Around 800 guests saw the dress at the ceremony at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and 400 more watched it slide through the reception that evening. And then there were the 3,000 well-wishers who broke the police barricades to see Jacqueline Lee Bouvier arrive at her wedding to then Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
A photo of the newlyweds appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 13, 1953. But the grainy black and white shot of the bride half obscured by her husband couldn’t do the skirt justice and the layers of silk taffeta, the intricate jacks of scallops, and the tiny wax flowers – a fitting choice for the woman who would later become the American queen.
The dress that Kennedy’s bridesmaids wore was the work of African American designer Ann Lowe, who died in February 1981.
“The dress she made for Jackie Kennedy has been widely photographed. Many people have seen it and it has undoubtedly influenced the average American wedding dresses and prom dresses,” said Elizabeth Way, an associate curator at Museum at FIT. “The fact that (the dress) was created by a black woman’s creativity really speaks for how much black people were instrumental in shaping American culture.”
Jackie and John Kennedy are shown in their wedding attire. Recognition: Lisa Larsen / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
“Society’s Best Kept Secret”
And while the dress wowed the American public, the same cannot be said for the bride’s own reaction. Kennedy was not a fan of the dress she wore down the aisle, according to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, author of the recent book The Way We Got Married: A Global History of Wedding Fashion.
“While it’s a beautiful dress, it wasn’t what she wanted and she actually compared it to a lampshade,” explained Chrisman-Campbell. “It was chosen by her future father-in-law who wanted to create an American royal moment and really establish his son as heir to the family dynasty.”
This Jackie Kennedy bride portrait captures the grandeur of her Ann Lowe-designed wedding dress. Recognition: Bachrach / Archive Photos / Getty Images
By this point, Lowe was an established American high society style referee and delighted wealthy clients across the country (including Jacqueline’s mom, Janet Lee Auchincloss, who hired Lowe to create her daughter’s debutante and wedding dresses) with a made-to-order princess silhouettes and embellishments at the couture level. Years later, the Saturday Evening Post described it as “society’s best kept secret” and “unknown except to the very wealthy”.
Lowe was an unrepentant snob and selected her clients. Only the elite deserved their efforts – the Rockefellers and the du Ponts of the world, as well as stars like Olivia de Havilland, who wore one of Lowe’s hand-painted floral awards on the night she won best actress at the Academy in 1947.
“I love my clothes and I know exactly who is wearing them,” Lowe said in an interview with Ebony magazine. “I’m not interested in sewing for the cafe company or social climbers. I don’t care about Mary and Sue. I sew for the social register families.”
In order to do justice to her clientele, there was apparently nothing she wouldn’t do. After a flood in her Manhattan studio destroyed the Kennedy dresses just 10 days before the ceremony, she and her team worked day and night to make sure a new set was completed on time. She never said a word about it to the family and paid the extra costs herself.
How the world’s most expensive clothes are made
Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898. Her grandmother, who was born into slavery, and her mother ran an exclusive tailoring business for wealthy patrons, and Lowe learned the trade at a young age.
“She’s been in tailoring since she was a kid, so she really had decades of experience when we started making these prom dresses, those wedding dresses, those debut dresses in the 1950s,” said Way.
At the age of 16, Lowe took over the family business after her mother’s death. She later studied design in New York, separately from her white counterparts (she graduated after just six months due to her exceptional skills) before settling in Florida, where she built her reputation for extravagance and exclusivity. After a decade, she returned to Manhattan to do the same on the east coast.
But the extreme wealth of clients she valued was not enough to boost her business. They routinely persuaded her to bring her prices down, and she often lost money on commissions. In 1963 she declared bankruptcy. (A long-standing rumor has it that Kennedy may have paid her debt to the IRS anonymously.) When she retired in 1972, she was penniless.
African American designer Ann Lowe created unique designs. Recognition: Alamy
“She does the same amazing job as Mainbocher,” remarked fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard once, referring to Main Rousseau Bocher, Lowe’s contemporaries and the first American couturier. “The difference is that Mainbocher is both a businessman and a designer and he demands what he has to do to stay in business.”
Rediscovery of a fashion heritage
Since her death, the name Ann Lowe has meant little outside of fashion history circles. In recent years, however, interest in the designer has increased significantly. Both an Ann Lowe biography and an Ann Lowe children’s book have been published, and a historical novel by Piper Huguley is in the works. Her designs have been exhibited at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and as part of the 2017 FIT exhibition “Black Fashion Designers”.
Lowe’s skill and success in an area where black women are still routinely wiped out and excluded disrupts prevailing narratives not only about the fashion industry but also about American history.
“With all of the political movements that have developed over the past century, people are interested in the history of black artists and black creatives in so many industries, and it’s great to know that it hasn’t (the involvement of the Blacks on fashion) I’m not starting in the early 2000s, “said Way. “Black designers have always worked in the industry. There is a legacy there.”