“Finally, finally — she’s getting her due.”
That’s how fashion designer Ann Lowe’s great-granddaughter Linda Ann Dixon summed up the significance of the pioneering Black designer’s work being spotlighted in “Women Designing Women,” the soon-to-open exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Despite being a go-to designer in the 1950s and 1960s for Marjorie Merriweather Post and other members of the society set, Lowe was largely unsung during her lifetime.
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During Monday morning’s media preview at The Met, Dixon was seated beside a 1963 Lowe-designed gown that has prime real estate in the exhibition. Wearing a full-length mink coat, silk blouse and knotted pearls, and an ecru handbag imprinted with “Protect Black People,” Dixon chatted with guests and agreed to pose for a selfie or two. Sharing Lowe’s story is her priority. Asked about the significance of the occasion, Dixon said, “There are a lot of emotions tied in, because she and I were so close.”
Above all, she wants future generations to be inspired by Lowe’s work and tenacity, despite the nation’s racial divide in the 1950s and 1960s. While many associate Lowe with being the long non-credited designer of Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding gown, her fashion reach extended to many branches of American society, including the H.F. du Pont family, the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. In addition to Post, another well-heeled society client of Lowe’s was Kennedy’s mother Janet Lee Bouvier, who wore one of Lowe’s designs to wed Hugh Auchincloss in 1942.
Recalling how many times Lowe was frustrated by magazine articles or something that someone said about something that she poured her heart into, Dixon said, “To finally be able to bring all of that out, and to say, ‘Nana, I hope that you hear what’s going on.’ I hope she knows that she is finally being recognized for her passion.”
Having been pushing “for 30 years or more” for Lowe to get her due, Dixon praised the late scholar Margaret Powell, one of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s fellowship advisers Elaine Nichols, the Museum at FIT’s Elizabeth Way and Dixon’s agent Sharon Parker-Frazier for doing their part. Noting how her mother had tried, as well, but “unfortunately went to the wrong people,” Dixon said that she too has learned through trial-and-error “and is still learning.”
A chance department store encounter with the Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee, who complimented Lowe about her outfit, led to a live-in dressmaker job offer. Despite her first husband’s disapproval, Lowe relocated to the family’s estate with her son. Later, with her employer’s support, Lowe enrolled in the S.T. Taylor Design School in New York City. Lowe took classes alone in a room in the segregated school, but she still outperformed her classmates. In the city, Lowe would go on to design for Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and for her own namesake business.
Encouraged by the recent interest in Lowe’s work, such as “Ann Lowe: American Couturier” at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Dixon said, “I want this to be a learning lesson in all facets for young designers and young businesspeople. I want them to not only learn from this [story] but maybe to gain from it through scholarships in her name.”
That is something that Dixon will pursue in the future. A documentary and a film are also in the works, as is a book that is developing “to correct all the books from before that have such misinformation,” she said.
While some of Lowe’s archives can be found in museums like The Met, and Dixon has some as well, other items have allegedly been stolen. When Lowe died in Queens, N.Y., in 1981, Dixon said she and others had not been told beforehand that Lowe was sick. For the last five years of her life, the designer had been living with Ruth Alexander in Alexander’s Queens home. Alexander was one of Lowe’s former seamstresses who was acting as her caretaker. After Lowe’s death, Dixon said that “people left and just took stuff,” even a relative. Dixon claims jewelry, furs, letters, some of Lowe’s designs, prized art and “very expensive gifts from her clients” were allegedly taken.
In the summer of 2020 an Ann Lowe for A.F. Chantilly dress turned up in a thrift store in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The garment is now part of Ohio State University’s Historic Costume and Textiles collection. The Ann Lowe for A.F. Chantilly label was used by Lowe from the late 1960s on. She designed the eveningwear and bridalwear, and another designer, Florence Cowell Gayle, made daytime dresses and suits for the brand. Gayle’s son, Jim Gessner, ran the business that housed the label and donated some of the designs to the Ohio thrift store that was associated with his church.
As for what Lowe would make of The Met including her in “Women Dressing Women,” Dixon said, “Her heart would just bust with joy. And she didn’t do it to be recognized. She did it because she loved it. You can see it in her work that she loved it. For someone to take away her passion and put it in their name, that’s what she didn’t like.”
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