Ak-Sar-Ben: It’s Not Just the Word “Nebraska” Spelled Backwards (part three)

One of the most intriguing aspects of Ann Lowe’s career may be the development of her financial difficulties.¬†¬†How could a fashion designer popular with elite New York society create the gowns for Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding and go bankrupt a few years later?

There were a number of reasons for this—but two of them were pretty major:

  • dresses
    Two debutantes in 1960s Ann Lowe dresses…elbow length gloves were standard issue…

    Changing Times: Ann Lowe’s business operated around creating formal, special occasion gowns for a loyal customer base. ¬†This business model worked well in 1920s Tampa and 1950’s New York, but by the 1960s, even young women in Manhattan’s Society circle¬†were beginning to turn away from the starched formalities of crinolines and elbow length gloves.By the final years of Ann’s career, women were moving to less formal dress styles and the ‘debutante season’ lifestyle was falling out of fashion.¬†If you see pictures of street scenes from the early 1960s and compare them to the late 1960s, you’ll notice something interesting. In those earlier pictures, women are wearing hats—women are wearing gloves. Zoom forward a few years and a street scene from 1968 will show jeans, bare heads and gloveless hands over and over again. ¬†Young women who would have needed several custom gowns¬†to get through their deb season during the 1950s, may have only needed one or two by the 1960s.

  • dresses2
    Dresses like these were created with the finest (and most expensive) silk fabric Lowe could find (photo from Saturday Evening Post) Interestingly, the magazine copy named the wrong debutante in this photo credit. When I contacted her, she was the correct person, but she didn’t recognize the dress, never realized that she was mentioned in this article and had NEVER worn an Ann Lowe gown.

    Expensive Materials: At a time when other designers were beginning to take advantage of a growing mass audience by marketing their own names and creating brands for their businesses at lower price points with lower quality materials, Ann Lowe focused on making beautiful gowns for select customers— with only the best materials. Ann Lowe purchased her supplies¬†from fabric and notions suppliers who were importing fine stock from Europe. In many cases, Ann’s dresses contained the same ¬†heavy silk, delicate lace and glossy seed beads¬†used by her French competitors—with one important difference: Those competitors were pricing their dresses with the cost of supplies and labor in mind. Ann Lowe was not.

    The gleaming silk in my Ann Lowe bridesmaid’s gown is HEAVY Silk Shantung. I cannot imagine how much this cost per yard!

The 33 dresses she created for the 1961 Ak-Sar-Ben ball give us a chance to break her operating methods down a bit.

Lowe made these gowns in 1961 for Bonwit Teller. The reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin probably visited Lowe’s salon at Saks while¬†the Ak-Sar-Ben dresses were being prepared–she visited the month before the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were delivered and her description of gowns frosted “with showers of beautiful beading” describe them ¬†to a T.

They were ordered through Saks, the store where Lowe worked as the head designer of the fashionable Adam Room. She employed dozens of skilled dressmakers at the time, and her connection to Saks gave her access to generous lines of credit with all of the right fabric and notions vendors.

These Ak-Sar-Ben gowns required a lot of material– each¬†gown would need dozens of yards of French nylon tulle (a rare move to save money by selecting nylon over silk) and the detailed beading required tens of thousands of sequins, silver bugle beads, glass seed beads and rhinestones. A newspaper reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, who visited Lowe’s workroom¬†a month before the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were delivered wrote that “Miss Lowe frosts many of her gowns with showers of beautiful beading and every tiny bead is handsewn by skilled seamstresses who boast that Ann Lowe is one of the few dressmakers who has her beading done on the premises.”

Here’s a close up of beading on one of Lowe’s 1926 Gasparilla dresses. While some seamstresses working for other designers loaded dozens of beads onto a thread and tacked the “rope” in place, Ann had her seamstresses secure each bead one by one. If Lowe did not like the quality of her employee’s beadwork, she’d have them rip out the problem area and begin again. Superior quality was the end result…very EXPENSIVE superior quality.

If you’ve read some of my other posts about Ann Lowe’s work, you’ll remember that her labor costs cut into her profit margin quite a bit. Her use of labor-intensive techniques, such as securing every single glass bead to the fabric individually, instead of the more common practice of loading up a beading needle with a few dozen beads and stitching the bead “rope” into place meant that a seamstress was spending much more time with each dress.

