Ann Lowe and Her Garden of Flowers

One of the gowns in the collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo: Smithsonian Collections Database)

When you get so close to a topic ( I’ve been researching Ann Lowe’s career since 2011)  it can be easy to forget that the subject you are living and breathing is brand new to other people! In last week’s post, I made a quick reference to Ann Lowe’s flower designs and compared them to the work of costume designer Barbara Karinska, but didn’t get the chance to say much more. This week, I looked back on some posts and realized that I actually haven’t talked in detail about Ann Lowe’s flowers!

Silk and tulle flowers on an Ak-Sar-Ben gown.

I’m sorry for leaving this out!! You can’t have much of a discussion about the artistic quality of Lowe’s work without following the trail of her flowers.

Ann Lowe working on some silk flowers in her NYC workroom with the daughter of one of her closest Tampa friends. (Photo: Ebony Dec 1966)

Flowers are a universal design element in fashion. Hats, blouses, shoes and dresses were all embellished with three-dimensional imitation flowers for hundreds of years before Ann Lowe came on the scene. I believe that her quality and innovation set her work apart from other designers.

Carnations on one of Ann Lowe's later dresses. From the collection of the Met Museum: 1980.433.3
A garden of silk carnations on one of Ann Lowe’s later dresses (Late 1960s). From the collection of the Met Museum: 1980.433.3
Lowe in Ebony (Dec 1966) in her workshop with a gorgeous pink dress. Lowe was heavily influenced by the work of French designers, and the band of flowers on this skirt closely resembles a skirt I came across in a 1910 silk industry article reviewing Paris fashions.

Lowe used her signature fabric flowers as a recurring theme throughout her career. She hand painted flowers on silk and built three-dimensional flowers from fabric.  She also taught the technique to her staff and it was rare to see a Lowe debutante, wedding or bridesmaid gown that did not include a beautiful false bouquet.

These decorations were so realistic that in one case (described in Ebony magazine in 1966)  a dress was returned to her salon after a debutante ball to repair damage caused when the debutante’s date, “snipped a beautiful silk carnation from the dress as a memento.”

Ann Lowe “American Beauty” debutante dress, 1958-1960. Gift of t
The 1st Ann Lowe dress I ever saw in person—“American Beauty” (Smithsonian) before I became a costume historian, but the flowers and leaves looked SO very real!! I forgot the designers name, but always remembered the design.

Most of the Ann Lowe gowns I’ve seen in person have not been covered with flowers, but I was able to see Ann’s roses up closes several years before I even knew (or could appreciate) what I was actually viewing. I’d just started graduate school at the Smithsonian, and part of our orientation involved touring all of the museums and libraries in the complex. This included the Anacostia Community Museum.  A dress named American Beauty was on display that late August day, and you could walk right up to it—stand inches away from the cascade of beautiful silk roses decorating the front, shoulders and back. That museum was not crowded at all (it’s a bit of a hike to get out to Anacostia and most tourists never visit!) A few years later, in the middle of my thesis research I would have LOVED to have a similar amount of access to her flowers!

The kind of design element that is exciting for a decorative arts historian!

When I visited the family of a former Gasparilla queen in Tampa in 2011, a picture of some gowns from 1928 stuck out to me. I’d seen that dress before! Or at least one very similar. This one was the Gasparilla Queen gown of 1928 and as far as I can tell, although newspaper articles describe her fabric flowers as early as 1916, the 1928 Gasparilla Queen gown is the earliest photographed example of Ann’s trailing rose design.

Rolled tulle pussywillows on a beaded satin gown.
This dress lives at the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa

Ann also used a clever method to create pussywillows. Bits of cornflower blue tulle were rolled into pussywillow blooms and placed along a beaded background of leaves and stems. In this gown, the same tulle was used as a pleated accent along the neckline.

There are DOZENS of other examples of flowers in Lowe’s dress designs. Beaded, painted, 3-D. I’ve just gotten you started…and you can keep hunting yourself by checking out the collection search database at the Met Costume Institute.

Ann Lowe and the Evyan Perfume First Lady Miniature Gowns


Along with Ann Lowe’s couture gowns, she’d take on a special project every now and then when it interested her–especially if it was a request from a friend.

