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

A 1961 Ak-Sar-Ben countess in her Ann Lowe, Saks Fifth Avenue Gown. This picture came straight from the former countess. You'll hear about her a little later.
A 1961 Ak-Sar-Ben countess in her Ann Lowe, Saks Fifth Avenue Gown. This picture came straight from the former countess. You’ll hear about her a little later.

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.

Lowe-ad_social review
An ad for Lowe’s work in the Adam Room…I found this a year after I needed it in an old magazine at the NYPL Source: Park Avenue Social Review.

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.

(This was 3 years before I found my own Adam Room Dress)

Tantalizing little snippet…this newspaper archive database sure knew how to get me to purchase a membership!!

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.

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

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.

Four of the Ak-Sar-Ben dress designs created by Ann Lowe. Source: Omaha Herald
Four of the Ak-Sar-Ben dress designs created by Ann Lowe. Source: Omaha World-Herald

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!

headshotHistorian’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.