All posts by Margaret

I am a decorative arts historian and I specialize in the areas of American textiles and American costume history.

Ann Lowe’s Financial and Health Challenges During the 1960s

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Ann Lowe working in her shop workroom on Madison Avenue during the late 1960s. (Ebony Magazine)

Let’s get back to Ann Lowe a bit!

With the financial losses Lowe endured after her large gown order for Ak-Sar-Ben, losing an average of $150  on each dress–if you’ll remember–and there were 33 dresses in the order, Ann entered a period of severe financial stress. Records from her bankruptcy proceedings listed ten creditors and revealed that she owed more than $9,000 to Saks Fifth Avenue—borrowed money to originally cover operating expenses and materials. Saks was the largest claimant.

The financial problems of 1962 were just the beginning of Lowe’s troubles. Lowe left Saks at some point during that year and reopened in a small workspace farther down 53rd street. Unfortunately, the majority of Lowe’s employees chose to continue with Saks because they could pay more than Lowe was able to offer.[i] A few employees attempted to move with Lowe, but returned to Saks when Lowe’s financial problems affected the reliability of their salaries. Only her sister, Sallie, stayed by her side.[ii]

A strong staff was an absolute necessity for Lowe at this point. Although she began her career sketching dress after dress, her increasingly poor eyesight made drawing impossible and severely limited her sewing capability. “I’ve had to work by feel” she admitted, “but people tell be I’ve done better feeling than others do seeing.”[iii] Without a staff to sketch and take up the bulk of the sewing, running a shop would be impossible. Lowe’s sketcher and chief assistant remained at Saks and Lowe was unable to hire new and highly trained workers who could meet the challenge of a high volume couture shop. “I couldn’t fill my orders,” she admitted. “Things went from bad to worse.” When this shop closed, Lowe “ran sobbing into the street…the tears wouldn’t stop.”[iv] Shortly after this, Lowe’s right eye, which had been heavily damaged by Glaucoma, was removed. Lowe had to stop working completely.[v]

After a period of rehabilitation, Lowe became a designer for Madeline Couture, a dress shop in New York City. At Madeline Couture, Lowe was able to have a fashion show where former customers did the modeling.[vi] Shortly after the show, Lowe began to have problems with her other eye. Her attempts to continue working with a severe cataract in her only eye led to embarrassing attempts to cover up her problems:

Terrified to lose her eye, she tried to bluff. “Now here’s a design I think you’ll like.” She would say to a customer, picking up a sketch and brining it close to her eyes. “Oh my goodness,” she would add brightly, “Isn’t that ridiculous! I’m holding this sketch upside down!” The bluff worked through this past spring. She gave up her job at the dress shop in March (1963).[vii]

Lowe was completely unprepared for retirement. She had no savings, and no way of paying her living expenses without working. The surgery she needed to restore sight to her only eye was high risk. It could possibly destroy whatever sight she still had in her left eye and a number of surgeons refused to take the chance. With the help of her previous clients she eventually found a surgeon who would attempt to remove the cataract, “If I can’t design dresses” she told him, “I’d rather fly off the Empire State Building.” The doctor donated his services and covered the costs of the operating room.[viii] The August 1964 operation restored sight to Lowe’s left eye and amazingly, she prepared her business again. She contacted her previous customers through postcards—500 handwritten postcards, according to the Post. The campaign worked and Lowe was back to sewing for a number of her previous customers. She continued to create wholesale designs and maintained her close and personalized working style with her couture clients.

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Lowe with the Johnson and Kennedy mini gowns for the Evyan Great Ladies Collection (Jet 1966)

[i]. Thomas Congdon, Jr. “Ann Lowe: Society’s Best Kept Secret” Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1964, 76.

 

[ii]. Melissa Sones “Found Exclusively at Ann Lowe Gowns.” American Legacy (Winter 1999), 38.

 

[iii]. Congdon, 75.