In 1957, the Evyan perfume company—the creators of the famous “White Shoulders”  perfume— debuted their latest fragrance, “Great Lady.” To promote the new perfume, the company commissioned a set of great ladies dresses that would tour the fine department stores of the United States. The mind behind the project was the “Evyan” of Evyan Perfumes, Evelyn Diane Westall, also known as the Baroness Von Langdorfer. Evelyn was also a steady and devoted client of Ann Lowe’s salon.

By the late 1970s, there were nearly 30 gowns in the set, Ann Lowe was blind by the mid 70s, so it is unlikely that she was involved in the creation of the later gowns. The mannequin with the fur cuffs at the front of this photo wears the Lowe copy of Ladybird Johnson’s inaugural gown.

Baroness Von Langdorfer’s vision for the exhibit was simple: Each first lady would be represented by a four-foot tall evening gown, fashioned from high quality, imported fabric and materials, using couture techniques. When possible, their inaugural gowns were used and copied, but in some cases, the designers were instructed to rely on period ball gowns for their inspiration.

Some of the first lady gowns in a more recent display at The Ohio State University. That yellow satin Ladybird Johnson outfit with the fur cuffs is in the background. Source: The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

The first designer hired to work on the collection was the famous ballet costumier, Barbara Karinska. Karinska was best known for her work with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet (when it was called Ballet Society). She designed 16 of the first 17 dresses, all four foot tall reproductions of dresses worn or inspired by United States first ladies.

The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

 The Baroness would eventually ask Ann to continue the series, and this is where the credit for the gowns gets a little muddy. Ann created a number of gowns to add to the original set, and she also reproduced traveling copies of Karinska’s earlier designs.

Lowe photographed for Ebony and Jet magazine in December 1966. She’s seated with two of the gowns she created for the Evyan set.

Some later sources give Ann credit for all of the gowns in the collection,  but I think they are confusing Ann’s work on the sets as original designs. The exact number of dresses adapted by Ann for the Evyan first lady exhibit is difficult to determine, but published accounts credit her with the dresses of Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Johnson and a number of historical dolls including Abigail Adams and Jane Pierce. Ann’s family recalls that she worked on a number of the historical gowns, and spent a great deal of her time researching the period costumes.

1st_lady3Six sets of each doll were created for display throughout the country and the dresses toured department stores as late as 1989. By 1966, there were 18 dolls in the set, starting with Mary Todd Lincoln. (This suggests Karinska’s original 16 and Lowe’s Ladybird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy gowns) and they toured under the name “Evyan Collection of 100 Years of Great Lady Fashions.” 

IMG_4806There is confusion about the creator of the Ladybird Johnson doll dress. In advertisements for the set in 1966, the dress is listed as the work of the original designer, John Moore. In December of that year, Ann was photographed in her studio with one of the Ladybird mannequins and one of the Kennedy mannequins and given credit for adapting and sewing both designs, along with their five additional copies.

first lady adDresses were added to the collection until the early 1980s (Nancy Reagan’s bright red gown from 1981 was the final gown) and the dresses toured in department stores throughout the United States until late 1989. Other designers would have been involved with any gowns added after 1969 or 1970. Ann Lowe’s health and vision were failing at that point, and she would not have been able to continue this work.  Of the six original sets, two have been located.

The Evyan first lady gowns are a fun footnote in Ann Lowe’s career.  I’m intrigued by this dress commission, and I’m very glad that I found some information about it, but if you are trying to find out more about Lowe’s work, this isn’t a very helpful group of dresses to help you do that.

A Karinska ballet gown. Gorgeous! These beautiful silk flowers are of similar quality to Ann Lowe’s

Only two dresses (Kennedy and Johnson) can truly be confirmed as Lowe’s work, in my opinion, anyway (because of that photo in Ebony) and Karinska, the designer of the early dresses was an amazing talent, her fabric flowers (as they appear on ballet costumes) were of similar quality to Lowe’s for instance, so studying the gowns one by one wouldn’t really give concrete clues about the maker. It’s a little bit frustrating, but sometimes research leads you to frustrating dead ends! At least this dead end is filled with pretty dresses 🙂

One surviving set of Evyan First Lady gowns…in the (closed to the public, including researchers) collection of the Congressional Club. Photo: Congressional Club
Photo: Congressional Club

For information about one of the surviving sets of Evyan gowns, check out this article on the website of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. Another set is in the collection of the Congressional Club in Washington, DC. The club is closed to non members (including researchers, unfortunately) but they do have two photos of their gowns (displayed in “The First Lady Gown Room” on their website.