Ak-Sar-Ben records show that the dresses for the countesses and princesses were priced around $300 each. This was¬†the price paid to Saks for each dress. Saks had already purchased each gown from Lowe at a price that would make that final $300 price profitable for the store. Following Lowe’s own accounts of her mismanagement (she mentioned in a magazine interview that she often sold a dress for $300 “after putting $450 into it”) it would be reasonable to estimate that her wholesale price for each attendant gown was around $150 apiece.

The dozens of hours of beadwork in each gown, even at the minimum wage of $1.15 an hour (and as semi-skilled employees, Lowe’s seamstresses were probably making more than that), could cost at least $50 per dress in seamstress labor—just to embellish each gown. Before the gown was ready for that, it¬†needed to be sewn. Dozens of yards of nylon tulle fabric were measured, draped, cut and fashioned into custom fit ball gowns for the thirty-two attendants. This represented another eight to ten hours of seamstress labor at the very least for each gown. The amount of labor needed for the¬†Queen’s gown was considerably higher.

The 1961 Ak-Sar-Ben Queen. Source: Omaha Herald
The 1961 Ak-Sar-Ben Queen. Source: Omaha Herald

Ann’s contract with Saks was weighted heavily in the department store’s favor. Saks provided Lowe with a large workroom and salon showroom. In return, the department store purchased each completed gown from Ann¬†at the price she stated. Ann was¬†responsible for using that money to pay herself, her suppliers and her employees.

The Ak-Sar-Ben order should have been a gem in her professional crown. Her pricing structure and business methods quickly turned this into a financial quagmire with an estimated loss of at least $5,000. In bankruptcy the following year, Ann owed Saks more than $9,000. ¬†Quite a lot of money for a partnership that barely lasted for three years. This can be assumed as money owed for staff salaries and materials—and clearly more than just the Ak-Sar-Ben dresses were involved. It’s also important to note that her bankruptcy record also lists money owed to several New York fabric suppliers. ¬†These amounts suggest¬†that Ann underpriced her dresses more often than not, neglecting to consider the cost of materials and the expense of operating her business through a middle man.

There will be one more installment of Ak-Sar-Ben in the near future: Part four will move away from Ann Lowe’s 1961 gowns and take a look at the surprising list of¬†famous designers (including Oscar de La Renta and Norman Hartnell—Queen Elizabeth II’s official couturier!) who were commissioned to create gowns for Ak-Sar-Ben between 1895 and the 1970s.

If you are interested in reading about Ann Lowe’s Ak-Sar-Ben gowns in even more detail than my three-part post, you can take a look at my article in the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.


New Old Stock: the right search term makes all the difference….

…when you are searching for pristine vintage clothes or household textiles.

If you are interested in building up a collection of vintage clothes, but you’ve outgrown wearing used clothes (Boy, have I been there: that 1960s lambswool Saks Fifth Avenue “Young Generation”¬†sweater dress I found at goodwill for five dollars sure was cute to wear as a college kid, but once you are out of school and working full-time, you can only wear so many vintage rhinestone brooches at one time to cover a group of moth holes before your coworkers catch on! Trust me on this one!)

So if you absolutely love adding vintage pieces to your wardrobe, but “Shabby Chic” has lost its charming allure? You, my friend¬†are ready to make the jump from USED to VINTAGE and there are some helpful time saving search terms that you should know:

New Old Stock (often abbreviated NOS)

Dead Stock

Old Store Inventory

Three different terms, but they all mean the same thing: Unsold store stock.

Add these terms to a google search or a vintage clothing search on ¬†eBay and you will turn up amazing, and completely unworn clothing—from as early as the 1920s and very often with the original store tags! Ebay has a great info page about New Old Stock¬†with some helpful pointers.

There are some important things to keep in mind:

pretty detail around the very tiny waist!
Remember my 1960s Ann Lowe Silk Shantung gown that was custom made to fit a very tiny bridesmaid? Keep that in mind when you think about size.

SIZE: When you have the chance to try things on in a vintage store, the size tag is a general guideline. I usually ignore size tags, ¬†eyeball the garment for fit while I’m picking out things to try on and make my final decisions in the dressing room. ¬†Online, you’ll want to go by the seller’s MEASUREMENTS of the garment, NOT the number size. ¬†A size 8 in 2016 will not fit in a size 8 from the 1940s.

