Gasparilla

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Telling Ann Lowe’s story is interesting from a contemporary perspective because her narrative isn’t one that 21st century Americans are always comfortable hearing.  Very often, over her more than 50 year career, she was commissioned to create dresses for events that were “white only.”

Segregated social interactions are  a very real part of our country’s social fabric–and in many parts of the country, this has only begun to break down in the last 30 years. Lowe did have some African American clients, and I’ve found  examples of custom Ann Lowe dresses for black women from as early as the 1940s, but most of the dresses created in her salons were worn by upper class white women for events Ann Lowe would not have been able to attend because of her race.

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Yes, this is a typical Ann Lowe client. Upper class, from the East Coast (probably lives on Park Avenue for part of the year) and white. My own photo of a (privately held) Lowe fashion show program from the mid 1960s.

An average price for an Ann Lowe Original in the mid 1950s was $500.  Ann Lowe was a business woman, and while most people wouldn’t even notice that white designers (and Lowe’s competitors)  like Mainbocher or Hattie Carnegie were also dressing white women to attend “white only” events, for some reason, a modern audience expects a black designer from that era to use her work to show a certain amount of civil disobedience and publicly fight against racial injustice.  An easy thing for a 21st century American to want to have happened, but unrealistic when you consider the time period of Lowe’s work (1916 -1970).

From my perspective as an historian? I welcome that bit of discomfort because it pushes the conversation forward.  Let’s look at it. We’re not sugar coating the issue and we’re also not stepping away from or stepping around it. We’re presenting it realistically: Like thousands of other people of color, Ann Lowe fought against social injustice quietly and in her own way by excelling at her work, knocking down doors that were usually closed to black fashion designers, hiring and training women of color to follow in her footsteps and reaching out to her community along the way.


So, with that said—-let’s move into GASPARILLA:


 

Some of Ann’s earliest work was for Tampa’s Gasparilla court and ball.

Gasparilla?

An annual festival held in Tampa every winter when a pirate ship invades Tampa Bay at the end of January. Gasparilla has a controversial history that is important to know about up front,  related to racism—and the racist nature of Gasparilla was only confronted publicly when the 1991 Superbowl brought a national spotlight on the event’s restrictive history. More than twenty years later and the event has gone through waves of becoming slightly more representative of the Tampa community.

 From the New York Times article in the 2nd link, “One critic, a lawyer named Warren Dawson, said: ”It was a bunch of white guys dressed up as pirates, swigging joy-juice and throwing coins, and this time they were going to televise it before the whole world.”

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The Court in 1924: Egyptian themed Source: Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
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Unfortunately, no full court picture appears to exist from the 1926 coronation. But this dress was worn by a court member. I was so excited to see this gown in person and take detailed photos of the beadwork that I forgot to take a full picture of the entire dress. Thankfully, the Plant museum’s curator was very kind to take a picture when I was back home and realized my mistake! Source: Henry B Plant Museum

The event began in 1904 and all related events were white only. The main event was the coronation ball where a King and Queen were selected (from Tampa high society) and a court of attendants. In the very grand days of the 1920s, Ann Lowe was the go to designer for dresses that would stand out and sparkle. She dressed 5 courts between the years 1924 and 1929. But she also created dresses for the women who attended the ball for dozens of years.

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A closer look at the beading on a court member’s gown from 1926. My own photo from 2012.
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Another detailed photo from my 2012 visit.
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Just throwing in this photo because of the fun behind the scenes look it gives: That gold lame fabric from 1926 actually held up pretty well! My own photo from 2012 at the Plant Museum.

Gasparilla gowns have amazingly detailed bead work. This red and gold example is covered in a blanket of beads on gold lame and silk taffeta, and each bead is set individually on the fabric. If you broke a thread, you’d only lose a bead or maybe two. If a thread on a competitor’s dress ripped, you could lose dozens of beads at once.

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This dress was made for a Gasparilla court member by Lowe in the late 1950s: ordered from her New York salon. Source: Henry B. Plant Museum, Tampa

Ann Lowe’s dresses were legendary in the Tampa Yacht Club social set that attended the ball and even when I visited Tampa a few years ago, I was amazed to see how warmly the granddaughters of 1920s Gasparilla court members talked about Ann’s dresses.

