Honoring Ann Lowe: The Talented Black Designer Behind Jackie Kennedy's Iconic Wedding Dress

Once labeled society's "best-kept secret," we argue that Lowe and her talents shouldn't have been a secret at all.

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Perhaps what is even more anticipated than an actual celebrity wedding dress is the fashion designer bestowed the honor to create it. Celebrity brides have become synonymous with their bridal counterparts—Meghan Markle in Givenchy, Kate Middleton in Alexander McQueen. Yet, there's one dressmaker who hasn't received nearly enough credit for her work: Ann Lowe, the designer who made Jackie Kennedy's bridal gown in 1953.

While Kennedy's ivory portrait-neckline dress quickly skyrocketed into bridal fame, Lowe received no recognition. In fact, when reporters later asked Kennedy who designed her gown she reportedly answered with "a colored dressmaker did it."

But once labeled society's "best-kept secret," we argue that Lowe and her talents shouldn't have been a secret at all. In the decades since she has become more of a prominent name in the fashion industry, yet her fame is long overdue. A trailblazer in the fashion industry, she faced racial discrimination throughout her career, and if her creations go down in history, her name, her work and her legacy shall too.

Here, we remember Lowe's career and influence because a couturier of her caliber should never go unnoticed.

A Seamstress From the Start

Turns out, fashion and dressmaking were in Lowe's blood since birth. Born in 1898, both her mother and grandmother were accomplished seamstresses in Alabama and after her mother passed away in 1914, Lowe—at 16 years old—took her place, per the National Museum of American History. One of her first commissions was for the First Lady of Alabama. She even left her first husband to pursue her dressmaking dreams.

Three years later, a young Lowe enrolled in New York's S.T. Taylor Design School. Racial segregation practices separated her from other students, forcing her to study and work in her own space. Yet, her creations were constantly shown to the class and used an example in expert craftsmanship. After receiving her diploma, Lowe began designing and creating customs gowns for a high-class clientele.

I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them.

In 1966, she would later tell Ebony, "I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register."

Her Most Famous Creation

While Lowe designed for elite families such as the du Ponts, the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers, her most famous client was Jacqueline Kennedy, née Bouvier. Their relationship began when Jackie's sister, Lee Bouvier, was in the market for a wedding gown. Lee originally hired Lowe to create her dress but later canceled the order when another designer, Pauline Trigère, claimed she would cost less. In the end, Trigère's creation cost the family more, making Lowe the obvious choice when it came time for Jackie to walk down the aisle.

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Lowe was tasked with designing both the wedding dress and bridesmaids' dresses for the Kennedy wedding. The final product put her talents on full display: an ivory tissue-silk dress, with a portrait neckline and bouffant skirt with wax flowers paired with an heirloom rose-point lace veil. Books like What Jackie Taught Us claim the future first lady wanted a simpler, sleeker gown but Julia Faye Smith, author of Ann Lowe's biography Something to Prove, told ELLE, "Ann did like to please her clients though, and I know she would have wanted the bride to be happy with her gown. Ann reported conferring with the bride on the design and colors for others in the wedding party, so Jackie probably had some say in the design of her own gown."

But in perhaps what is an even greater display of her skills, Lowe had to recreate the bridal gown and pink taffeta bridesmaids' dresses just a week before the nuptials due to a pipe burst in her New York showroom that destroyed eight weeks of work (ten gowns, to be exact). The seamstress and her team worked tirelessly to remake each gown—the bridal gown was recreated in just five days—all without telling the bride. The unfortunate accident turned Lowe's expected $700 profit to a $2,200 loss, another fact she kept to herself.

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On September 12, 1953, Lowe arrived in Newport, Rhode Island to hand-deliver the gowns to the bridal party. And when staff at the front door told her to enter through the back, she firmly replied, "I'll take the dresses back [to New York]" if she had to go through the back door and marched through the front door instead.

An Esteemed, Yet Nameless Career

As millions of Americans admired the pomp and circumstance of the Kennedy wedding, Lowe's name was left out of the narrative. But that was not the first time Lowe went without credit, and unfortunately wasn't the last, either. She created Olivia de Havilland's 1947 Oscar gown (the actress ended up winning Best Actress that year), yet, Lowe's name was not on the label.

Sewing was her lifeblood. It was her gift, but also her being. She just wanted to sew. She just wanted to make beautiful dresses that gave her clients joy.

In fact, she never became a household name like Dior or Chanel, and it almost feels like the social elite of the day wanted to keep it that way. "Everything is so perfect—and she didn't charge enough for the cost of the fabrics or the handwork that went into them," explained Nancy Davis, a curator at the National Museum of History. "Sewing was her lifeblood. It was her gift, but also her being. She just wanted to sew. She just wanted to make beautiful dresses that gave her clients joy." Later, when she declared bankruptcy in 1962, many believed that Kennedy was the anonymous benefactor who paid Lowe's debt to the IRS.

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Over the course of her career, Lowe designed for retailers like Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel and opened three salons in Florida and New York, named "Annie Cohen," "Ann Lowe's Gowns" and "Ann Lowe's Originals," respectively.

Lowe's Legacy

Take one look at a Lowe gown and it is clear that her skill with a needle and her eye for detail was unmatched. "The quality of this dress? Unbelievable," said Davis of a 1967 debutante gown by Lowe. "All the seams are lined with lace. There's an amazingly complex interior structure that the dress is built around—the slip and bra are built in. According to [the client], the fit is absolutely glorious—it's like your skin. The slip has tulle along the hem, which gives it shape. This kind of really detailed, really high-end work is very time-intensive."

The talented designer passed away in 1981 but we remember her as more than just the woman who designed Kennedy's wedding dress. She was the first Black woman to become a distinguished fashion designer, subsequently paving the way for the talented men and women who came after her.

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