Ann Cole Lowe (1898 – February 25, 1981) was an American fashion designer and the first African American to become a noted fashion designer. Lowe’s one-of-a-kind designs were a favorite among high society matrons from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, the great granddaughter of a slave woman and an Alabama plantation owner. Lowe’s interest in fashion, sewing and designing came from her mother and grandmother, both of whom worked as seamstresses for the first families of Montgomery and other members of high society.
Lowe’s mother died when Lowe was 16 years old. At the time of her death, Lowe’s mother had been working on four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal. Using the skills she learned from her mother and grandmother, Lowe finished the dresses.
In 1917, Lowe moved to New York City where she enrolled at S.T. Taylor Design School. As the school was segregated, Lowe was required to attend classes in a room alone. The following year, she opened her first dress salon, “Annie Cohen”. The salon catered to members of high society and quickly became a success.
For a time, she worked on commission for stores such as Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1946, she designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each His Own, although the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg. Lowe did not receive credit for her work. Lowe opened a second salon, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, in New York City on Lexington Avenue in 1950.
Her one-of-a-kind designs made from the finest fabrics were an immediate success and attracted many wealthy, high society clients. The Saturday Evening Post later called Lowe “society’s best kept secret”.
She later described herself as “an awful snob”, adding “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.” Over the course of her career, Lowe created designs for several generations of the Auchinclosses, the Rockefellers, the Lodges, the Du Ponts, the Posts and the Biddles.
In 1953, she was hired to design a wedding dress for future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier and the dresses for her bridal attendants for her September wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy.
Lowe’s dress for Jacqueline Bouvier consisted of fifty yards of “ivory silk taffeta with interwoven bands of tucking forming the bodice and similar tucking in large circular designs swept around the full skirt.”
Throughout her career, Lowe continued to work for wealthy clientele who often talked her out of charging hundreds of dollars for her designs. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit on her designs. Lowe later admitted that at the height of her career, she was virtually broke. In 1962, she lost her salon in New York City after failing to pay taxes. Ann Lowe died at age 82.