Anne Cole Lowe: The Story Of The First Prominent African American Fashion Designer

Whimsical white silk taffeta layered with rich silk organza over and adorned with stemmed roses. Wedding gowns overflowing with immense creativity and romantic possibilities perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the late 1920s. Anne Cole Lowe’s sumptuous wedding gowns left their mark on high society women. The glitz and glamour of Lowe’s curated luxury collections helped her claim her rightful place as the first well-known African American fashion designer. But the road to success was far from easy.

Anne Cole Lowe’s early life 

In a despicable era when people of color were treated as property, Lowe’s great-granddaughter, a talented dressmaker, became pregnant by the white plantation owner. When  Georgia Tompkins, Lowe’s grandmother, was born, she was granted her freedom after a man,  General Cole, purchased her. Both Georgia’s mother, Janey Lowe, and Georgia were skilled seamstresses and young  Anne Cole Lowe learned to sew from a really young age.

By that time Georgia and Janey Lowe have been crafting gorgeous gowns for Southern society women. Janey Lowe sadly passed away in 1914 when Lowe was only sixteen. At this time, the mother was commissioned by the First Lady of Alabama, Elizbeth Kirkman O’Neal, to make four ball gowns which   Anne Cole Lowe finished by herself after her mother’s passing.

Finding success in New York

By 1912, Lowe had a child at the age of 14 with her husband. Even though he wanted her to give up her career as a seamstress, Lowe left him to pursue her dreams after she was hired to design a wedding dress for a wealthy woman in Florida.

In 1917, Lowe and her son moved to the busy city of New York and enrolled herself in St. Taylor Design School. The school did not know that he had admitted a Black student until she arrived. After persistent efforts to make her leave the campus. Lowe managed to stay and took all her classes in a separate room, all by herself, and in 1919, she moved to Tampa, Florida to create her curated luxury lines that will forever stay in history.

Anne Cole Lowe opens her first dress shop

In 1920, Lowe open her own dress salon called  “Annie Cohen.” and by 1928, she returned to New York City with $20,000. She quickly started to work on commissions with prominent brands such as  Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel, Chez Sonia.

Anne Cole Lowe’s extraordinary talent and dressmaking skills were evident. And soon enough, she was working on numerous big projects. In 1946, the fashion designer made a dress for actress Olivia de Havilland to receive her “ Best Actress” award from the Academy Award.

Anne Cole Lowe’s elite clientele 

In 1947, New York World, an African American newspaper, sent Lowe to Paris to cover the first haute couture fashion week. At a point in time, Dior took a closer look at Ann Cole Lowe’s work and, astonished by the quality,  he had to know: “Who made this gown?”

In reality, Ann Lowe’s curated luxury gowns were inspired by her early years. The whimsical flowers that were present in her dresses were a vivid reminder of her childhood which Lowe spent folding her mother’s seamstressing scraps into roses. Just like her mother, Lowe became a skilled embroiderer. 

In 1950,  her second salon, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, in New York City was open. From there on, Lowe designed dresses from the county’s elites including Rockefellers, the Lodges, the DuPonts, the Posts, and the Biddles.

Anne Cole Lowe’s iconic wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier 

 In 1953, she was commissioned to create a gorgeous wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier for her wedding to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. As she described it it was “silk taffeta,  embellished with interwoven bands of tucking, finished with a portrait neckline and a bouffant skirt.”  Sources say that for Jackie’s dress, Lowe charged about $500, approximately $5,000 today. The dress was loved by everyone and quickly became a symbol of Lowe’s impeccable skills.

The last years of Lowe’s career

After almost 40 years of success in the glamorous city of New York, with dozens of affluent clients,  she lost the salon in New York City. However, IRS called Lowe a while after to say an “anonymous friend” had paid off the debt. Rumor has it that Jackie Kennedy was the anonymous donor who helped save Lowe from dept.  In 1968, at the age of 70, Lowe opened a new store called Ann Lowe Originals. The fashion designer retired two years after that. 

Ann Lowe died on February 25, 1981, but her legacy as the first well-known African American fashion designer will forever follow her name. 

 Anne Cole Lowe’s legacy will forever stay alive

In the early 2000s, The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum celebrated  Camelot’s 50th wedding anniversary with an exhibit, and Jackie’s dress was also present. Ann Lowe’s work received wide attention once again 20 years after her death. Now,  Lowe’s dresses are exhibited in the  Met’s Costume Institute and at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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