Category Archives: Ak-Sar-Ben

Ak-Sar-Ben: It’s Not Just the Word “Nebraska” Spelled Backwards (part four)

The first Ak-Sar-Ben queen shown in 1895, probably in her coronation gown

The fashion tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben started with the first coronation in 1895. Ak-Sar-Ben included a parade, horse racing, a ball and a coronation of the festival’s King and Queen. The coronation was the headliner of the multiple day celebration of Nebraska’s vibrant agricultural industry and the Omaha World Herald announced that it would feature “the display of gowns and jewels greater than has ever been seen here before.” The Coronation participants, selected for their family’s contributions to the region in business and community service were dressed in costumes from a Parisian fashion house. These costumes were said to be “beautiful beyond description” at a cost of $7,000. (OWH Sept 5, 1895)

By the 30s, the Omaha World Herald was featuring some detailed fashion photography. This may have been the only year when multiple high end designers were commissioned for the same coronation.

“Beautiful beyond description” could have been a summary of every Ak-Sar-Ben coronation because Court Couturiers brought high fashion to the Omaha event every fall. The leading department stores in the city worked with famous fashion houses in Rome, Paris, London, Beverly Hills and New York City to dress the court. In 1932, four top French designers shared the honor, each designing 1 of the 4 dress designs for the 26 ladies in waiting. Mainbocher and Augusta Bernard each designed a Countess gown while the Houses of Vionett and Lanvin each designed a gown for the Princesses. The World-Herald declined to name the designer of the Queen’s gown that year, but they did announce that all of the gowns were “Paris inspired, but Omaha made” and then continued to describe each dress down to the smallest ruffle or rhinestone.

An Ak-Sar-Ben Queen in her Hattie Carnegie Gown, 1938. It must have been thrilling to see herself in Life magazine! Hattie Carnegie was not actually a fashion designer, she hired designers to create gowns for her salon ( Ann Lowe actually worked for Carnegie in 1938) and put her own brand name on their creations.

In 1938, Life magazine sent prized photographer, Margaret Bourke-White to cover the ball. They called it the “Prime event of the corn belt’s social season” and showed the elaborate proceedings of the court including the queen in her $500 gown from Hattie Carnegie. (10/24/38 Life)

When television came onto the scene, the coronation aired throughout the state. This ad is from Ann Lowe’s year, 1961.

The Life Magazine exposure is an interesting side note in Ak-Sar-Ben’s history, but historically, the Omaha World-Herald’s coverage is much more important. This annual newspaper coverage created a robust archive for costume historians in a very surprising location. It is incredible to note that examples of the work of Norman Hartnell, who worked as Queen Elizabeth II’s official couturier, and other designers at the height of their popularity like Oscar de La Renta, Hattie Carnegie or Geoffery Beene have been described in detail in the pages of the Omaha World Herald.

In 1963, the Roman fashion house of Fontana was hired for the gowns. Look carefully and you’ll see that the designer simplified her work by creating two basic designs and embellishing them differently. Fontana also designed the 1960 gowns.
32 gowns= a LOT of gowns. So while I cannot fault a designer for creating two basic shells and using beading and embroidery to create the different groups of gowns, they do look a bit boring when you think back to Ann Lowe’s work a few years earlier.

In 1963, the house of Sorelle Fontana, an Italian fashion house, based in Rome was hired for the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns. If you remember the unique designs Ann Lowe created for the 1961 ball, and look carefully at these Fontana dresses, you’ll notice something interesting.  Fontana simplified her work by creating two basic silk “shells” and embellishing them with different motifs for the countesses and princesses. Dozens of beautiful dresses were the result, but we can’t deny that a shortcut was used—probably to make this order profitable.

1964_girlsThe next year, Norman Hartnell took charge. The young ladies of Ak-Sar-Ben were probably thrilled to find out that their gowns were being designed by Queen Elizabeth’s couturier! 1964_hartnell1964_DescAnd Hartnell did not disappoint. He also followed the cost-cutting tradition of using a small number of dress shell designs and embellishing them with unique motifs for each attendant’s role. The Queen gown was definitely modeled after gowns created for Queen Elizabeth II. 1964_Queen

delarentaAk-Sar-Ben was a little mysterious for the designers who were commissioned to dress its court. The coronation took place in a huge hall named the Coliseum, in front of an audience of 10,000. Bold and dramatic gowns were needed to make the court members stand out amongst the grand surroundings. Sometimes a court couturier needed a bit of guidance to deliver gowns with the right sense of scale and tone. “How can a famous high fashion couturier design gowns for the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation” the World-Herald asked, “when he’s never heard of Ak-Sar-Ben? Or for that matter, has never been to Nebraska?” Oscar de la Renta’s early designs for the 1970 ball required this kind of assistance. “When we saw the sketches of the dresses,” the head of the Women’s Ball committee recalled, “I asked that the skirts be made a little fuller. He was still thinking in terms of one dress for a collection rather than a lot of them all together and we wanted it to be more costumey.”

Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were ordered from couture fashion houses until the early 1970s, so it would be difficult to give more than a snapshot of the wide range of gowns created over 75 years. Identifying the designers through each year would be possible through a lengthy review of The Omaha World Herald’s fashion articles. I *wish* I had time to take on a project like this!! And unfortunately, even the Ak-Sar-Ben organization never had a chance to put research time into their event’s fascinating fashion history!! At some point in the late 1960s, the secrecy of the designer information was lifted and profiles of the designer were included in the newspaper’s coverage leading up to the ball.

If you are feeling inspired to find out more and you have time to research these gowns, take a look at the Omaha World Herald every Fall between 1895 and 1975 and please report back 😉 . The Durham Museum is also a helpful source. They have some Ak-Sar-Ben gowns in their collection, and they have created themed Ak-Sar-Ben exhibits from time to time. As a historian who has spent a great deal of my time with Ann Lowe’s work, I’m a bit impartial when it comes to ranking the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns! I agree with something a former countess told me when she recalled that her mother, who had attended many coronations, believed that Ann Lowe’s year “was the best year as to dress and our looking like a fairytale.”aksarben_queen_color_best

130091(17)Here are a few other dresses from different eras of Ak-Sar-Ben. : This gown from 1947 is in the collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It was designed by Kathryn Kuhn, who also designed dresses for Hollywood stars like Sonja Henie.

Portrait of Jan Farrell (in Aksarben gown) Augustus W. Dunbier b. 1888, Polk County, Nebraska d. 1977, Omaha, Nebraska Medium: oil Date: 1958

This is a portrait of an Ak-Sar-Ben gown worn in the late 1950s. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art.

Closing with a bonus mystery gown that I just found on pinterest! This dress sold on Etsy and was described as a 1930s gown worn by an Ak-Sar-Ben queen…Intriguing and Glittery!!gown

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:

  • dresses
    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.


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

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.

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?
A floral covered bodice on a countess gown.
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.

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!
Description of Queen's Gown
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 🙂  

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!


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.