I was in Boston this week! It was still freezing there! The bronze ducks in the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture on Boston Common were well prepared—- they’d been ‘yarn bombed’ with a set of hats and scarves for each little duck. Too clever to not share.
But this trip reminded me of a beautiful Kimono collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and I thought that would be a fun thing to share this week.
This collection is especially interesting because it includes a number of examples from the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). The Meiji period is the first time period where you’ll see a number of synthetic dyes being used in Kimono fabric. I used a number of examples from the MFA’s collection in a grad school research paper about the use of Aniline dyes during the Meiji period—so I thought this would be fun to revisit.
But, an unexpected complication popped up while I was browsing for additional information about the MFA’s Kimono collection. Last summer, the MFA introduced an event called “Kimono Wednesday”, which was intended to be a series to share objects in MFA’s fine art collection with related Japanese textiles from their decorative arts collection.
Cultural appropriation is an incredibly important topic in the museum field. And the protests around this exhibit (from both sides) make some valid points that are worthy for some additional exploration.
So, instead of a light, pretty article about Kimonos at the MFA Boston, I’m going to hold up on my synthetic dye chat and take some time this week and work on a follow up post for next week that will look into the issue of Kimono Wednesday (and the way the museum responded and shifted their programming) with some more depth.
Historians work to clear up misinformation all of the time. That’s one aspect of research that really attracted me to the field. You mean I can dig up better information about a “well known story” that is incorrect and help it to fade away? Sign me up!
If you follow this blog a bit, you’ll know that I am working on an adult biography of Ann Lowe. It’s sort of a big project. And while there are many exclusive discoveries that I look forward to sharing for the first time in that book, there’s one that I don’t mind going public with early–really early –for the greater good. If you are working on anything about Ann Lowe, feel free to use this, pass it along, shout this next paragraph from a rooftop. I’d appreciate it if you cited me in your writing, but I won’t fall to pieces if you don’t.
There’s a popular story that Jackie Kennedy (a long time client of Ann Lowe as a teenager and into her early twenties) described Lowe to a reporter (when asked about her wedding gown) as “a colored woman dressmaker.”
THIS NEVER HAPPENED.
I’ve had nightmares of being on an author tour and having to swat this question down like a bug, over and over again. Sharing the truth broadly will make us all feel so much better.
It’s one of the first things I ever read about Ann Lowe and it’s wrong wrong wrong. If there was ever a piece of misinformation worth kicking to the curb with a parade and fireworks and a 6 piece brass band–this is it! But it’s so gossip worthy that without our help to spread the right information, it will refuse to go away.
When I read it the first time, it FELT incorrect. And when I learned more first hand about the respect and admiration that Lowe’s clients held for her, this “quote” began to feel even more off tone and out of place. But it was reprinted in nearly every scholarly article written about Lowe, so I sort of shrugged my shoulders about it and moved along. I even put it into my masters thesis without question.
I HELPED TO SPREAD THE MISINFORMATION TOO!
Something that IS true is that, when she looked back years later, Mrs. Kennedy didn’t like the busy design of her gown and she did tell her daughter that it looked a bit like a lampshade–when it was donated to the JFK library, it was being stored with little fanfare in a family attic, in a department store dress box (or maybe even just a shopping bag!) That story is correct, but the“colored woman dressmaker” thing? Nope.
So where does the confusion start? The last installment of a three part article in Ladies Home Journal from 1961 that (ironically enough) will never turn up (when looking for Ann Lowe) in a search of those green reader’s guide to periodical literature books or online about Lowe because she is never mentioned in the article by name. She’s mentioned in the article only as “a colored woman dressmaker” because those are the words of the author of the article. The author repeated the phrase that year in her own book about Jackie Kennedy and from there, the first person to incorrectly attribute an author’s words to The First Lady (in the 1980s) made an honest mistake in their own research and the error took on a life of its own. For at least 30 years.
How did I find this out?
About a half year after my thesis was finished, I ran into a 1961 newspaper article that mentioned Ann Lowe and said that she was “described in the book Jackie Kennedy as a colored woman dressmaker” intriguing, but any other info dried up from there. Tracking down the right quickie paperback 1961 book named Jackie Kennedy turned out to be impossible—I had no idea that it was used first in teaser articles in the Ladies Home Journal!
Until a search at the JFK library turned up correspondence “related to an issue about Ann Lowe” Oh really??