For more detailed information about Barbara Karinska, check out this article, this one and  this AMAZING Google Image Search

For more information about the First Lady gowns, there’s an unusual source! The article “First Lady Gowns”on page 8 of the April 1983 edition of a Freemason News Magazine, The Northern Light covers the history of the gowns in solid detail.

A wide shot of the exhibit at The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

A Fortuny gown pops up in Downton Abbey and Costume Historians Swoon


Lady Sybil’s Peacock Harem Pants. The embroidered panel is vintage. (I took this photo)

Beautiful fashion and Downton Abbey go hand in hand, but most of the costumes worn on the ITV drama were a combination of original elements from vintage garments and new construction.

There’s a good reason for this—the elegant couture fashions of the 1910s and 1920s didn’t hold up very well a hundred years later…colors faded, fabrics weakened and ripped.  The weight of thousands of glass beads and the pressure of the thousands of stitches needed to attach them could turn a silk garment to shreds after years and years in storage. To be fair, couture fashions weren’t really intended to last longer than a fashion season, maybe two.

The museum where I work, Winterthur Museum and Garden in Wilmington, Delaware  created a blockbuster Downton Abbey costume exhibit a few years ago. It’s safe to say that I visited that exhibit EVERY SINGLE DAY…and not just because I was working in the gallery next door. 🙂

Elements of beadwork are from the early 1900s for one of the Dowager's dresses, but the velvet and netting are new construction Photo Source: Me
Elements of beadwork are from the early 1900s for one of the Dowager’s dresses, but the velvet and netting are new construction (I took this photo).
Lady Mary's engagement dress was entirely new construction. Photo source: Me
Lady Mary’s engagement dress was entirely new construction. Although the beaded trim was most likely vintage. (I took this photo).

So “recreated” would probably be the best word to describe most of the fashions we see on Downton but from time to time, an original couture piece turns up– in its original state and without any additional modern construction–and when a vintage fashion lover spots one of these gems, it can make them gasp! This happened for me with  a completely original, jewel red Fortuny gown worn by Lady Mary. Fortuny was best known for their deeply pleated jewel tones silk gowns. Michelle Dockery is SUCH a lucky actress!

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MICHELLE DOCKERY as Lady Mary Crawley
Photographer: Nick Briggs
MICHELLE DOCKERY as Lady Mary Crawley

DP124015For more detailed information about the Fortuny gown worn by Lady Mary

For more Fortuny gowns in the collection of the Met Costume Institute71.190a-b_CP1

And this is a wonderful article about design influences used to create Lady Sybil’s Harem Pants

My book deal with Chronicle Books…an exciting announcement!!


I was surprised to hear that of the 3,200 children’s books published in the US in 2015, just 240 were about African American characters. 102 (of the 3,200) books were created by African American authors or illustrators. That figure is actually a deep improvement from previous years.

This is one reason why I am so excited to tell you about something I’ve been working on since December.

I’ve been floating on air with a secret under my hat for a few weeks now, but official announcements have been made, happy dances have been completed and I’m able to spill the beans  🙂

I co-wrote a picture book biography about Ann Lowe, named ONLY THE BEST  with Kate Messner, a children’s book author, and it will be published by Chronicle Books in 2018 .

I cannot wait to see how the illustrator will bring Ann Lowe’s dress designs to life!!
A recent Chronicle picture book biography that is also one of the prettiest children’s books I’ve ever seen…and our book has the same editor!

My first book!!  🙂

The flowers! The swan wings! The ballet pose! So beautiful!

Ann Lowe’s story will be in good company! Chronicle’s children’s books are absolutely gorgeous. Each title features sophisticated and emotionally charged artwork, and such careful and detailed design. Gorgeous!! Our editor has edited two other picture book biographies recently, and they both prove that Ann Lowe’s story could not be in better company.(this one, SWAN, by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad– about the ballerina Anna Pavlova is so enchanting!)

