I’m spending a lot of time in 1929 today. March 3rd to be exact. Ann Lowe moved to New York (from Florida) around that time, and taking a look at the New York Times from that period is helping to set the scene a bit. Ann lived in Harlem and operated her business from a small manhattan workroom. Of course her business was not large enough to place ads in the Times, but her work was competing with the stores that were advertising dresses—especially the ones advertising Paris copies:
A little while ago, I blogged about archive.org. The New York Times is a fantastic supplement to that website. You can start with a search, and pick a date range— but once you select an article, you actually have the chance to switch views and see a full pdf of the paper as it originally appeared. You can turn all of the pages, zoom in to get a closer look. A great way to use archival news sources to get a feel for the everyday. And such a great way to find out more about the women’s clothing businesses that were advertising to an affluent audience. Google was creating an amazing newspaper archive around 5 years ago, an international newspaper archive with a search function that was OUTSTANDING for any researcher—but then they stopped developing it, and it slowly faded away.
It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Ebay when you have the collector’s itch. I wasn’t REALLY looking for a second civil war era carpet document bag—but there it was. Starting bid? A penny! I looked at the pictures carefully, got a bit excited about the original clasp and the shreds of original lining (I’ve worked up close with four other bags in this style, so I’m getting to know the original details). I got very excited about the bright colors and from the picture, the bag looked clean—THAT’S ALSO VERY IMPORTANT if you are an at home, “collecting for the fun of it” collector.
Is the overall condition important to you? It’s important to me because I don’t have much of a desire (or really much of an ability) to deal with muddy, shredded, bug-eaten fragments of anything—this type of bag is common enough, there really isn’t a reason to spend money on a wrecked example. Even a penny.
I’m still learning with Ebay, which is a funny thing to say when I realize that I’ve made purchases since the first year it started. But I mean that I’m still learning my own best ways of bidding and buying at Ebay. With this bag, I already had a fun example that makes me happy, so this wasn’t a must have. It was a would be nice to have. I thought about the amount of my top bid, and I bid that and stepped away. The end price was half of my top bid and actually less than 50 dollars, if you can believe that! And for that tiny price, I got a colorful example, full of my favorite 19th century Turkey Red worsted wool yarn and an interesting geometric pattern.
This was even more pretty in person than I was expecting, and the seller packed it perfectly–which can also be a challenge on Ebay. Only a handful of sellers mention their packing methods in their listings. A few months ago, an expensive and sort of rare 80 year old doll dress arrived packed in a Frosted Mini Wheats box…a FROSTED MINI WHEATS BOX! I saw it in the driveway (a windy day and I think it blew away from the porch) and I was about to put it in the recycling bin, when I noticed a shipping label on it. The Frosted Mini Wheats shipping cost 6 dollars—the perfect carpet bag shipping was free. So you never know what you might get on Ebay, and you do have to be careful shopping there–if I’d checked out the feedback of the Frosted Mini Wheats lady a bit closer, her clever box recycling efforts would not have been a surprise.
I couldn’t be happier with this bag. One question that comes up for me, after seeing so many of these bags in person: The dimensions, construction and hardware are identical. Are these from the same manufacturer? That’s the sort of quirky “I’m going to find that out someday” question that keeps historians going, I think.
Ann Lowe operated her business from the Adam Room salon in Saks Fifth Avenue for just a couple of years. She moved her business from her own Madison Avenue salon to a showroom and workspace in the flagship Saks location and continued her work as a couture designer of wedding and debutante gowns. Her dedicated client base followed her to Saks.
This is an important part of Lowe’s career and the Saks archivist was wonderful with me as we tried to find some information about the Adam Room, but in 2011, Saks didn’t have any public information about the custom salons they operated in 1960. They are a business (and a global one nowadays that has probably changed ownership hands at least a few times), not a museum. I don’t think that any primary source information about Ann Lowe’s work for Saks Fifth Avenue had ever been collected by the store.
And then a newspaper archive search brought up a tiny blip about an Ann Lowe coronation gown for the Queen of Ak-Sar-Ben. The what?
This happened on a Sunday afternoon and I was working on a computer in my grad program’s library (under the Smithsonian castle, which can be a wonderfully spooky place to work all by yourself on a weekend afternoon during the summer) It was the last digging I was going to do that day—it was way past lunch time, I was out of change for the vending machine and I was frustrated by that weekend’s research dry spell.
My thesis was experiencing a “Primary Source Crunch” because through a frustrating set of coincidences, the two largest collections of Ann Lowe dresses (at the Metropolitan and the Smithsonian) were both unavailable to researchers. The Met was renovating their Costume Institute–and wouldn’t be able to show collection pieces to researchers during that period, and the Smithsonian was in the middle of preparing their collections for their newest museum. Between both collections, that meant that at least 15 museum example of Ann Lowe’s work were off the table and completely unavailable.
The Kennedy wedding gown (at the JFK Library in Massachusetts) was off limits as well–as you can imagine, a graduate student would have a tough time getting access to one of Jackie Kennedy’s dresses!
I was trying to write a thesis about a fashion designer who died in 1981, and I only had a handful of her dresses to study in person. I was 8 months away from graduation and I just did not have enough material to work with. My primary source crunch was making me grumpy.
So I took a minute and tried a different database. One of the “search for your roots” kind of websites that lets you search free, but then offers a membership to access the information.
The search brought up enough of a snippet to confirm that yes, Ann Lowe made a dress for someone in Omaha, Nebraska in 1961. I was intrigued. This is the picture that was thumbnailed next to my search snippet.
