Category Archives: Ann Lowe

My new book for Simon and Schuster

A sophisticated lady, indeed.

Early 2021 will be a busy time for me. Only the Best (co-written with Kate Messner and illustrated by Erin Robinson) will be released by Chronicle Books, and another book about Ann Lowe, her biography, Sophisticated Lady will be released by Simon and Schuster. Both are dream projects for me and I’m so thrilled to be able to give Ann the in-depth appreciation of her career that she deserves. Important stories will always find their place in the public spotlight, but some take a bit longer to get there than others.

There are plans for Hidden Fashion History, thanks for being patient while the site was very quiet. I am looking forward to digging into some stories about the 19th and early to mid 20th century fashion history very soon.



Are you here to learn more about Ann Lowe?

Welcome to Hidden Fashion History! If you found this blog through Sunday’s NY Post article about Ann Lowe, welcome!  I hope you’ll enjoy browsing this site.

I’ve put together a list of links below to send you directly to some fun articles about her impressive career, but you can also go straight to the Ann Lowe link from the side bar to get to all of the posts about her. There are a bunch!

An introduction

An early Ann Lowe dress

Her 1920s work

The Evyan First Lady Gowns

Olivia de Havilland gown

Ann Lowe’s Flowers

A 1960s Lowe Gown Up Close

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 1

Ak-Sar Ben Gowns Part 2

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 3

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 4

Ann’s challenging career problems

And an upcoming children’s project about Ann

If you are ready to explore Ann’s work a bit more, here are two groups of gowns in the collections of the  Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian



Ann Lowe’s Financial and Health Challenges During the 1960s

Ann Lowe working in her shop workroom on Madison Avenue during the late 1960s. (Ebony Magazine)

Let’s get back to Ann Lowe a bit!

With the financial losses Lowe endured after her large gown order for Ak-Sar-Ben, losing an average of $150  on each dress–if you’ll remember–and there were 33 dresses in the order, Ann entered a period of severe financial stress. Records from her bankruptcy proceedings listed ten creditors and revealed that she owed more than $9,000 to Saks Fifth Avenue—borrowed money to originally cover operating expenses and materials. Saks was the largest claimant.

The financial problems of 1962 were just the beginning of Lowe’s troubles. Lowe left Saks at some point during that year and reopened in a small workspace farther down 53rd street. Unfortunately, the majority of Lowe’s employees chose to continue with Saks because they could pay more than Lowe was able to offer.[i] A few employees attempted to move with Lowe, but returned to Saks when Lowe’s financial problems affected the reliability of their salaries. Only her sister, Sallie, stayed by her side.[ii]

A strong staff was an absolute necessity for Lowe at this point. Although she began her career sketching dress after dress, her increasingly poor eyesight made drawing impossible and severely limited her sewing capability. “I’ve had to work by feel” she admitted, “but people tell be I’ve done better feeling than others do seeing.”[iii] Without a staff to sketch and take up the bulk of the sewing, running a shop would be impossible. Lowe’s sketcher and chief assistant remained at Saks and Lowe was unable to hire new and highly trained workers who could meet the challenge of a high volume couture shop. “I couldn’t fill my orders,” she admitted. “Things went from bad to worse.” When this shop closed, Lowe “ran sobbing into the street…the tears wouldn’t stop.”[iv] Shortly after this, Lowe’s right eye, which had been heavily damaged by Glaucoma, was removed. Lowe had to stop working completely.[v]

After a period of rehabilitation, Lowe became a designer for Madeline Couture, a dress shop in New York City. At Madeline Couture, Lowe was able to have a fashion show where former customers did the modeling.[vi] Shortly after the show, Lowe began to have problems with her other eye. Her attempts to continue working with a severe cataract in her only eye led to embarrassing attempts to cover up her problems:

Terrified to lose her eye, she tried to bluff. “Now here’s a design I think you’ll like.” She would say to a customer, picking up a sketch and brining it close to her eyes. “Oh my goodness,” she would add brightly, “Isn’t that ridiculous! I’m holding this sketch upside down!” The bluff worked through this past spring. She gave up her job at the dress shop in March (1963).[vii]