510YlWgc+AL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ And Josephine,  by Patricia Hruby Powell (no relation), illustrated by Christian Robinson takes a look at Josephine Baker’s life with bold, colorful graphics and a unique long form poetic style.

imgresAs you can probably imagine, Chronicle is just the right publisher to work with Lowe’s dresses! Such a beautiful way to present her story accurately and honor Ann Lowe’s gorgeous designs!

For your local decorative arts historian— who has wanted to be an author since she was eight years old (it was either Ellen Tebbits, By the Shores of Silver Lake, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that gave me the ‘want to grow up and be a writer’ bug)—this is also a wonderful way to learn the ins and outs of the publishing world while I work on bringing my other Ann Lowe project—the adult biography to fruition.

I’m geeky enough to be SO excited to think that our book will be in libraries with these books! If I ever see a copy of Only The Best in a stack with any of these, I may need some smelling salts!

It’s all just so exciting!

Lowe-ad_social review
When you get a book deal, you walk around looking like this for a couple of weeks…while your friends smile graciously, take deep breaths and wait for you to drop back to the earth’s crust.

I’ll look forward to sharing what I can about ONLY THE BEST as we reach the publishing finish line, although I’m pretty sure most of the details will remain under wraps until the release date… it’s more fun that way, anyway!


Historian’s note: Being able to find a professional home for the story of a designer I have researched and admired for five years is so rewarding! A picture book is especially exciting and special for me, headshotbecause it will share the nearly electric beauty of Ann Lowe’s work in a way that a stuffy and somewhat cerebral “grown up” biography cannot.


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

The first Ak-Sar-Ben queen shown in 1895, probably in her coronation gown

The fashion tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben started with the first coronation in 1895. Ak-Sar-Ben included a parade, horse racing, a ball and a coronation of the festival’s King and Queen. The coronation was the headliner of the multiple day celebration of Nebraska’s vibrant agricultural industry and the Omaha World Herald announced that it would feature “the display of gowns and jewels greater than has ever been seen here before.” The Coronation participants, selected for their family’s contributions to the region in business and community service were dressed in costumes from a Parisian fashion house. These costumes were said to be “beautiful beyond description” at a cost of $7,000. (OWH Sept 5, 1895)

By the 30s, the Omaha World Herald was featuring some detailed fashion photography. This may have been the only year when multiple high end designers were commissioned for the same coronation.

“Beautiful beyond description” could have been a summary of every Ak-Sar-Ben coronation because Court Couturiers brought high fashion to the Omaha event every fall. The leading department stores in the city worked with famous fashion houses in Rome, Paris, London, Beverly Hills and New York City to dress the court. In 1932, four top French designers shared the honor, each designing 1 of the 4 dress designs for the 26 ladies in waiting. Mainbocher and Augusta Bernard each designed a Countess gown while the Houses of Vionett and Lanvin each designed a gown for the Princesses. The World-Herald declined to name the designer of the Queen’s gown that year, but they did announce that all of the gowns were “Paris inspired, but Omaha made” and then continued to describe each dress down to the smallest ruffle or rhinestone.

An Ak-Sar-Ben Queen in her Hattie Carnegie Gown, 1938. It must have been thrilling to see herself in Life magazine! Hattie Carnegie was not actually a fashion designer, she hired designers to create gowns for her salon ( Ann Lowe actually worked for Carnegie in 1938) and put her own brand name on their creations.

In 1938, Life magazine sent prized photographer, Margaret Bourke-White to cover the ball. They called it the “Prime event of the corn belt’s social season” and showed the elaborate proceedings of the court including the queen in her $500 gown from Hattie Carnegie. (10/24/38 Life)

When television came onto the scene, the coronation aired throughout the state. This ad is from Ann Lowe’s year, 1961.

The Life Magazine exposure is an interesting side note in Ak-Sar-Ben’s history, but historically, the Omaha World-Herald’s coverage is much more important. This annual newspaper coverage created a robust archive for costume historians in a very surprising location. It is incredible to note that examples of the work of Norman Hartnell, who worked as Queen Elizabeth II’s official couturier, and other designers at the height of their popularity like Oscar de La Renta, Hattie Carnegie or Geoffery Beene have been described in detail in the pages of the Omaha World Herald.