And buried in the correspondence of a Kennedy lawyer? A set of letters that helped the true story to unfold. The journalist’s insensitive words upset Lowe deeply. She wrote a concerned letter to Mrs. Kennedy, where she clearly stated that she held the journalist responsible for the comment, however she was concerned that if Mrs. Kennedy had cleared the article for publication, she also cleared the use of that phrase.
Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary, Letitia Baldridge responded by phone (and thankfully, logged the details of the call in this pile of correspondence.) Mrs. Kennedy never saw the final draft of the article and she did not know that the journalist used that language. The details provided in the flurry of correspondence to follow helped me to track down the original article. The remaining letters in the bunch, between the Kennedy attorney, Lowe’s attorney and Curtis Publishing (seeking the Kennedy family’s help in getting a retraction from Ladies Home Journal—which was promised, but does not appear to have ever happened) are very interesting, and in another newspaper article a few years later, Lowe discussed the pain of that article and also mentioned that the apology from the Kennedy family was good enough for her, but she began to get the feeling that her lawyer (the husband of a client) was pushing the conflict between the Kennedy lawyer and Curtis Publishing because he was a Republican and hoped to make some trouble for the Democrats, so Lowe decided not to take the situation any further.
As an historian, It can be embarrassing to turn around and realize that you helped to spread misinformation! It is nice to get the chance to correct a situation—and this one just couldn’t wait. —Margaret
In late 1964, Ann Lowe appeared on the Mike Douglas show. As far as I know, this was her only television appearance. Wouldn’t it be incredible to watch it!!?
The show was taped and aired a few times in different markets between late December 1964 and early January 1965. Actual footage of the program did not survive much longer than that. A very friendly archivist at Temple University poked through the leftovers of the Mike Douglas archive for me in 2011 (the show was filmed at KYW in Cleveland—that station moved to Philadelphia in late 1965 and the Douglas show—along with any of their old taped footage, moved with it). The reason the footage didn’t survive makes me laugh a bit because it is the complete opposite of another problem I’ve run into during my research: The early Mike Douglas shows with surviving footage only feature top celebrities—The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke—LOTS of footage survives (and can even be found on YouTube) from Mike Douglas shows shot before the Ann Lowe show—and if she’d been scheduled on the same show as Mick Jagger? Her appearance would probably still exist. Unfortunately, her show featured two opera singers and Mia Farrow during her Peyton Place days. A tweet to Mia Farrow about this appearance remains unanswered 🙂
On the flip side of that problem, the challenge of finding original magazine back issues at inexpensive prices when someone famous is on the cover. There’s a full page photo of a gorgeous Ann Lowe deb gown in here(NOT the dress on the cover), and for several years I could only find it at the Library of Congress. Anytime the issue showed up on Ebay or magazine back issue websites, it was priced for the Rolling Stones appearance on the cover. Right when I gave up on the idea of getting my own copy, it showed up as a gift in an amazing bunch of Lowe related documents and archival material for me.
The same problem came up with one of the best magazine interviews Ann Lowe gave during her career. A 1964 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I don’t know anything about football, but when I complained to my football loving father that “I can’t afford this Saturday Evening Post issue because somebody named Johnny Unitas is on the cover” the way he tried to hide his laughter about someone who had never heard of Johnny Unitas showed me that I probably wouldn’t be able to find this issue for less than fifty dollars. So for a while, I got by with some grainy microfilm copies and then I got very lucky and someone I interviewed about Lowe gave me a carefully saved original clipping of the interview. (One of Lowe’s earliest Florida clients saved it–which makes it very special to have in its own right). There’s something so wonderful about seeing it in the original full magazine that you can touch and flip through though. My usual go to for this kind of thing (the library at UMass Amherst and as a back up, the rest of the 5 colleges) didn’t have bound copies of the Saturday Evening Post, so I gave up on the idea of finding one. And then suddenly, a number of my Ann Lowe contacts (former clients, former business associates) started giving me original back issues of this magazine. A case of be careful what you wish for, I think. Because now I have enough original copies of this magazine to start my own Johnny Unitas memorabilia website!
If you ever come across that footage of Ann Lowe on the Mike Douglas show, do get in touch—new things get posted on YouTube all of the time and stranger things have happened, I suppose! The music group was “The Motions” and It was episode 79.
