America's forgotten fashion designer.
For months I researched a little known African American designer. She designed for many but was known only to that circle. She was, in her own words, a "design snob." But she was, oh, so much more. Here's my story of the research that allowed me into her social circle.
I met her in an airport last fall. I was in the airport, she wasn't. She died decades ago, but as I was 'surfing the net' I came upon two sentences about her. A 'did you know' kind of post. I was blown away, for no, I didn't know and I thought the circumstances were such that I should.
Born in 1898, the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner, the granddaughter of a slave and a free man of color, she entered the world in a small, rural Alabama town. Through talent, determination, and a desire to reach a goal, she refused to let the circumstances of her birth keep her down. She didn't preach; she didn't march, she didn't give up. She allowed a dream to be born in her heart and in her own personal way, she overcame all obstacles and achieved her dream.
When I began my research, I was writing an historical fiction. Soon it became clear to me that her story, her true, unvarnished story had to be told. It was, at that point told only in bits and pieces and often with the bits inaccurate and the pieces changing with each retelling. I began my research to clarify things for myself and found myself getting to know a strong woman from a family of strong women. I decided that I could not do her justice in fiction. I could not get in her head and speak in her voice. I wanted her to speak for herself. And so she does.
Here's the blurb from the book cover:
"For any designer, designing the wedding dress to be worn by Jacqueline Bouvier, future First Lady of the United States, for her marriage to John F. Kennedy would be a lifetime achievement. For Ann Lowe, it became a statement. The iconic gown would become the most photographed wedding gown in American history proving that (in Ann’s own words), “a Negro can become a major dress designer.”
Years earlier, as the sun rose on the morning of Ann’s birth, no one in the small town of Clayton, Alabama could have dreamed of the heights she would achieve for she was born a squirming, scrawny, little black girl in the Jim Crow South, but from an early age she recognized her dreams.
Her path would not be easy, and any success she might have was certain to be achieved only with steadfast effort and fortitude on her part. Armed with a great inner strength and natural talent, she rose above all obstacles and forged her own future.
When she designed and produced Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, very few knew her name. No one but her staff knew of the disaster that preceded the delivery of that now-historic wedding dress to the home of the bride. Even fewer knew that she was the granddaughter of a former slave.
Even today, few know her story."
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in her Ann Lowe wedding gown. Ann was mentioned as the designer in only one publication that day even though the story and many photos appeared around the world.
Ann was descended from a long line of seamstresses and designers. Her great-grandmother was a slave and her great-grandfather the plantation owner. When a baby girl was born of them, that baby girl became a seamstress and, by law, a slave. She was purchased in her teens by a free man of color and from them came the line that today can claim Ann as their own.
She designed for a first Lady of Alabama, for Gasparilla patrons of Tampa, for an Oscar winner and for the socially elite of America. In the 1960's she appeared on the afternoon talk show, The Mike Douglas Show. Mike asked her what drove her to work so tirelessly. She remarked that she "wanted to prove that a Negro could be a major dress designer." From this statement I found the title for my book, Something to Prove, A Biography of Ann Lowe, America's forgotten designer.
The biography is now complete. Along the way I have learned to marvel at what she overcame, and at the people she met. This woman who under normal circumstance might not be welcomed in their homes, became a darling to the Duponts, Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Lodges, Posts, Auchinclosses, the Bouviers,..well you get my drift.
As I researched her life, I found beautiful gowns, and their owners. I have been in touch with some fascinating people. A concert pianist now living in Belgium, an academic in Ohio, a lovely socialite who invited me to her home, the daughter of a novelist whose works became the story for several John Wayne movies, including the unforgettable, Shane, and a lady who has the distinctive sound of my mother-in-law on the phone.
I've tramped through graveyards, seen homes falling down, visited with ladies who still speak of the members of her family with their family nicknames as if they are just around the corner, and driven through beautiful rolling hills only to find an improvised town at the end of the road.
Now, I think, I can write an historical fiction, not with her as the main character, but with her as the inspiration for a historical era, but first I must help her tell her story. Through almost 60 photos and dozens of interviews, I hope I have done that.
I had fun with this research, even when I was pulling my hair out trying to find the beautiful brides, debutantes, and socialites from the 1950's and 60's. That's the beauty of research, you never know where the path will take you or who you will meet along the way. I love it.
Olivia de Havilland the night she won an Oscar wearing this Ann Lowe creation. Flowers all hand stitched.