Midcentury modern and oh so bright—but NOT a Deadstock textile you want to bring into your home…read on…(picture from Ebay)

MATERIAL: My favorite example to illustrate this tip is a hip household textile that you can find online, very often still in the original packaging: Fiberglass curtains were an invention of the 1950s and early 1960s.  They were available in bright, space-aged patterns and were advertised as an easy care option for the modern home.  You can find dozens of them on Ebay and Etsy right now. They are mid-century modern to a T.  They are amazingly cute!! What could possibly go wrong here?

Fiberglass curtains disappeared from stores quickly, once people realized that shreds of Fiberglass in your hands, feet, lungs and underwear were not a good idea.

Well, when you handled these to hang them¬†up and especially if you¬†washed these in the household washing machine, the curtains actually SHED FIBERGLASS into your hands, face, lungs, washing machine, dryer– spreading it to everything else you washed and getting splinters (of FIBERGLASS) all over your house when you moved the curtain from the washer to the dryer. Fiberglass curtains were quickly taken off of the market when the severity of this problem was discovered. And that’s why so many pristine examples turn up on the vintage market.

This is one of the more extreme examples, and you won’t run into a similar problem with clothing. But there are a few other things to consider:

Allergies: you may run into sensitivities to dyes used in clothing or jewelry from the 1920s-1950s. If you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear an extra layer underneath. Mixed metals in early costume jewelry can also be a problem if you are allergic to Nickel.

A soak in a 80/20 Water/Vinegar mix can set a running dye.

Running Dyes: Some dyes may transfer their colors to other clothing: that bright red blouse from the 1930s might rub color all over the white pants you are wearing it with.

THERE’S A SOLUTION TO THIS:¬†You can always take an extra step with your first wash and soak the garment in a water/vinegar mix to help set a running dye.

Fragile fabrics: Consider the material before you buy. A silk dress from the 1920s may LOOK beautiful, but older silk can be problematic and even unworn silk clothes can begin to “shatter” or fall apart.

Shattered silk: Silk from the 1920s and 1930s does this, and in many cases, it cannot be prevented. This is from a 1920s cocktail gown, but that pretty dead stock silk blouse from the early 1930s you just found on Ebay might not be so pretty after a few wearings—even with the most careful handwashing.

I hand wash and line dry all of my vintage clothes. Old elastic can stretch, bakelite buttons can chip or break if they are knocked around a lot in a spin cycle. Colors will also stay brighter longer with gentle washing. ¬†If you have vintage suits, take them to a trusted dry cleaner (please oh please not a 1.99 a piece dry cleaning chain) Takes a few extra minutes, but you worked hard to find these gorgeous clothes, and they’ve waited for 50, 60 or maybe even 70 years to find their way to your closet! So shouldn’t you take a little extra time to keep them pretty?

Shopping for dead Stock clothes and accessories can be so much fun, and they can make your wardrobe unique and authentically classic. If you keep a few guidelines in mind, you’ll be happy with your purchases for years to come.


A Peek into a Costume Collection: Ann Lowe dresses at the Museum of the City of New York

If you aren’t from New York, The Museum of the City of New York may sound like an unlikely place to find couture gowns. Think about it for another moment though, and it makes sense. The museum collects garments that were worn by residents of New York City— and some New York City residents with old debut gowns and wedding gowns taking up space in their closets have donated their dresses to this collection. I’m not familiar with their institution’s collection guidelines—-some museum’s rarely purchase items at auction or from collectors and they build their collections through donations (of objects or funds with which to go out and purchase objects).  MCNY is probably large enough to acquire objects through donations and targeted purchases of high quality examples of designers who worked in New York.

This video is a bit of a treat! A fashion history contact passed it along to me a little while ago, and I thought it would be fun to share.

It’s not a long video, but we’ll see the curatorial staff  (Phyllis Magidson—who was a very helpful contact when I had some email questions about their group of Ann Lowe dresses when I was in grad school) at the MCNY as they prepare a number of couture dresses in their collection for professional photography—and there’s a small segment about Ann Lowe.



Phyllis Magidson, Fashion Curator

An ostrich-feathered coat, BALENCIAGA's Peacock gown, a set of dresses designed by Ann Lowe, the first prominent African-American designer (whose works included Jackie Kennedy‚Äôs wedding dress). Elizabeth Farran Tozer Curator of Costumes & Textiles Phyllis Magidson‚ÄĒwhose been with the City Museum for 35 years‚ÄĒshows off some midcentury gems from our #DressingRoomNY project, on view through April 30. #PeopleMW #MuseumWeek

Posted by Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday, March 29, 2016