Telling Ann Lowe’s story is interesting from a contemporary perspective because her narrative isn’t one that 21st century Americans are always comfortable hearing. Very often, over her more than 50 year career, she was commissioned to create dresses for events that were “white only.”
Segregated social interactions are a very real part of our country’s social fabric–and in many parts of the country, this has only begun to break down in the last 30 years. Lowe did have some African American clients, and I’ve found examples of custom Ann Lowe dresses for black women from as early as the 1940s, but most of the dresses created in her salons were worn by upper class white women for events Ann Lowe would not have been able to attend because of her race.
An average price for an Ann Lowe Original in the mid 1950s was $500. Ann Lowe was a business woman, and while most people wouldn’t even notice that white designers (and Lowe’s competitors) like Mainbocher or Hattie Carnegie were also dressing white women to attend “white only” events, for some reason, a modern audience expects a black designer from that era to use her work to show a certain amount of civil disobedience and publicly fight against racial injustice. An easy thing for a 21st century American to want to have happened, but unrealistic when you consider the time period of Lowe’s work (1916 -1970).
From my perspective as an historian? I welcome that bit of discomfort because it pushes the conversation forward. Let’s look at it. We’re not sugar coating the issue and we’re also not stepping away from or stepping around it. We’re presenting it realistically: Like thousands of other people of color, Ann Lowe fought against social injustice quietly and in her own way by excelling at her work, knocking down doors that were usually closed to black fashion designers, hiring and training women of color to follow in her footsteps and reaching out to her community along the way.
So, with that said—-let’s move into GASPARILLA:
Some of Ann’s earliest work was for Tampa’s Gasparilla court and ball.
An annual festival held in Tampa every winter when a pirate ship invades Tampa Bay at the end of January. Gasparilla has a controversial history that is important to know about up front, related to racism—and the racist nature of Gasparilla was only confronted publicly when the 1991 Superbowl brought a national spotlight on the event’s restrictive history. More than twenty years later and the event has gone through waves of becoming slightly more representative of the Tampa community.
From the New York Times article in the 2nd link, “One critic, a lawyer named Warren Dawson, said: ”It was a bunch of white guys dressed up as pirates, swigging joy-juice and throwing coins, and this time they were going to televise it before the whole world.”
The event began in 1904 and all related events were white only. The main event was the coronation ball where a King and Queen were selected (from Tampa high society) and a court of attendants. In the very grand days of the 1920s, Ann Lowe was the go to designer for dresses that would stand out and sparkle. She dressed 5 courts between the years 1924 and 1929. But she also created dresses for the women who attended the ball for dozens of years.
Gasparilla gowns have amazingly detailed bead work. This red and gold example is covered in a blanket of beads on gold lame and silk taffeta, and each bead is set individually on the fabric. If you broke a thread, you’d only lose a bead or maybe two. If a thread on a competitor’s dress ripped, you could lose dozens of beads at once.
Ann Lowe’s dresses were legendary in the Tampa Yacht Club social set that attended the ball and even when I visited Tampa a few years ago, I was amazed to see how warmly the granddaughters of 1920s Gasparilla court members talked about Ann’s dresses.
These were loved and worn to shreds by little girls all over Tampa while they were busy playing dress up years after their grandmothers originally wore these beautiful gowns at the Gasparilla ball. A number of these probably still exist privately, in cedar chests and closets and they do turn up as donations to local museums from time to time.
The beading on the 1950s dress is worth a closer look: Pussy willows are created with bits of rolled tulle on a heavily beaded background. The Henry B. Plant Museum, on the campus of the University of Tampa is an excellent source for information about Tampa history and Ann Lowe. It’s also a neat place to visit because the main building on the University of Tampa campus was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, a high end hotel that hosted events where Ann Lowe’s dresses were worn throughout the teens and twenties.
Historian’s Note: Most of the Ann Lowe dresses I’ll bring up on Hidden Fashion History were created for events that were white only, so rather than revisit the topic of segregation each time, I thought it would be helpful to confront it in depth once.