Tag Archives: Ann Lowe

Gasparilla

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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.

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Yes, this is a typical Ann Lowe client. Upper class, from the East Coast (probably lives on Park Avenue for part of the year) and white. My own photo of a (privately held) Lowe fashion show program from the mid 1960s.

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.

Gasparilla?

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.”

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The Court in 1924: Egyptian themed Source: Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
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Unfortunately, no full court picture appears to exist from the 1926 coronation. But this dress was worn by a court member. I was so excited to see this gown in person and take detailed photos of the beadwork that I forgot to take a full picture of the entire dress. Thankfully, the Plant museum’s curator was very kind to take a picture when I was back home and realized my mistake! Source: Henry B Plant Museum

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.

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A closer look at the beading on a court member’s gown from 1926. My own photo from 2012.
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Another detailed photo from my 2012 visit.
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Just throwing in this photo because of the fun behind the scenes look it gives: That gold lame fabric from 1926 actually held up pretty well! My own photo from 2012 at the Plant Museum.

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.

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This dress was made for a Gasparilla court member by Lowe in the late 1950s: ordered from her New York salon. Source: Henry B. Plant Museum, Tampa

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.

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Alot of shadows in this picture, but you get an idea of the gorgeous bead work.

 

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My own picture taken at the Plant Museum in 2012. I had to get some close ups of these pussywillows!

 

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Probably my favorite court year: 1928. The Queen’s gown shows the amazing silk rose flower design that Lowe would revisit throughout her career, but this is the earliest photographed example.

 Hiheadshotstorian’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.

-Margaret

 

…and the Ann Lowe Dress That Came to Stay…

Ann Lowe's Adam Room dresses have a Saks label---not an "Ann Lowe Original" label
Ann Lowe’s Adam Room dresses have a Saks label—not an “Ann Lowe Original” label
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One of Ann Lowe’s debut gowns in a Saks advertisement–and a bit more typical of an Adam Room piece. From the Park Avenue Social Review

In the early 1960s, after making dresses for a number of department stores for almost 30 years, including Saks–Ann Lowe moved her business into a workroom and showroom at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store.

She became the head designer of The Adam Room,  a custom boutique specializing in debut and bridal gowns. Some styles were available for purchase “off the rack” but for the most part, a customer’s experience in the Adam Room replicated her experience in Ann Lowe’s own Madison Avenue salon. Lowe’s clients followed her to Saks—in the same way that they would follow her after she left Saks in 1962. Her work made her customers feel beautiful, and while the executives at Saks hoped to move Lowe’s customer base firmly to their store, they were probably quite disappointed when her loyal customers followed her from shop to shop.

I wish that I could steam away these creases---but the best thing to do with 60 year old silk (unless you are actually preparing it for an exhibit) is to leave it alone!
Thick and heavy silk shantung gets heavy creases, unless it was carefully packed with supportive rolls of tissue paper during its entire life in storage. Unlikely in anything but the very best storage circumstance! I wish that I could steam away these creases—but the best thing to do with 60 year old silk (unless you are actually preparing it for an exhibit) is to leave it alone!

This gold and pink silk shantung dress was probably a bridesmaid dress.  Bridesmaid dresses usually have uncomplicated designs with a few unique adornments. The braided silk sash is such a pretty detail and it was a simple touch that could be added to a dress quickly. Imagine making six of these!

The inside of a typical Ann Lowe design will have very neat finishing work. Neatly applied white lace is added along the raw edges, snaps are covered with matching fabric and eyehooks are covered in matching silk thread.
The inside of a typical Ann Lowe design will have very neat finishing work. Neatly applied white lace is added along the raw edges, snaps are covered with matching fabric and even eye hooks are covered in matching silk thread.

I was (oh, so very) lucky to find this on Ebay.  Yes, EBAY! Ebay is actually a fantastic place to find vintage clothes—if you shop carefully.

While this is a vintage couture dress, and the listing correctly stated that it was an Ann Lowe dress, I was the only bidder…this isn’t the kind of dress someone would buy to actually wear. There are a number of reasons for this and I lucked out because:

 


  1. Bright yellow is a tough color to wear.
  2. Silk Shantung is heavy! Shantung is a thick silk and this is two layers of it along with a cotton lining.
  3. There were a few condition issues (worn areas of silk in important and very visible areas, like the center of the bodice) some light stain issues, again in visible areas (possibly from the pink getting damp at some point and bleeding onto the gold).
  4. This was priced correctly and the starting bid was set at a price that only a serious collector or vintage clothing shopper would have considered.
  5. The ornament is very simple for an Ann Lowe dress. If this had Lowe’s trademark silk flowers all over it, there is no way that I could have afforded it!
  6. The dress is also incredibly, unbelievably tiny. It looks like a size 6 or so, right? Read on…
This definitely is not me. This is my model-also my sister-the only person I know who is tiny enough to fit this waist!
This definitely is not me. This is my model-also my sister-the only person I know who is tiny enough to fit this waist!