These were loved and worn to shreds by little girls all over Tampa while they were busy playing dress up years after their grandmothers originally wore these beautiful gowns at the Gasparilla ball. A number of these probably still exist privately, in cedar chests and closets and they do turn up as donations to local museums from time to time.

The beading on the 1950s dress is worth a closer look: Pussy willows are created with bits of rolled tulle on a heavily beaded background. The Henry B. Plant Museum, on the campus of the University of Tampa is an excellent source for information about Tampa history and Ann Lowe. It’s also a neat place to visit because the main building on the University of Tampa campus was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, a high end hotel that hosted events where Ann Lowe’s dresses were worn throughout the teens and twenties.

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Alot of shadows in this picture, but you get an idea of the gorgeous bead work.

 

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My own picture taken at the Plant Museum in 2012. I had to get some close ups of these pussywillows!

 

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Probably my favorite court year: 1928. The Queen’s gown shows the amazing silk rose flower design that Lowe would revisit throughout her career, but this is the earliest photographed example.

 Hiheadshotstorian’s Note: Most of the Ann Lowe dresses I’ll bring up on Hidden Fashion History were created for events that were white only, so rather than revisit the topic of segregation each time, I thought it would be helpful to confront it in depth once.

-Margaret

 

The Power of Misinformation

Historians work to clear up misinformation all of the time. That’s one aspect of research that really attracted me to the field. You mean I can dig up better information about a “well known story” that is incorrect and help it to fade away? Sign me up!

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Miss Lowe, in her Madison Avenue studio…I like to think that she’s patiently waiting for a nosy historian to get her research and writing on the way.

If you follow this blog a bit, you’ll know that I am working on an adult biography of Ann Lowe. It’s sort of a big project. And while there are many exclusive discoveries that I look forward to sharing for the first time in that book, there’s one that I don’t mind going public with early–really early –for the greater good. If you are working on anything about Ann Lowe, feel free to use this, pass it along, shout this next paragraph from a rooftop. I’d appreciate it if you cited me in your writing, but I won’t fall to pieces if you don’t.

There’s a popular story that Jackie Kennedy (a long time client of Ann Lowe as a teenager and into her early twenties) described Lowe to a reporter (when asked about her wedding gown) as “a colored woman dressmaker.”

THIS NEVER HAPPENED.

I’ve had nightmares of being on an author tour and having to swat this question down like a bug, over and over again. Sharing the truth broadly will make us all feel so much better.

It’s one of the first things I ever read about Ann Lowe and it’s wrong wrong wrong. If there was ever a piece of misinformation worth kicking to the curb with a parade and fireworks and a 6 piece brass band–this is it! But it’s so gossip worthy that without our help to spread the right information, it will refuse to go away.

When I read it the first time, it FELT incorrect. And when I learned more first hand about the respect and admiration that Lowe’s clients held for her, this “quote” began to feel even more off tone and out of place. But it was reprinted in nearly every scholarly article written about Lowe, so I sort of shrugged my shoulders about it and moved along. I even put it into my masters thesis without question.

I HELPED TO SPREAD THE MISINFORMATION TOO!

Something that IS true is that, when she looked back years later, Mrs. Kennedy didn’t like the busy design of her gown and she did tell her daughter that it looked a bit like a lampshade–when it was donated to the JFK library, it was being stored with little fanfare in a family attic, in a department store dress box (or maybe even just a shopping bag!) That story is correct, but the“colored woman dressmaker” thing? Nope.

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The dress doesn’t have the “Jackie look”—but neither did Jackie in 1953…
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…by the sixties? Yep. (Not an Ann Lowe dress.)

 

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Remember these? Reader’s Guides to Periodical Literature? They take FOREVER to rummage through, but can still be a big help with early 20th century printed materials…if your library still keeps them around.

So where does the confusion start? The last installment of a three part article in Ladies Home Journal from 1961 that (ironically enough) will never turn up (when looking for Ann Lowe) in a search of those green reader’s guide to periodical literature books or online about Lowe because she is never mentioned in the article by name. She’s mentioned in the article only as “a colored woman dressmaker” because those are the words of the author of the article. The author repeated the phrase that year in her own book about Jackie Kennedy and from there, the first person to incorrectly attribute an author’s words to The First Lady (in the 1980s) made an honest mistake in their own research and the error took on a life of its own. For at least 30 years.

How did I find this out?

