down the aisle at Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church to marry the future president of the United States, then-junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. For the occasion, the bride picked an ivory silk-taffeta gown with a portrait neckline and full bouffant skirt—a dress that would take its place as one of the iconic wedding dresses throughout history. But while famous wedding dresses in the years that followed were identified perhaps not just by who wore them, but by who designed them, the tailor who created Kennedy’s gown, Ann Lowe, remained relatively anonymous in the contemporary lore surrounding Kennedy, because she was a Black woman.
Lowe was one of the most sought after couturiers of the era, but in spite of the fact that she worked for many America’s great family dynasties (think: the DuPonts, the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, and the Kennedys as well), she faced near-constant racial discrimination. Her place in sartorial history carved the way for independent designers of all races and creeds, but it’s only in the last few years that the designer has at last been getting her due.
Born to a lineage of seamstresses in Alabama, Lowe made her name at New York’s S.T. Taylor Design School and, following graduation, opened her own shop, Ann Lowe Gowns, catering to Manhattan’s social elite. Lowe once told Ebony about her particularities concerning who she designed for, saying “I am not interested in sewing for… social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.” This is how Lowe came to be acquainted with Janet Lee Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy’s mother.
Lowe’s biographer Julia Faye Smith explained to Elle that she had previously designed dresses and gowns for Jackie and other members of the Auchincloss and Bouvier families, so she knew their taste well. “When it came time for the wedding, her mother had definite ideas about the type of gown she wanted her daughter to have. Large, elegant fabric, a fairy tale dress. There are questions about what Jackie really wanted and if she liked the final product as much as the world did. Perhaps we’ll never know.”
It’s been reported that originally Jackie wanted to wear a simple, French-style gown to get married, thanks to a recent trip to Paris, but JFK’s father had final approval of the design. The end result, after conferring with the bride, was a gown made of 50 yards of silk taffeta… and it did not go over without a snag.
Ten days before the wedding, a water line that broke and destroyed not just the wedding gown, but the bridesmaids dresses too. What then ensued was an all-hands on deck mission to recreate everything with new fabric, working day and night to recreate Lowe’s designs in time for the historic nuptials. Not only did the designer suffer a monetary loss from the experience, she also reportedly never told the bride or her mother about the mishap.
Following the wedding, Lowe did not get the credit she deserved, despite the clamor for who designed the gown. Reportedly, when Kennedy was asked who made her wedding gown, she originally responded, “a colored dressmaker did it.” Lowe remained relatively obscured from name recognition from that point, regardless of her ongoing working relationship with the First Lady.
Lowe came back into the forefront of the conversation in 2019 when marketing student Keshaun Connor tweeted a thread about the designer’s life after visiting her exhibit at the Smithsonian, which now was over 13 thousand retweets and over 31k likes.
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One tidbit revealed in the thread: Lowe also designed icon Olivia de Havilland’s gown from the 1947 Oscars.
Since the thread’s publishing a few years ago, Lowe has received more recognition for her capabilities and accomplishments, as well as her perseverance in the face of adversity.
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