And when I signed up to access the articles, I was in for a surprise: In 1961 Ann Lowe made 33 dresses for 33 young women in Omaha, Nebraska. Really?
Best results of a database membership I will probably ever have in my entire life.
The World-Herald had PAGES of coverage about these dresses. Detailed descriptions of every last sequin, tulle rose and bugle bead on all of the different styles. And even more importantly—the newspapers described every dress worn by every court member and listed their names. That’s exactly the kind of info that a decorative arts historian needs to track down some primary source information. And my thesis went from covering a handful of Ann Lowe dresses to suddenly covering more than 3 dozen!
Historian’s Note: Writing about an order of 33 amazing beaded tulle ball gowns won’t happen in a single blog post! The story of Ann Lowe’s Ak-Sar-Ben work will be covered in a few parts…but if you want to read ahead, you can check out an article I wrote in 2014 for Nebraska History Magazine.
I DREAM of finding Bonnie Cashin clothing at a used clothing store–priced by someone who does not know what they actually have. This has not happened yet. So, the next best thing is to take a peek into some Bonnie Cashin pieces at a museum in New York: The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Bonnie Cashin was one of the early (mid-century modern) designers of true, practical active wear for women. These are casual clothes that are bright and comfortable—it is hard to believe that women were just a few years away from stuffing themselves into rubbery girdles to fit Dior’s New Look inspired waistlines!
This dress –well, a blouse (1966) + skirt (1961)–is something that you could completely see on a runway right now. I’m actually surprised that Anthropologie hasn’t copied this tweed skirt (1961) yet.
And these bags look a little Kate Spade-ish (maybe you have to remove the fringe from that last one). Cashin designed these for her Coach line: Cashin Carry.
Are you familiar with Archive.org? The Internet Wayback Machine is a part of it, but there’s also so much more to find there. It is sort of like combining Google Books, the dusty stacks of your favorite old library and youtube– there’s a LOT of information on this website, and searching can get a bit overwhelming and noisy until you learn to narrow down your searches.
The site compiles scans of thousands of books (that are out of copyright and now public domain, I think?So mainly before the late 1920s) along with trade catalogs and magazines.
These are views of Charles Worth’s Paris Salon in the 1920s. Some of Ann Lowe’s clients would have visited these very rooms during their trips to France! Seeing this kind of primary source helps to set scenes:
How do I use these sources? I use this site on days when I’m hoping to find the kinds of articles and illustrations which would have inspired an early 20th century dressmaker (like Ann Lowe), but I’m stuck at home and I don’t have a library to wander through.
And I also use this site when I don’t feel like thinking very hard and I want to find some neat film clips. If I’m writing about 1970’s New York City and I need some real views of the streets and the people? Archive. org to the rescue!! This website is also home to the Prellinger Archive and that makes it such fun research for vintage news clips and other films that are too long to be for news shows—but too short to stand alone. I’m not sure where you would have been able to see this Harper’s Bazaar fashion update originally—but here we go. I’m cheating a bit here because this clip is being shared here through youtube, but I found it first on archive.org:
Advertisements are another truly entertaining part of this site…an early advertisement for an ELECTRIC sewing machine:
And what car demonstrated the height of technology and elegance in the 1920s London?
And how much was a dress length of silk in 1899, anyway? Ann Lowe’s mother would have looked in a dry goods catalog similar to this one:
When you don’t have a library to wander through, archive.org can be the next best thing.
If you need a few links to get you started down a fashion history rabbit hole or two:
Occupational hazard! This one is an iconic Charles James silk and rayon gown from 1953 called the “Clover Leaf” gown because of the flare of the skirt. As a museum professional, one of the most interesting details about this specific gown is the fact that it was donated in 1953. How interesting that the collections staff at the Met understood that one of their tasks at the Costume Institute would be to collect the finest modern examples of couture fashion!
This other example, the “Four Leaf Clover” was also donated (to the Brooklyn Museum) in 1953 by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. The Metropolitan absorbed the Brooklyn Museum’s collection in 2009.
People with a flare for sewing would probably learn so much by studying these patterns and muslins! If only I had an artistic mind instead of one that is so historical!
But that’s one reason decorative arts historians do what they do. I grew up surrounded by fabric, and the crisp starchy smell of my mother’s sewing room has probably always been one of my favorite scents. I love any kind of fiber art and I’m a good knitter, but when it comes to sewing I can just barely sew a button back onto a shirt if I absolutely need to! That’s why I’m here to research clothes—- not to sew them!
I’ll probably never have a dress custom made for myself, but to write about a couture designer and her clients, it would be helpful to learn about the customer’s experience!
So I needed to talk to some of Ann Lowe’s former clients.
Four years ago, I visited a beautiful Ann Lowe wedding gown in the collection of the Delaware Historical Society. Unlike the other dresses I’d seen up to that point, I was able to interview the original owner!
It was an exciting trip for me. I was living in DC at the time, so I came up to Wilmington on the train, found my way to the historical society’s buildings and spent about an hour looking at every inch of this gown.
This dress was a bit of a surprise because it was very elegant and extremely simple. It is also beautifully finished inside. Interestingly, this gown does not have a label. But it was mentioned in a 1960s magazine article–and that article is the breadcrumb that led me to the former bride! You won’t see any large silk flowers on this dress, but the simple bow at the waist is a perfect touch.
This is a 2 minute clip of coverage from the Kennedy wedding. So neat to see Ann Lowe’s work–coming to life. Ann also made the dresses for the bridesmaids, flower girl and the mother of the bride. Enjoy!