 

[iv]. Congdon, 76.

 

[v]. Ibid.

 

[vi]. Ibid.

 

[vii]. Ibid.

 

[viii]. Ibid.

 

 

We’ll be slowing down our posts here a bit for a few months…

I just wanted to let you know that posts will be a little less frequent here until the late fall/early winter.

I’m starting treatment for breast cancer this week, and while I’m hoping to add new and interesting things to Hidden Fashion History every once in a while during this time, my usual weekly schedule isn’t going to be possible for a little while.

With that said, I will be on the lookout for interesting fashion history related videos or old scanned books that I come across online along with scanned magazine articles from my own collection— so there should still be interesting things to explore here on a monthly basis at least, but my written entries will be shorter and less frequent for a few months.


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If you’d like to reach me with any questions during this time, please send an email! Thanks! Margaret

The unexpected Abolitionist Roots of a New England Thread Company

corticelliThe Nonotuck Silk Company holds a fascinating place in textile history. The company began in the 1830s with a failed attempt to breed silkworms in Massachusetts. Silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and when the health of the imported mulberry trees declined, silkworms had nothing to eat and efforts to raise them for their cocoons failed.


The remnants of the failed silk thread business were later operated by the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group imported silk cocoons and used the mill to spin thread. They funded their abolitionist work with income generated from this business. Curiously, you may recognize one of their members:

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Yes, this is Sojourner Truth! She was a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, worked in the silk mill. Silk thread production was the association’s primary source of income.

The association’s community operated like a commune, with shared meals, group housing, education for their children and assigned work duties for every member in the mill or farm. The community fell apart by 1846, but one member, Samuel L. Hill, retained the silk mill and continued to operate the silk thread business. They were operating under the Nonotuck name again, and in 1852,  Corticelli silk was their signature product. They developed a high quality silk thread (known as machine twist) strong enough for use in sewing machines. Elijah Singer (the sewing machine manufacturer) placed a large order for this new product. Sewing machines were just becoming the rage at the time, and machine twist thread business boomed for Nonotuck.

toostrong In 1922, this company merged with another and operated the new business under the Corticelli name. The business records of the association are held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. I had the chance to take a look at a few of their financial books and membership logs when I was in graduate school.

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Source: https://www.masshist.org/blog/1013

Before I was introduced to Ann Lowe, I was hoping to create a thesis from this story. A lot has been written about the New England Silk Industry though, and the amount of information available about the Northampton Association’s work (in direct relation to their textile production—I was a Decorative Arts student and needed to have a solid textile history focus) was pretty light.

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Corticelli had some of the prettiest advertising and labels in the industry at the time.

Getting an informative and innovative thesis out of this would have been quite a process. Looking back, I think things worked out in the best way for my thesis—although I wish I could find time (and a few incredible sources) to pull together an interesting paper about the Northampton Association someday.

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You can read this book now at Archive.org!! https://archive.org/details/CorticelliHomeNeedlework

Archive.org has some related documents: A Color Card, And a fantastic needlework instruction book from 1898. And the youtube video below will show you the location of the Association’s silk mill in Northampton, Mass. I’m visiting Northampton at the end of the month and one of these days, maybe during this trip if the weather is nice, I’m going to hunt for old spools at the banks of the little Mill river!corticellidogssm

19th Century Fashion Plates

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This illustration was prepared for an October 1886 edition of Le Moniteur de la Mode (Source: Archive.org)

The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.


Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.

Although I did get into this book from 1918 about learning costume design and illustration….and Ann Lowe was just at the beginning of her fashion career in Tampa in 1918…so maybe this counts as background reading? 😉

Some Ann Lowe roses at the newest Smithsonian Museum…

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We’ve seen this dress (American Beauty, 1966) a few times on Hidden Fashion History, but not from this angle. The Smithsonian has some gorgeous newer photos. Source: Smithsonian
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…but we haven’t seen this view before. And it gives one of the best looks at Ann’s flowers. Imagine being the lucky girl swirling on a dance floor with these at your back! Source: Smithsonian

 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture doesn’t open until September, but their online collections search is already up and running as a part of the Smithsonian’s main website. They’ve taken some really great new pictures of a dress that’s been in the Smithsonian’s collection for years. It’s called “American Beauty” and it was a gown for a New York debutante.  I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at a few of Ann Lowe’s silk flowers thanks to these new pictures.