Lowe was completely unprepared for retirement. She had no savings, and no way of paying her living expenses without working. The surgery she needed to restore sight to her only eye was high risk. It could possibly destroy whatever sight she still had in her left eye and a number of surgeons refused to take the chance. With the help of her previous clients she eventually found a surgeon who would attempt to remove the cataract, “If I can’t design dresses” she told him, “I’d rather fly off the Empire State Building.” The doctor donated his services and covered the costs of the operating room.[viii] The August 1964 operation restored sight to Lowe’s left eye and amazingly, she prepared her business again. She contacted her previous customers through postcards—500 handwritten postcards, according to the Post. The campaign worked and Lowe was back to sewing for a number of her previous customers. She continued to create wholesale designs and maintained her close and personalized working style with her couture clients.

Lowe with the Johnson and Kennedy mini gowns for the Evyan Great Ladies Collection (Jet 1966)

[i]. Thomas Congdon, Jr. “Ann Lowe: Society’s Best Kept Secret” Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1964, 76.


[ii]. Melissa Sones “Found Exclusively at Ann Lowe Gowns.” American Legacy (Winter 1999), 38.


[iii]. Congdon, 75.


[iv]. Congdon, 76.


[v]. Ibid.


[vi]. Ibid.


[vii]. Ibid.


[viii]. Ibid.



Some Ann Lowe roses at the newest Smithsonian Museum…

We’ve seen this dress (American Beauty, 1966) a few times on Hidden Fashion History, but not from this angle. The Smithsonian has some gorgeous newer photos. Source: Smithsonian
…but we haven’t seen this view before. And it gives one of the best looks at Ann’s flowers. Imagine being the lucky girl swirling on a dance floor with these at your back! Source: Smithsonian


The National Museum of African American History and Culture doesn’t open until September, but their online collections search is already up and running as a part of the Smithsonian’s main website. They’ve taken some really great new pictures of a dress that’s been in the Smithsonian’s collection for years. It’s called “American Beauty” and it was a gown for a New York debutante.  I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at a few of Ann Lowe’s silk flowers thanks to these new pictures.

Gasparilla Queen in an earlier version of a trailing rose design, 1928 Tampa, Florida

And for comparison’s sake, this black and white photo shows the 1928 Gasparilla queen. This gown is the earliest photographed version of Ann Lowe’s silk roses.

An Ann Lowe Dress in Vogue, 1955

A Smith College date stamp on a copy of Vogue.
In high school and early college, I was one of those girls completely obsessed with Sylvia Plath. When I was waitlisted at Smith, I was crushed—although my 2nd choice, UMass Amherst, turned out to be the perfect place for me. So you can probably see why it was so exciting to flip through some magazines that she probably read!

When I was in college, some of the bound Vogue magazines in the collection of the UMass Library were originally from (nearby) Smith College and it was THRILLING to be a little English major, flipping through the actual copies of 1950s fashion magazines, with their covers stamped with a Smith College date stamp and think that maybe Sylvia Plath held this, if she ever took a breather in the Nielsen Library and let herself zone out to Vogue for a few minutes…

Browsing through the bound volumes of old magazines is one of my favorite historian hobbies. Life, Look, Time, Ladies Home Journal and of course—–fashion magazines. There’s just something about flipping through the original hardbound copies that gets you closer to the period. I’d like to think that most historians are dorky like that. 😉

And writing about a time period–even if you are just working on a piece of fiction— is a lot easier when you have primary source material in front of you. Microfilm isn’t the same AT ALL.

The cover of the August 1, 1955 edition of Vogue

As one of the leading debutante and wedding gown designers in New York, it’s very possible that Ann Lowe’s work appeared uncredited in Vogue many times between the 1930s and 1960s. It’s also very possible that her designs appeared in the magazine under the name of the designers she worked for, such as Hattie Carnegie.

Nina Auchincloss in her Ann Lowe debut gown, 1955.

I’ve seen some uncredited examples of dresses that are definitely Lowe’s work and dresses that are possibly Lowe’s work, once you get familiar with her preferred necklines and sleeve designs, her work starts standing out to your eye!

