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The life of couturier Ann Lowe is as remarkable as her garments, now on display in a sumptuous new exhibition at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Born in Clayton, Alabama, in either 1898 or 1889 (records differ), the “rediscovered” designer hailed from a family of gifted dressmakers—her formerly enslaved grandmother, Georgia Thompkins, and her mother, Janie Cole. Ann began sewing as a child. At age six, she made fabric scraps into flowers, a signature embellishment she refined and used throughout her career, and she could make her own dress patterns by the time she was 10.
Her mother’s unexpected death in 1914 jump-started teenage Ann’s design career: she had to finish her mother’s commission of holiday gowns. From then on, remaining virtually unknown to the public, Lowe worked steadily for decades in Florida, Alabama, and finally in New York City. She forged a career that spanned the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration, the Depression, two World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, and huge changes in the world of fashion itself. Lowe retired in 1972 after creations from her atelier (in the words of this exhibition) “graced hundreds if not thousands of American women.”
Lowe was quick to point out that she designed for those who could afford her gowns, and her wealthy clients (both Black and white) spanned the country’s social registers. Not all designers have the intimate sartorial knowledge, understanding of fabric, and expertise in tailoring that Lowe acquired in her apprenticeship with her mother and grandmother. Her works on view in this exhibition are masterpieces not only of design and ornament but also of engineering.
Many of Lowe’s intricate gowns hearkened to the 1950’s New Look. But they also reference Victorian or Edwardian garments—not surprising since she acquired her craft working with her mother and grandmother. But while women in those eras required help to don their complicated dresses, Lowe built structural undergarments into her creations in ways that allowed wearers to don them easily and to feel both comfortable and elegant.
Recreating an iconic wedding gown
Though Lowe designed for many society and fashion leaders (including Marjorie Merriweather Post and Olivia de Havilland), Jacqueline Bouvier was her most prominent client. The future First Lady married the young Senator John F. Kennedy in an Ann Lowe creation whose design was attributed at the time to “a New York dressmaker”—a great disappointment to Lowe, though she was properly credited later. Now in the collection of Boston’s Kennedy Presidential Library and said to be the most photographed wedding gown in history, it is too delicate to travel and is seldom displayed.
But for this exhibition, University of Delaware professor Katya Roelse went to Boston and spent days studying the gown. With her team, she created a stitch-by-stitch reproduction that took six months from start to finish, the centerpiece of the 40-plus garments displayed here. With its beautiful pleating and rosettes, the Bouvier gown holds pride of place. The exhibition also features a filmed look into the making of Roelse’s reproduction, which will be permanently on view at the Kennedy Library beginning next year.
But it’s not the only stunner; other gowns here are equally spectacular. There’s the 1941 wedding gown created for Jane Trimmingham, especially masterful because it’s made of synthetic satin, a slippery, challenging material, notoriously difficult to handle and one that shows the slightest imperfection. Its elegant silhouette is embellished with ruching, intricate beadwork, heavy embroidery at the wrists, and Lowe’s signature constructed flowers. From the scalloped neckline to its 20-foot train, the garment is impeccable and masterful.
There’s another remarkable white satin gown (designed for a 1963 Missouri Historical Society ball) embellished with vine leaves and three-dimensional red and white grapes. It’s viewed from the back to better appreciate the masterful decoration and hand-picked zipper (many gowns were created by hand sewing as well as with machine work). And a stunning velvet strapless dress (1965) is a masterpiece of sartorial engineering. Silk velvet is a very heavy material, and there are yards of it in the skirt of this gown, but it’s held up (without straps) by Lowe’s clever interior construction.
Beyond Lowe’s life’s work
The show spotlights the extensive research and dedicated detective work it took to locate Lowe’s dresses. Throughout her career, though she sometimes had her own label, she also designed (unattributed) for other fashion houses. Research was undertaken by the Black Fashion Museum, Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture, and the Museum of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, as well as by independent scholars. In fact, research was the genesis of this exhibition: the 2012 master’s thesis of Margaret Powell, to whom Ann Lowe: American Couturier is dedicated.
Though you can be thrilled by the beauty of these garments, the level of Lowe’s tailoring and expertise, and the story of her indomitable will to continue, part of this exhibition focuses on the inspiration and motivation her work provided for others. There are signature gowns by Black designers as diverse as the iconoclastic Dapper Dan, the high-fashion B Michael, and newcomer Bishme Cromartie, who just won this year’s Project Runway All-Stars competition—all of whom cite Lowe’s life or work as inspiration.
Behind the scenes of the gallery
The exhibition is beautifully mounted, with painted drapery backdrops and helpful informational panels that include photographs of Lowe at work. Grey mannequins stand on white floors and in front of grey walls that visually lift the garments off the floor and push them toward the viewer. And there is an exceptional and comprehensive catalog that reprints Powell’s master’s thesis and features articles by guest curator Elizabeth Way (of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology) and Winterthur curators Alexandra Deutsch and Kim Collinson.
Mounted nearby is a small but interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse of the exhibition, dubbed Getting Dressed with Ann Lowe: The Art of Mounting Historic Garments. Because all these dresses are couture (one-of-a-kind garments made for a specific client, not created as samples or sized like ready-to-wear), every mannequin is also unique. Winterthur has two professional degree programs in conjunction with the University of Delaware: Material Culture (founded in 1952) and Art Conservation (founded in 1974). These longstanding relationships enabled the museum’s textile and conservation staff to collaborate closely with University of Delaware colleagues and with engineers and students in the university’s MakerGym to create mannequins carved in Ethafoam, a material that is safe for use with delicate fabrics and garments. Getting Dressed shows how these displays were created, and there’s a paper-doll-like overlay book that shows the process of dressing them. There’s also Roelse’s “test dress” (called a toile): a half-finished, half-cutaway version of the Bouvier wedding dress that peels back the fabric layers, boning, and construction of that immensely complicated garment.
A peer of Dior and Chanel
The exhibition’s exit asks us, “Did you wear an Ann Lowe original?” There is the expectation that, with the exhibition’s justly earned national press, gowns are waiting to be discovered in closets or trunks or vintage clothing shops and that this will escalate, bringing Lowe the prominence she deserves.
Whether or not you see fashion as an art, it’s indisputable that what we wear and what it means to us are a part of any society’s history. If she had lived and worked in France, Ann Lowe would have been held in the same esteem as designers like Christian Dior or Coco Chanel. Her body of work and diligent artistry deserve our appreciation and accolades. But this thoughtful and beautiful exhibition left me wishing that our country would have properly esteemed this dedicated, indomitable, and inspiring woman and tastemaker during her remarkable lifetime.
At top: The most photographed wedding gown in history? Katya Roelse’s stitch-by-stitch reproduction of Jaqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. (Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.)
What, When, Where
Ann Lowe: American Courtier. Through January 7, 2024, at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur. $8-$25. (800) 448-3883 or winterthur.org.
Winterthur is a wheelchair-accessible museum with accessible parking, shuttle buses, garden trams, and garden trails. With advance notice, assistive listening systems and sign-language interpreters are available. Guide and service animals are welcome.
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