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:

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    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.