In 1963, the Roman fashion house of Fontana was hired for the gowns. Look carefully and you’ll see that the designer simplified her work by creating two basic designs and embellishing them differently. Fontana also designed the 1960 gowns.
32 gowns= a LOT of gowns. So while I cannot fault a designer for creating two basic shells and using beading and embroidery to create the different groups of gowns, they do look a bit boring when you think back to Ann Lowe’s work a few years earlier.

In 1963, the house of Sorelle Fontana, an Italian fashion house, based in Rome was hired for the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns. If you remember the unique designs Ann Lowe created for the 1961 ball, and look carefully at these Fontana dresses, you’ll notice something interesting.  Fontana simplified her work by creating two basic silk “shells” and embellishing them with different motifs for the countesses and princesses. Dozens of beautiful dresses were the result, but we can’t deny that a shortcut was used—probably to make this order profitable.

1964_girlsThe next year, Norman Hartnell took charge. The young ladies of Ak-Sar-Ben were probably thrilled to find out that their gowns were being designed by Queen Elizabeth’s couturier! 1964_hartnell1964_DescAnd Hartnell did not disappoint. He also followed the cost-cutting tradition of using a small number of dress shell designs and embellishing them with unique motifs for each attendant’s role. The Queen gown was definitely modeled after gowns created for Queen Elizabeth II. 1964_Queen

delarentaAk-Sar-Ben was a little mysterious for the designers who were commissioned to dress its court. The coronation took place in a huge hall named the Coliseum, in front of an audience of 10,000. Bold and dramatic gowns were needed to make the court members stand out amongst the grand surroundings. Sometimes a court couturier needed a bit of guidance to deliver gowns with the right sense of scale and tone. “How can a famous high fashion couturier design gowns for the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation” the World-Herald asked, “when he’s never heard of Ak-Sar-Ben? Or for that matter, has never been to Nebraska?” Oscar de la Renta’s early designs for the 1970 ball required this kind of assistance. “When we saw the sketches of the dresses,” the head of the Women’s Ball committee recalled, “I asked that the skirts be made a little fuller. He was still thinking in terms of one dress for a collection rather than a lot of them all together and we wanted it to be more costumey.”

Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were ordered from couture fashion houses until the early 1970s, so it would be difficult to give more than a snapshot of the wide range of gowns created over 75 years. Identifying the designers through each year would be possible through a lengthy review of The Omaha World Herald’s fashion articles. I *wish* I had time to take on a project like this!! And unfortunately, even the Ak-Sar-Ben organization never had a chance to put research time into their event’s fascinating fashion history!! At some point in the late 1960s, the secrecy of the designer information was lifted and profiles of the designer were included in the newspaper’s coverage leading up to the ball.

If you are feeling inspired to find out more and you have time to research these gowns, take a look at the Omaha World Herald every Fall between 1895 and 1975 and please report back 😉 . The Durham Museum is also a helpful source. They have some Ak-Sar-Ben gowns in their collection, and they have created themed Ak-Sar-Ben exhibits from time to time. As a historian who has spent a great deal of my time with Ann Lowe’s work, I’m a bit impartial when it comes to ranking the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns! I agree with something a former countess told me when she recalled that her mother, who had attended many coronations, believed that Ann Lowe’s year “was the best year as to dress and our looking like a fairytale.”aksarben_queen_color_best

130091(17)Here are a few other dresses from different eras of Ak-Sar-Ben. : This gown from 1947 is in the collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It was designed by Kathryn Kuhn, who also designed dresses for Hollywood stars like Sonja Henie.

Portrait of Jan Farrell (in Aksarben gown) Augustus W. Dunbier b. 1888, Polk County, Nebraska d. 1977, Omaha, Nebraska Medium: oil Date: 1958

This is a portrait of an Ak-Sar-Ben gown worn in the late 1950s. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art.

Closing with a bonus mystery gown that I just found on pinterest! This dress sold on Etsy and was described as a 1930s gown worn by an Ak-Sar-Ben queen…Intriguing and Glittery!!gown