Ann Lowe was born into a family of skilled seamstresses in Montgomery, Alabama. Her grandmother was a formerly enslaved dressmaker, while her mother was an embroidery specialist.
When Lowe was sixteen years old, her mother died suddenly, and she took over the family dressmaking business. She completed a high-profile order from the governor’s wife, which established her as the new head of the business.
Lowe left her husband and moved to Florida with her son, where she worked as a live-in dressmaker for a socialite for a decade. In 1917, she traveled to New York City to attend sewing courses. However, as the only Black student, she was segregated from her peers and had to work in a separate room. She moved to New York City permanently in 1928.
Lowe’s success was attributed to her client network. Her unique gowns, often featuring floral motifs and made of fine fabric, were sought after by the wealthy American elite. She specialized in debutante gowns and wedding dresses. Lowe’s craftsmanship was of the highest quality, with techniques such as gathered tulle and canvas to hold out hems, lace seam bindings, hand-sewn organza facings, and weights to promote proper hang.
In 1950, Lowe opened her stand-alone business, “Ann Lowe’s Gowns” in New York City. Three years later, she was chosen to create the dresses for the entire bridal party of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy.
Ten days before the wedding, there was a flood in Lowe’s studio, destroying two months’ worth of work. However, Lowe was able to reconstruct the dresses with extra help, and despite absorbing the cost, she did not receive credit for her work at the time, as the press referred to her as “a colored dressmaker.”
Despite designing for an elite clientele, Lowe was paid less than white designers for her custom design work. After the death of her son and business partner in 1958, she struggled financially and ultimately declared bankruptcy in 1962.
Today, Ann Lowe is recognized as a pioneering African American couturier, and her pieces are preserved in renowned museum collections, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and The Museum at FIT.
She is no longer “society’s best-kept secret,” as the Saturday Evening Post once called her.