Because I own the dress, and it is in very good structural condition, the first thing I did when it arrived was to try to get into it! I’m a costume historian, but I’m also a woman and a beautiful silk dress from Saks Fifth Avenue? I mean, come on— of course I’m going to try it on! It’s mine!***

This beautiful thing would not even come close to zipping. Incredibly tiny. Don’t be fooled by the great big skirt! Incredibly tiny. This gown is probably a modern size 0  to 2!  I can show you views from the back, because it fit my model’s very tiny waist, but the dress didn’t really fit her from the front, it was actually too big! So, my flat photo on the measuring board will have to do.

 

The elegant back has a surprisingly colorful design element...
The elegant back has a surprisingly colorful design element…
A shock of hot pink visible when the bridesmaid is swishing down the aisle. Imagine how a half dozen of these dresses would look together!
A shock of hot pink visible when the bridesmaid is swishing down the aisle. Imagine how a half dozen of these dresses would look together!

Collecting vintage clothes can be so much fun! And in this case, I was just so happy to be able to own an example of the work of a designer I really admire. In grad school, one of my professors would say that the best way to get “un-stuck” from writer’s block when you are working with objects is to get that object right in front of you. Pick it up! Look closely at the fabric and the stitches! Not always possible when you are working on a project about a couture fashion designer! I’ve visited Lowe’s gowns in museums and a small state historical society—but it is very different when you have a garment to work with at home.

 

headshot***Historian’s Disclaimer: “This dress is from the 1960s with mint condition seams and modern closures in great condition. 99.9% of its time is spent inside an archival garment box with acid-free tissue. If you are going to try something on, Make sure that you (or your models) are sparkling clean, without a drop of lotion, perfume or deodorant. And only wear it long enough to get some beautiful pictures. Test zippers carefully before you try to zip them shut. This is a late 20th century piece and I absolutely would not try on a dress from the 1860s—know what I mean? I own a civil war era carpet bag–but I don’t wear it on my shoulder or use it to hold things!! Use your discretion, but actual antique clothes should only be worn by mannequins and fragile clothes should be handled with extreme care” –Margaret

Visit the Gown That Introduced Me to Ann Lowe

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Photo: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

 

There’s a beautiful costume exhibit at Hillwood right now that will give you a heavy dose of 20th century couture and give you the chance to see an Ann Lowe dress up close.

Hillwood: ingenue to icon

Mrs  Post was an enthusiastic client of Ann Lowe’s salon, but this gown may be the only “Ann Lowe Original” in the museum’s collection.  The dress is also interesting because Mrs  Post wore it in her most famous portrait.

This silk dress is actually the garment that started my Ann Lowe project in 2011. I was lucky enough to be an intern at the museum and the curators wanted to learn more about this dress and its designer–that small side research project grew into my Masters thesis and then into this ongoing and marvelously special project. It’s so exciting to see this gown all ready for the public!

If you can’t get to the exhibit (it closes at the end of December) the curator of the exhibit, Howard Kurtz has a lovely exhibition catalog that is the next best thing.

Read more about Howard’s book here

 

Introducing Ann Lowe

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Ann Lowe (and a model) in her Madison Avenue Studio, 1967 (Ebony Magazine)

There will be a lot of articles here about the woman sitting down on the left–   Ann Lowe.   You could say that Ann Lowe is the reason that this site even exists. Her story is probably the best example of hidden fashion history that I could help to bring to light and she will be all over this blog because there’s just so much to tell you about her. Even the bright silk braid at the top of this page is a detail from one of her dresses (and I’m a lucky girl to own this dress–even if it doesn’t fit me!)

ANN LOWE.


In some books and articles, you may run across her name listed as “Ann Cole Lowe”. That is incorrect.  It’s just “Ann Lowe”. While Cole was her mother’s maiden name, and it appeared in Lowe’s death notice and obituary (which were not written by direct family members) Cole was not a name that Lowe ever used, either personally or professionally, and it never appears in any of her census information, business dealings or social security information as a middle name. 


So, who is Ann Lowe and why do I want to tell you all about her? You might not recognize her name or her face,  but there’s a good chance that you’ve seen at least one of the wedding dresses that she designed over her sixty year career and you can recognize the woman who wore that gown in an instant:

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Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in her Ann Lowe Gown, 1953

At the top of Lowe’s career in the 1950s and 1960s, she operated custom salons on Madison Avenue, where she created custom debut, wedding and special occasion gowns for the women of high society and created dresses for the top department stores in the country.

But that’s just one little part of her story. She was raised in rural Alabama at the turn of the 20th century and became a leading designer for the women of the most elite families in Tampa, Florida before moving to New York City in 1928 to chase her dream of becoming a top fashion designer. I’ll give you a little spoiler—she made it.

And another…
An Ann Lowe Evening Gown at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
An Ann Lowe Gown at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
And another...
…and another (there are ten Ann Lowe dresses at the Met!)

Ann’s story is like a good book— and her biography is something I’m working on right now, so bits and pieces of Lowe’s story will turn up on this site often while I’m writing the rest of it in the BIG project. You’ll be able to check the Ann Lowe heading in the sidebar to fast forward to the latest installment.

If you are a bit impatient to find out a little more, check out these links:

The Remarkable Story of Ann Lowe: From Alabama to Madison Avenue

Pursuing Hidden History in Delaware

Ann Lowe and the Intriguing Couture Tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben

There are so many stories to tell and dresses to show you! The links above are just a tiny taste! I hope you’ll enjoy the adventure.

-Margaret Powell