Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown made history when she married the young senator from Massachusetts. It became the most photographed wedding dress in America. The year was 1953–eight years before they’d move into the White House–but the press went gaga over the handsome couple (both from American royalty) and Jackie’s stunning gown, which more than suited the “high society” nuptials in Newport, R.I. Now here’s the real surprise. Jackie’s iconic wedding gown was designed by a black woman named Ann Lowe, a society couturier. Last week, on the last day of Black History Month, I tripped over that fact in a Dallas Morning News article about the Smithsonian’s newest museum. Flabbergasted, I set out to learn more.
When Ann Lowe was hired to make Jackie’s wedding gown (and her bridesmaids’ and her mother’s), the Alabama native, age 55, was working in New York City and already well established in her profession. The actress Olivia de Havilland wore one of Ann’s creations in 1947 when she accepted her Oscar for Best Actress, although the name on the dress label said Sonia Rosenberg–Ann’s boss at the time. Like the math wiz Katherine Johnson in the film Hidden Figures, only a tiny segment of the population knew about Ann Lowe’s talent. She dressed the society set, women with last names like Rockefeller, du Pont and Roosevelt. Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest women in the world and the original owner of Mar-a-Lago (President Trump’s weekend White House), was another enthusiastic customer. Yet Ann died almost broke and in relative obscurity at age 82.
Ann was born in 1898 in the deep South, so it’s a given that she endured prejudice. While that’s part of her story, the more extraordinary part is her drive and determination, her talent, and the obstacles she overcame. She was the great-granddaughter of a slave and a white plantation owner. After the Civil War, her grandmother and mother started a dress designing business, but her mother died suddenly when Ann was 16, and Ann took over. The First Lady of Alabama–the governor’s wife–had placed an order for four dresses, and Ann delivered. A few years later, she was a respected designer in Florida, having been enticed by the wife of a Tampa business tycoon to move there and make custom dresses for her and her daughters. Ann jumped on a train with her baby son, but left her new husband behind. “It was a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed of,” she told The Saturday Evening Post in 1964. She’d later marry again and divorce–both husbands disapproved of her ambition.
Design school in New York City was another dream of Ann’s, and she made it happen with the blessing of her Tampa benefactor. She was only nineteen. When she got there, however, she was assigned to a separate classroom because the white students didn’t want to sit with her. She graduated early and returned to a successful business in Tampa, where she dressed the city’s wealthiest women. Ten years later she took her savings and moved to New York for good. She worked as an in-house dress designer for Saks Fifth Avenue and specialty shops like Hattie Carnegie. Word of her talent quickly spread. Famous designers like Christian Dior were equally impressed with her design skills. Ann opened her own shop, but disaster struck.
Ten days before the Kennedy wedding, a water pipe burst and destroyed 10 gowns–Jackie’s and the bridesmaids. It had taken two months to make Jackie’s gown, but Ann regrouped, re-ordered the fabrics and worked around the clock with her small staff. She delivered the dresses on-time and in person to Hammersmith Farm in Rhode Island. On her arrival, the security staff directed her to the back entrance, but she refused and made it through the front door. At the time of the wedding, the only press mention of Ann’s role was by the fashion editor of The Washington Post, who wrote, “The dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.” She didn’t even profit from the job–due to the burst pipe, she incurred a loss of over two thousand dollars. A decade later Ann owed her suppliers $10,000. Her friends in the business helped cover her debts, but the IRS shut her down for non-payment of back taxes totaling $12,800. An anonymous donor paid her tax bill. Ann later said, in interviews with The Saturday Evening Post and Ebony magazine, that she believed it was Jackie, with whom she had remained close.
“I wanted to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer,” she said in 1965, during an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show. Towards that end, she set out to work for the best families. “I’ve been as careful about the people I work for as any social climber,” she told The Saturday Evening Post the year before. “I don’t do many dresses, so I have to be selective.”
Throughout her New York career, Ann lived in a modest Harlem apartment and focused on her work. All the dresses she made were one-of-a-kind. She earned a “Couturier of the Year” plaque in 1961. “I feel so happy when I am making clothes,” she said in an Oakland Tribune interview in 1966. “I could just jump and down with joy.” Managing her business finances was never her strong suit. She relied on her son Arthur for that, but he died in 1958 in a car accident. As her business began to hemorrhage money, she lost one eye to glaucoma and almost lost the other one, too. “I’ve had to work by feel,” she said in 1964 to the Saturday Evening Post. “But people tell me I’ve done better feeling than others do seeing.” In 1968, she opened her final shop, Ann Lowe Originals on a tony patch of Madison Avenue, but it closed before too long and Ann retired with very little money.
Jackie’s wedding gown is part of the permanent collection of the JFK Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, but it hasn’t been displayed since 2003. The weight of the fabric makes it at risk of tearing. The Marshall Fields Department Store in Chicago commissioned a paper replica of the dress to donate to the museum, where it was displayed in 2013–the 60th anniversary of the wedding. The museum has said that exhibits of Jackie’s dress always draw the largest crowds. When Ann died in 1981, The New York Times ran an obituary on her. “Seventeen years ago, at the height of her career, she was said to be almost penniless.” And yet, the newspaper noted, five of her designs were in the costume institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now Ann is getting some long overdue, big-time exposure. The National Museum of African American History & Culture opened last fall and includes a special exhibit on Ann Lowe. She’s no longer “society’s best kept secret,” the words used to describe Ann during the height of her career. There’s even a children’s picture book, Fancy Party Gowns by award-winning journalist Deborah Blumenthal, that was published in January.
If you watched the Academy Awards ceremony last month, you saw the real Katherine Johnson honored on stage for her work with the NASA space program. She’s 98 now, but still looks pretty great–and happy. I’m sure Ann would be pretty happy that her spot in the new museum proves she was “a major dress designer.” Her life story and her work should inspire young talent of all races for years to come. Too bad Ann isn’t alive to see it.