But here is one of the only credited examples of Lowe’s work that I’ve been able to find in Vogue from that period—this one from August 1, 1955, in an editorial about the year’s leading debutantes. Nina Auchincloss was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister. My own scanned copy of this photo is a bit too blurry to post, so I pulled this copy (if you noticed the tell-tale highlighting around Lowe’s name, this is clearly a Google Books scan) from an article I wrote a few years ago for the National Archives.

Ann Lowe and Her Garden of Flowers

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!

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.

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
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!

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.

Rolled tulle pussywillows on a beaded satin gown.
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.

Ann Lowe and the Evyan Perfume First Lady Miniature Gowns


Along with Ann Lowe’s couture gowns, she’d take on a special project every now and then when it interested her–especially if it was a request from a friend.

In 1957, the Evyan perfume company—the creators of the famous “White Shoulders”  perfume— debuted their latest fragrance, “Great Lady.” To promote the new perfume, the company commissioned a set of great ladies dresses that would tour the fine department stores of the United States. The mind behind the project was the “Evyan” of Evyan Perfumes, Evelyn Diane Westall, also known as the Baroness Von Langdorfer. Evelyn was also a steady and devoted client of Ann Lowe’s salon.

By the late 1970s, there were nearly 30 gowns in the set, Ann Lowe was blind by the mid 70s, so it is unlikely that she was involved in the creation of the later gowns. The mannequin with the fur cuffs at the front of this photo wears the Lowe copy of Ladybird Johnson’s inaugural gown.

Baroness Von Langdorfer’s vision for the exhibit was simple: Each first lady would be represented by a four-foot tall evening gown, fashioned from high quality, imported fabric and materials, using couture techniques. When possible, their inaugural gowns were used and copied, but in some cases, the designers were instructed to rely on period ball gowns for their inspiration.

Some of the first lady gowns in a more recent display at The Ohio State University. That yellow satin Ladybird Johnson outfit with the fur cuffs is in the background. Source: The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

The first designer hired to work on the collection was the famous ballet costumier, Barbara Karinska. Karinska was best known for her work with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet (when it was called Ballet Society). She designed 16 of the first 17 dresses, all four foot tall reproductions of dresses worn or inspired by United States first ladies.

The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

 The Baroness would eventually ask Ann to continue the series, and this is where the credit for the gowns gets a little muddy. Ann created a number of gowns to add to the original set, and she also reproduced traveling copies of Karinska’s earlier designs.

Lowe photographed for Ebony and Jet magazine in December 1966. She’s seated with two of the gowns she created for the Evyan set.

Some later sources give Ann credit for all of the gowns in the collection,  but I think they are confusing Ann’s work on the sets as original designs. The exact number of dresses adapted by Ann for the Evyan first lady exhibit is difficult to determine, but published accounts credit her with the dresses of Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Johnson and a number of historical dolls including Abigail Adams and Jane Pierce. Ann’s family recalls that she worked on a number of the historical gowns, and spent a great deal of her time researching the period costumes.

1st_lady3Six sets of each doll were created for display throughout the country and the dresses toured department stores as late as 1989. By 1966, there were 18 dolls in the set, starting with Mary Todd Lincoln. (This suggests Karinska’s original 16 and Lowe’s Ladybird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy gowns) and they toured under the name “Evyan Collection of 100 Years of Great Lady Fashions.” 

IMG_4806There is confusion about the creator of the Ladybird Johnson doll dress. In advertisements for the set in 1966, the dress is listed as the work of the original designer, John Moore. In December of that year, Ann was photographed in her studio with one of the Ladybird mannequins and one of the Kennedy mannequins and given credit for adapting and sewing both designs, along with their five additional copies.

first lady adDresses were added to the collection until the early 1980s (Nancy Reagan’s bright red gown from 1981 was the final gown) and the dresses toured in department stores throughout the United States until late 1989. Other designers would have been involved with any gowns added after 1969 or 1970. Ann Lowe’s health and vision were failing at that point, and she would not have been able to continue this work.  Of the six original sets, two have been located.

The Evyan first lady gowns are a fun footnote in Ann Lowe’s career.  I’m intrigued by this dress commission, and I’m very glad that I found some information about it, but if you are trying to find out more about Lowe’s work, this isn’t a very helpful group of dresses to help you do that.