Sometimes, you find helpful clues in very unexpected places. An Ann Lowe gown in a 1948 movie trailer? Read on…
In 1947, Ann Lowe designed a silk evening gown that was worn by Olivia de Havilland when she won an Academy Award. Lowe worked as a dressmaker at someone else’s dress salon at the time, and de Havilland’s team ordered the dress from the West Coast without the usual set of design consultations and fittings that custom gowns usually required, so the actress actually never met Ann Lowe.
Olivia de Havilland is still alive and living in France, but I was never successful in my efforts to contact her through her current management team to ask her about this dress and I don’t think she is one of those very nostalgic actors who likes to look back. Between her advancing age, her French home, and her resistance to revisit the past, I figured that I wouldn’t find out very much about this dress.
The Oscar ceremony was covered on the radio in 1947, there are some grainy newspaper images of de Havilland in her gown and newsreels also showed the major winners (although I haven’t been lucky enough to see one). There are a few blurry tinted photos available of this dress online and although some sources quote a Vogue article’s description of the gown, I went through EVERY SINGLE VOGUE between 1947 and 1948 and did not come up with a single mention. A few afternoons on the 8th floor of the UMass library (where all of the bound magazines from as early as the 1880s are kept) turned up absolutely nothing that clearly showed this dress in any of the other current events or ladies magazines of the day either.
And then one day, I was watching Turner Classic Movies and this trailer came on. Ann Lowe’s gown flashed by in ten seconds and I ran over to the TCM website and then youtube to see if I could find it again. It never would have occurred to me that the actress’s next movie trailer would uncover such a gem–and while some of the things I cover here are not always “Hidden Fashion History” I think this one definitely fits the bill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Historian’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.
Are you familiar with Archive.org? The Internet Wayback Machine is a part of it, but there’s also so much more to find there. It is sort of like combining Google Books, the dusty stacks of your favorite old library and youtube– there’s a LOT of information on this website, and searching can get a bit overwhelming and noisy until you learn to narrow down your searches.
The site compiles scans of thousands of books (that are out of copyright and now public domain, I think?So mainly before the late 1920s) along with trade catalogs and magazines.
These are views of Charles Worth’s Paris Salon in the 1920s. Some of Ann Lowe’s clients would have visited these very rooms during their trips to France! Seeing this kind of primary source helps to set scenes:
How do I use these sources? I use this site on days when I’m hoping to find the kinds of articles and illustrations which would have inspired an early 20th century dressmaker (like Ann Lowe), but I’m stuck at home and I don’t have a library to wander through.
And I also use this site when I don’t feel like thinking very hard and I want to find some neat film clips. If I’m writing about 1970’s New York City and I need some real views of the streets and the people? Archive. org to the rescue!! This website is also home to the Prellinger Archive and that makes it such fun research for vintage news clips and other films that are too long to be for news shows—but too short to stand alone. I’m not sure where you would have been able to see this Harper’s Bazaar fashion update originally—but here we go. I’m cheating a bit here because this clip is being shared here through youtube, but I found it first on archive.org:
Advertisements are another truly entertaining part of this site…an early advertisement for an ELECTRIC sewing machine:
And what car demonstrated the height of technology and elegance in the 1920s London?
And how much was a dress length of silk in 1899, anyway? Ann Lowe’s mother would have looked in a dry goods catalog similar to this one:
When you don’t have a library to wander through, archive.org can be the next best thing.
If you need a few links to get you started down a fashion history rabbit hole or two:
I’ll probably never have a dress custom made for myself, but to write about a couture designer and her clients, it would be helpful to learn about the customer’s experience!
So I needed to talk to some of Ann Lowe’s former clients.
Four years ago, I visited a beautiful Ann Lowe wedding gown in the collection of the Delaware Historical Society. Unlike the other dresses I’d seen up to that point, I was able to interview the original owner!
It was an exciting trip for me. I was living in DC at the time, so I came up to Wilmington on the train, found my way to the historical society’s buildings and spent about an hour looking at every inch of this gown.
This dress was a bit of a surprise because it was very elegant and extremely simple. It is also beautifully finished inside. Interestingly, this gown does not have a label. But it was mentioned in a 1960s magazine article–and that article is the breadcrumb that led me to the former bride! You won’t see any large silk flowers on this dress, but the simple bow at the waist is a perfect touch.