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.
Gown descriptions
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