From a 1961 Newspaper article. My first, hey, wait a second! moment
From a 1961 Newspaper article. Not enough to confirm my hunch, but my first, “hey, wait a second!” moment.

About a half year after my thesis was finished, I ran into a 1961 newspaper article that mentioned Ann Lowe and said that she was “described in the book Jackie Kennedy as a colored woman dressmaker” intriguing, but any other info dried up from there. Tracking down the right quickie paperback 1961 book named Jackie Kennedy turned out to be impossible—I had no idea that it was used first in teaser articles in the Ladies Home Journal!

Until a search at the JFK library turned up correspondence “related to an issue about Ann Lowe” Oh really??

And buried in the correspondence of a Kennedy lawyer? A set of letters that helped the true story to unfold. The journalist’s insensitive words upset Lowe deeply. She wrote a concerned letter to Mrs. Kennedy, where she clearly stated that she held the journalist responsible for the comment, however she was concerned that if Mrs. Kennedy had cleared the article for publication, she also cleared the use of that phrase.

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For me, the most important phrase in here is when Lowe states “I would prefer to be referred to as a “noted negro designer” which in every sense I am.” It is so powerful to have her own words here.

 

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Memorandum from Letitia Baldridge
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This is one of those things that historians love to run into: An informal note at the top of a letter.

Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary, Letitia Baldridge responded by phone (and thankfully, logged the details of the call in this pile of correspondence.) Mrs. Kennedy never saw the final draft of the article and she did not know that the journalist used that language.  The details provided in the flurry of correspondence to follow helped me to track down the original article. The remaining letters in the bunch, between the Kennedy attorney, Lowe’s attorney and Curtis Publishing (seeking the Kennedy family’s help in getting a retraction from Ladies Home Journal—which was promised, but does not appear to have ever happened) are very interesting, and in another newspaper article a few years later, Lowe discussed the pain of that article and also mentioned that the apology from the Kennedy family was good enough for her, but she began to get the feeling that her lawyer (the husband of a client) was pushing the conflict between the Kennedy lawyer and Curtis Publishing because he was a Republican and hoped to make some trouble for the Democrats, so Lowe decided not to take the situation any further.

headshotAs an historian, It can be embarrassing to turn around and realize that you helped to spread misinformation! It is nice to get the chance to correct a situation—and this one just couldn’t wait.   —Margaret

Ak-Sar-Ben: It’s not just the word “Nebraska” backwards (Part Two)

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The 1961 Queen of Ak-Sar-Ben in her coronation gown by Ann Lowe. Surprisingly, the queen told me that even though this dress was quite large–it was so well designed that it was not heavy. The weight of the skirt was expertly supported by some dynamic engineering around the  bodice and waist.

So, let’s get back to Ak-Sar-Ben!  This annual event in Omaha Nebraska was a harvest festival– an elegant and very much over the top harvest festival—run by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben to celebrate the success of the state’s agriculture industry.  A king and queen were selected each year.  Along with  32 young women picked to serve as princesses and countesses of the Ak-Sar-Ben court. The coronation was held in a huge arena (no, really! The Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum held 10 THOUSAND people and was filled for this event), and by the 1960s, the event was televised throughout the state and quite a theatrical production in its own right. The 1961 coronation featured a 44-piece symphony orchestra, a 50-member symphonic choir and the Illinois Ballet of Chicago. Hundreds of out of season rubrum lilies were forced into bloom and flown in from a florist in Chicago—the gowns had a lot to live up to! Since 1895, the dresses for the coronation were haute couture gowns made especially for the queen, princesses and countesses—every year. Top designers from France were selected that first year and the Ak-Sar-Ben committee went through a lengthy selection process to choose a highly skilled couturier from one of the world’s fashion centers: Paris, Rome, New York to top the year before.

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In 1938, Hattie Carnegie designed the gowns and Margaret Bourke-White covered the whole affair for Life Magazine (Oct 24, 1938) Fun fact: Ann Lowe was working for Hattie Carnegie in 1938 in the salon where this dress was made—I wonder if she was involved?
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A floral covered bodice on a countess gown.
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Floral flounces on the skirt made from nylon tulle. That beaded detail is attached by hand, one by one.

