Category Archives: ONLY THE BEST

Ann Lowe and Her Garden of Flowers

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One of the gowns in the collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo: Smithsonian Collections Database)

When you get so close to a topic ( I’ve been researching Ann Lowe’s career since 2011)  it can be easy to forget that the subject you are living and breathing is brand new to other people! In last week’s post, I made a quick reference to Ann Lowe’s flower designs and compared them to the work of costume designer Barbara Karinska, but didn’t get the chance to say much more. This week, I looked back on some posts and realized that I actually haven’t talked in detail about Ann Lowe’s flowers!

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Silk and tulle flowers on an Ak-Sar-Ben gown.

I’m sorry for leaving this out!! You can’t have much of a discussion about the artistic quality of Lowe’s work without following the trail of her flowers.

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Ann Lowe working on some silk flowers in her NYC workroom with the daughter of one of her closest Tampa friends. (Photo: Ebony Dec 1966)

Flowers are a universal design element in fashion. Hats, blouses, shoes and dresses were all embellished with three-dimensional imitation flowers for hundreds of years before Ann Lowe came on the scene. I believe that her quality and innovation set her work apart from other designers.

Carnations on one of Ann Lowe's later dresses. From the collection of the Met Museum: 1980.433.3
A garden of silk carnations on one of Ann Lowe’s later dresses (Late 1960s). From the collection of the Met Museum: 1980.433.3
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Lowe in Ebony (Dec 1966) in her workshop with a gorgeous pink dress. Lowe was heavily influenced by the work of French designers, and the band of flowers on this skirt closely resembles a skirt I came across in a 1910 silk industry article reviewing Paris fashions.

Lowe used her signature fabric flowers as a recurring theme throughout her career. She hand painted flowers on silk and built three-dimensional flowers from fabric.  She also taught the technique to her staff and it was rare to see a Lowe debutante, wedding or bridesmaid gown that did not include a beautiful false bouquet.

These decorations were so realistic that in one case (described in Ebony magazine in 1966)  a dress was returned to her salon after a debutante ball to repair damage caused when the debutante’s date, “snipped a beautiful silk carnation from the dress as a memento.”

Ann Lowe “American Beauty” debutante dress, 1958-1960. Gift of t
The 1st Ann Lowe dress I ever saw in person—“American Beauty” (Smithsonian) before I became a costume historian, but the flowers and leaves looked SO very real!! I forgot the designers name, but always remembered the design.

Most of the Ann Lowe gowns I’ve seen in person have not been covered with flowers, but I was able to see Ann’s roses up closes several years before I even knew (or could appreciate) what I was actually viewing. I’d just started graduate school at the Smithsonian, and part of our orientation involved touring all of the museums and libraries in the complex. This included the Anacostia Community Museum.  A dress named American Beauty was on display that late August day, and you could walk right up to it—stand inches away from the cascade of beautiful silk roses decorating the front, shoulders and back. That museum was not crowded at all (it’s a bit of a hike to get out to Anacostia and most tourists never visit!) A few years later, in the middle of my thesis research I would have LOVED to have a similar amount of access to her flowers!

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The kind of design element that is exciting for a decorative arts historian!

When I visited the family of a former Gasparilla queen in Tampa in 2011, a picture of some gowns from 1928 stuck out to me. I’d seen that dress before! Or at least one very similar. This one was the Gasparilla Queen gown of 1928 and as far as I can tell, although newspaper articles describe her fabric flowers as early as 1916, the 1928 Gasparilla Queen gown is the earliest photographed example of Ann’s trailing rose design.

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Rolled tulle pussywillows on a beaded satin gown.
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This dress lives at the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa

Ann also used a clever method to create pussywillows. Bits of cornflower blue tulle were rolled into pussywillow blooms and placed along a beaded background of leaves and stems. In this gown, the same tulle was used as a pleated accent along the neckline.

There are DOZENS of other examples of flowers in Lowe’s dress designs. Beaded, painted, 3-D. I’ve just gotten you started…and you can keep hunting yourself by checking out the collection search database at the Met Costume Institute.