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Gasparilla Queen in an earlier version of a trailing rose design, 1928 Tampa, Florida

And for comparison’s sake, this black and white photo shows the 1928 Gasparilla queen. This gown is the earliest photographed version of Ann Lowe’s silk roses.

Collection Peek: The Royal Collection Trust (UK)

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Wedding Gown for (Princess) Elizabeth by Norman Hartnell, 1947

If you have a chance to make it over to London before January, there’s  an amazing exhibit of Queen Elizabeth II’s fashions at the Royal Collection Trust. Norman Hartnell’s work is featured heavily–he was the official couturier for the queen for many years (AND A DESIGNER FOR AKSARBEN, TOO!)

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Coronation Gown for Queen Elizabeth II. Norman Hartnell, 1953.

 

 

 

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These shoes were given to the princesses (Margaret and Elizabeth) in 1938 by the children of France
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Norman Hartnell, 1960
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State gown. Norman Hartnell, 1962.

Along with Queen Elizabeth’s clothing, the Royal Collection Trust has a wide range of clothing worn by other members of the Royal Family. You can continue to explore these beautiful costume pieces at their online collections website. 243044-1327058632

243052-1327058716There are some sweet doll clothes that are a must see! And an entire group of millinery.

An Ann Lowe Dress in Vogue, 1955

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A Smith College date stamp on a copy of Vogue.
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In high school and early college, I was one of those girls completely obsessed with Sylvia Plath. When I was waitlisted at Smith, I was crushed—although my 2nd choice, UMass Amherst, turned out to be the perfect place for me. So you can probably see why it was so exciting to flip through some magazines that she probably read!

When I was in college, some of the bound Vogue magazines in the collection of the UMass Library were originally from (nearby) Smith College and it was THRILLING to be a little English major, flipping through the actual copies of 1950s fashion magazines, with their covers stamped with a Smith College date stamp and think that maybe Sylvia Plath held this, if she ever took a breather in the Nielsen Library and let herself zone out to Vogue for a few minutes…

Browsing through the bound volumes of old magazines is one of my favorite historian hobbies. Life, Look, Time, Ladies Home Journal and of course—–fashion magazines. There’s just something about flipping through the original hardbound copies that gets you closer to the period. I’d like to think that most historians are dorky like that. 😉

And writing about a time period–even if you are just working on a piece of fiction— is a lot easier when you have primary source material in front of you. Microfilm isn’t the same AT ALL.

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The cover of the August 1, 1955 edition of Vogue

As one of the leading debutante and wedding gown designers in New York, it’s very possible that Ann Lowe’s work appeared uncredited in Vogue many times between the 1930s and 1960s. It’s also very possible that her designs appeared in the magazine under the name of the designers she worked for, such as Hattie Carnegie.

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Nina Auchincloss in her Ann Lowe debut gown, 1955.

I’ve seen some uncredited examples of dresses that are definitely Lowe’s work and dresses that are possibly Lowe’s work, once you get familiar with her preferred necklines and sleeve designs, her work starts standing out to your eye!

But here is one of the only credited examples of Lowe’s work that I’ve been able to find in Vogue from that period—this one from August 1, 1955, in an editorial about the year’s leading debutantes. Nina Auchincloss was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister. My own scanned copy of this photo is a bit too blurry to post, so I pulled this copy (if you noticed the tell-tale highlighting around Lowe’s name, this is clearly a Google Books scan) from an article I wrote a few years ago for the National Archives.