Tag Archives: Black fashion designer

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

 

Wesley Tann

20070117AE 4/* Wesley Tann working with a model around 1965. Wesley Tann of Newark is one of the groundbreaking black designers featured in the "Black Style Now" exhibit featured at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan. 5:21:05 PM NEWARK, NJ USA photo courtsey of Wesley Tann. copy photo by ARISTIDE ECONOMOPOULOS/THE STAR-LEDGER
20070117AE 4/* Wesley Tann working with a model around 1965. Wesley Tann of Newark is one of the groundbreaking black designers featured in the “Black Style Now” exhibit featured at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan. 5:21:05 PM NEWARK, NJ USA photo courtsey of Wesley Tann. copy photo by ARISTIDE ECONOMOPOULOS/THE STAR-LEDGER
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Tann’s work was covered in the fashion pages of the New York Times. These dresses were sold at Henri Bendel for $140 and $75 “Simple uncluttered lines keynote Wesley Tann’s spring and summer clothes” says the caption.

The man in that picture is Wesley Tann. He created maternity dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy! He also dressed Leontyne Price. He sold his daywear designs at Neiman Marcus and other highly regarded Manhattan department stores and he was the first black man to open a fashion salon on Seventh Avenue. Does this surprise you?

One of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about the 20th Century custom clothing business in New York City is that there were dozens and dozens (probably even hundreds) of independent dressmakers. White women, black women and even black men set up shop in small rented workrooms in buildings along important streets in the fashion district like Seventh Avenue and Madison Avenue. They met with their clients, sketched their designs and created custom wardrobes, very often inspired by the latest designs from Paris. They were in business for years, and a number of the designers I’ve come across sewed for some very elite clients, but I’d never heard of their businesses.

The want ads in the NY Times list numerous job openings for people with sewing skills.
The want ads in the NY Times list numerous job openings for people with sewing skills.

You can look through the 1950s or 1960s want ads of the New York Times and see dozens of ads for seamstresses, finishers, drapers, etc.  These businesses provided work for hundreds of people.

 

tann_workBut back to Tann. He was born in 1928. His mother taught him to sew as he was growing up in North Carolina. When his parents died,  he became the ward of Adam Clayton Powell—an old family friend. This introduced Tann to a completely new world in Washington, DC. Tann received an excellent high school education and trained at the Hartford Art School of Fashion.  He had a strong business sense (and unlike a number of other independent designers) he managed his business well. His business was profiled, along with some other smaller fashion designers in the New York Times on April 9, 1963. His work was featured in the fashion section of the Times more than a dozen times.

Tann chose to leave the fashion industry in the early 1970s. He’d been one of a small handful of African American designers in business for years, and he was successful–but the difficulties of dealing with the racism of some of the local suppliers was one of the factors Tann mentioned when he told interviewers about closing his business.

Photo: Philly.Com Wesley Tann meeting with his class of home decorators in October 2012
Photo: Philly.Com Wesley Tann meeting with his class of home decorators in October 2012

Tann began a second career as an etiquette coach in his hometown of Newark, NJ. He taught workshops on home sewing along with etiquette classes for the young people of Newark. Tann died in 2012.

Sometimes you drop the ball as a researcher, unfortunately.  I never got the chance to meet Mr. Tann or discuss his work, but this was my own fault. I followed a trail of 1960s fashion breadcrumbs through the pages of the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily while I was knee deep in graduate school and I mailed a letter to Mr. Tann to request an interview but I didn’t get the chance to follow up with a phone call or go the extra mile to connect with him and he passed away about a year later. Going the extra mile is essential when you are reaching people for interview requests. You can’t be shy, you just have to take a step out there and meet people. Missing a chance to meet Mr. Tann taught me that lesson.

I bet he would have been a fascinating man to talk with about the fashion industry!  Details about his career and educational background, when held next to Ann Lowe’s are especially interesting. Lowe’s formal dresses sold for around $500 at Henri Bendel , and in a different department at the same store, Tann’s daywear sold for around $100. Tann had the educational background necessary to run the financial side of his business effectively. That was one of Ann Lowe’s weak spots. They worked within blocks of each other and they both left the industry at the same time, although Lowe’s final shop closed in the early 1970s because of financial strain and illness.

One day, I would love to find out how many African American fashion designers were designing clothing at major New York department stores during the 1950s and 1960s. I know of four so far, and I’m planning to tell you about some of the others in later articles, but Tann is the only man in the bunch.

Although I missed my opportunity to meet Wesley Tann, I hope to interview some of his family and acquaintances and focus on Tann’s work with a scholarly article in the future. He really deserves to be known.

The articles listed below are worth reading, although let me warn you that the first article will make you sad that you also missed out on an opportunity to meet Mr. Tann. He must have been quite a character!

Newspaper Interview with Wesley Tann

Memorial article about Wesley Tann