The Omaha World-Herald covered every detail of the coronation in a group of articles that must have added up to create their own special section. Every gown style was carefully described down to the tiniest beaded detail. Ann Lowe’s own surviving records are nowhere near as detailed about any of her work, unfortunately. And while her detailed beading and fabric flowers are such hallmarks of her designs, I’d only been able to see three examples in person (one from 1926 another from the mid 1950s and one more from 1967), so these fashion articles are an amazing treasure trove. Hiding in plain sight in Omaha, Nebraska! 33 gowns by Ann Lowe. This included 32 dresses (in six different designs) for sets of princesses and countesses and 1 truly astounding fluffy, sparkly white chiffon and net gown for the queen.

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A bit of detail of the beaded motifs on the Queen Connie’s gown there were 60 different beaded motifs used here. Sixty hand beaded motifs!
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A clipping from a countess describing the Queen’s gown.
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You won’t find a more detailed source of information about ANY of Ann Lowe’s gowns. Thank you Marilyn Russum for having a commitment to fashion history!!

Each young lady was identified by her full name and college, her role in the event, the gown style that she wore and a short bio. This was their moment to shine and the World-Herald did not disappoint. For an historian? These detailed articles had an extra bonus…there were 33 names and the odds of tracking down at least a handful of those women 50 years later was pretty good! Historians become good detectives in a way, you learn to find people from the tiniest scraps of information. These scraps led me to get in touch with the Queen and about a half dozen former princesses and countesses. They were all so friendly and happy to share their memories, photos and documents about their experience and the information they provided has been absolutely integral to piecing together Lowe’s role in the event.**

** Historian’s Note:

headshotI’m always a bit worried about bothering people when I contact them from out of the blue to ask about a dress they wore fifty years ago, or a job that their grandmother worked on in 1964–but so far, not counting the people who never responded–there have been a BUNCH of those! 🙂 — I’ve only run into one person who was completely not interested in strolling down memory lane–one out of more than 40 helpful people during my Ann Lowe research—so it’s been worth the risk to put myself out there and introduce myself! To record history, you have to interview the people who were directly involved—it’s kind of in the job description! Don’t be afraid to do this when you are researching:  just be polite–I try to start with a regular snail mail letter or email instead of a cold phone call, always include an example  (or link to an example) of my work– and take their first “no thank you” and move on to your next contact. If they change their mind, they’ll be back on their own without your nagging (this has actually happened to me with some of my most helpful contacts, they thought about my work for a few days or even a month and got back in touch with some fantastic information) and I don’t actually know how welcoming I’d be to someone getting in touch with me to ask about something I did thirty years ago, so I try to keep that in mind 🙂  

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This example survives in a museum in Omaha and the tarnish on some of the beaded details helped me to determine that Lowe was using bugle beads with actual silver content—an expensive but expected touch for a designer who insisted on using only the best materials. Photo: The Durham Museum, Omaha.

That’s it for Part Two! If you want the full and detailed story, check out my article in the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. Part Three will get back into Lowe’s specific work for the coronation (and the way it affected her business–can you believe she’d go bankrupt just a year later and owe Saks Fifth Avenue THOUSANDS of dollars for materials and seamstress labor? I think that Ak-Sar-Ben was one of the reasons behind that.)

I think a Part Four is in the works to show you some of the other dresses and famous designers (including Norman Hartnell, Queen Elizabeth II’s couturier!!) who were a part of Ak-Sar-Ben’s fashion history. It’s pretty surprising to see all of the amazing international designers, at the peak of their careers who were hired to create gowns for a ball in Omaha!

-Margaret

Sometimes famous people can help a little piece of history to survive…and sometimes they can’t

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A black newspaper in Cleveland covered Lowe’s Mike Douglas appearance with a detailed review of her interview—-this is fortunate because it is the ONLY coverage of her Mike Douglas appearance. (Ann Lowe is in the hat) Where are the Rolling Stones when you need them?

In late 1964, Ann Lowe appeared on the Mike Douglas show. As far as I know, this was her only television appearance. Wouldn’t it be incredible to watch it!!?