A Karinska ballet gown. Gorgeous! These beautiful silk flowers are of similar quality to Ann Lowe’s

Only two dresses (Kennedy and Johnson) can truly be confirmed as Lowe’s work, in my opinion, anyway (because of that photo in Ebony) and Karinska, the designer of the early dresses was an amazing talent, her fabric flowers (as they appear on ballet costumes) were of similar quality to Lowe’s for instance, so studying the gowns one by one wouldn’t really give concrete clues about the maker. It’s a little bit frustrating, but sometimes research leads you to frustrating dead ends! At least this dead end is filled with pretty dresses 🙂

One surviving set of Evyan First Lady gowns…in the (closed to the public, including researchers) collection of the Congressional Club. Photo: Congressional Club
Photo: Congressional Club

For information about one of the surviving sets of Evyan gowns, check out this article on the website of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. Another set is in the collection of the Congressional Club in Washington, DC. The club is closed to non members (including researchers, unfortunately) but they do have two photos of their gowns (displayed in “The First Lady Gown Room” on their website.

For more detailed information about Barbara Karinska, check out this article, this one and  this AMAZING Google Image Search

For more information about the First Lady gowns, there’s an unusual source! The article “First Lady Gowns”on page 8 of the April 1983 edition of a Freemason News Magazine, The Northern Light covers the history of the gowns in solid detail.

A wide shot of the exhibit at The Ohio State University, Kuhn Gallery

My book deal with Chronicle Books…an exciting announcement!!


I was surprised to hear that of the 3,200 children’s books published in the US in 2015, just 240 were about African American characters. 102 (of the 3,200) books were created by African American authors or illustrators. That figure is actually a deep improvement from previous years.

This is one reason why I am so excited to tell you about something I’ve been working on since December.

I’ve been floating on air with a secret under my hat for a few weeks now, but official announcements have been made, happy dances have been completed and I’m able to spill the beans  🙂

I co-wrote a picture book biography about Ann Lowe, named ONLY THE BEST  with Kate Messner, a children’s book author, and it will be published by Chronicle Books in 2018 .

I cannot wait to see how the illustrator will bring Ann Lowe’s dress designs to life!!
A recent Chronicle picture book biography that is also one of the prettiest children’s books I’ve ever seen…and our book has the same editor!

My first book!!  🙂

The flowers! The swan wings! The ballet pose! So beautiful!

Ann Lowe’s story will be in good company! Chronicle’s children’s books are absolutely gorgeous. Each title features sophisticated and emotionally charged artwork, and such careful and detailed design. Gorgeous!! Our editor has edited two other picture book biographies recently, and they both prove that Ann Lowe’s story could not be in better company.(this one, SWAN, by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad– about the ballerina Anna Pavlova is so enchanting!)

510YlWgc+AL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ And Josephine,  by Patricia Hruby Powell (no relation), illustrated by Christian Robinson takes a look at Josephine Baker’s life with bold, colorful graphics and a unique long form poetic style.

imgresAs you can probably imagine, Chronicle is just the right publisher to work with Lowe’s dresses! Such a beautiful way to present her story accurately and honor Ann Lowe’s gorgeous designs!

For your local decorative arts historian— who has wanted to be an author since she was eight years old (it was either Ellen Tebbits, By the Shores of Silver Lake, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that gave me the ‘want to grow up and be a writer’ bug)—this is also a wonderful way to learn the ins and outs of the publishing world while I work on bringing my other Ann Lowe project—the adult biography to fruition.

I’m geeky enough to be SO excited to think that our book will be in libraries with these books! If I ever see a copy of Only The Best in a stack with any of these, I may need some smelling salts!

It’s all just so exciting!

Lowe-ad_social review
When you get a book deal, you walk around looking like this for a couple of weeks…while your friends smile graciously, take deep breaths and wait for you to drop back to the earth’s crust.

I’ll look forward to sharing what I can about ONLY THE BEST as we reach the publishing finish line, although I’m pretty sure most of the details will remain under wraps until the release date… it’s more fun that way, anyway!


Historian’s note: Being able to find a professional home for the story of a designer I have researched and admired for five years is so rewarding! A picture book is especially exciting and special for me, headshotbecause it will share the nearly electric beauty of Ann Lowe’s work in a way that a stuffy and somewhat cerebral “grown up” biography cannot.


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.