The show was taped and aired a few times in different markets between late December 1964 and early January 1965. Actual footage of the program did not survive much longer than that. A very friendly archivist at Temple University poked through the leftovers of the Mike Douglas archive for me in 2011 (the show was filmed at KYW in Cleveland—that station moved to Philadelphia in late 1965 and the Douglas show—along with any of their old taped footage, moved with it). The reason the footage didn’t survive makes me laugh a bit because it is the complete opposite of another problem I’ve run into during my research: The early Mike Douglas shows with surviving footage only feature top celebrities—The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke—LOTS of footage survives (and can even be found on YouTube) from Mike Douglas shows shot before the Ann Lowe show—and if she’d been scheduled on the same show as Mick Jagger? Her appearance would probably still exist. Unfortunately, her show featured two opera singers and Mia Farrow during her Peyton Place days. A tweet to Mia Farrow about this appearance remains unanswered 🙂

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And here come the Rolling Stones when I DON’T need their help. They made this back issue too expensive to afford!!!

On the flip side of that problem, the challenge of finding original magazine back issues at inexpensive prices when someone famous is on the cover. There’s a full page photo of a gorgeous Ann Lowe deb gown in here(NOT the dress on the cover), and for several years I could only find it at the Library of Congress. Anytime the issue showed up on Ebay or magazine back issue websites, it was priced for the Rolling Stones appearance on the cover. Right when I gave up on the idea of getting my own copy, it showed up as a gift in an amazing bunch of Lowe related documents and archival material for me.

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Society’s Best Kept Secret…that’s ANN LOWE!

The same problem came up with one of the best magazine interviews Ann Lowe gave during her career. A 1964 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I don’t know anything about football, but when I complained to my football loving father that “I can’t afford this Saturday Evening Post issue because somebody named Johnny Unitas is on the cover” the way he tried to hide his laughter about someone who had never heard of Johnny Unitas showed me that I probably wouldn’t be able to find this issue for less than fifty dollars. So for a  while, I got by with some grainy microfilm copies and then I got very lucky and someone I interviewed about Lowe gave me a carefully saved original clipping of the interview. (One of Lowe’s earliest Florida clients saved it–which makes it very special to have in its own right). There’s something so wonderful about seeing it in the original full magazine that you can touch and flip through though. My usual go to for this kind of thing (the library at UMass Amherst and as a back up, the rest of the 5 colleges) didn’t have bound copies of the Saturday Evening Post, so I gave up on the idea of finding one.  And then suddenly, a number of my Ann Lowe contacts (former clients, former business associates) started giving me original back issues of this magazine. A case of be careful what you wish for, I think. Because now I have enough original copies of this magazine to start my own Johnny Unitas memorabilia website!

If you ever come across that footage of Ann Lowe on the Mike Douglas show, do get in touch—new things get posted on YouTube all of the time and stranger things have happened, I suppose! The music group was “The Motions” and It was episode 79.

 

Olivia de Havilland in her Ann Lowe gown

Sometimes, you find helpful clues in very unexpected places. An Ann Lowe gown in a 1948 movie trailer? Read on…

 

In 1947, Ann Lowe designed a silk evening gown that was worn by Olivia de Havilland when she won an Academy Award. Lowe worked as a dressmaker at someone else’s dress salon at the time, and de Havilland’s team ordered the dress from the West Coast without the usual set of design consultations and fittings that custom gowns usually required, so the actress actually never met Ann Lowe.

Olivia de Havilland is still alive and living in France, but I was never successful in my efforts to contact her through her current management team to ask her about this dress and I don’t think she is one of those very nostalgic actors who likes to look back. Between her advancing age, her French home, and her resistance to revisit the past, I figured that I wouldn’t find out very much about this dress.

The Oscar ceremony was covered on the radio in 1947, there are some grainy newspaper images of de Havilland in her gown and newsreels also showed the major winners (although I haven’t been lucky enough to see one). There are a few blurry tinted photos available of this dress online and although some sources quote a Vogue article’s description of the gown, I went through EVERY SINGLE VOGUE between 1947 and 1948 and did not come up with a single mention. A few afternoons on the 8th floor of the UMass library (where all of the bound magazines from as early as the 1880s are kept) turned up absolutely nothing that clearly showed this dress in any of the other current events or ladies magazines of the day either.

And then one day, I was watching Turner Classic Movies and this trailer came on. Ann Lowe’s gown flashed by in ten seconds and I ran over to the TCM website and then youtube to see if I could find it again. It never would have occurred to me that the actress’s next movie trailer would uncover such a gem–and while some of the things I cover here are not always “Hidden Fashion History” I think this one definitely fits the bill.

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