Fancy Party Gowns is a story about African American fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe who is probably most remembered for the gorgeous wedding dress she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding to John F. Kennedy.
Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. She developed an interest sewing and designing because both her mother and grandmother were seamstresses. She received little schooling in the segregated schools in Alabama but her skill making gowns and fancy dresses was developed under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother.
In 1916 she moved to Florida where she gained a reputation for her gowns among the debutantes in the Tampa area. Springboarding off of this, Ann and her mother moved to New York City where she married. There her mother opened a small dress making shop. When her mother died, Ann finished all the dresses her mother was working on and kept the shop open.
Ann's clientele were high society, including the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts but she was fashion's best kept secret at this time. Jacqueline Bouvier was one of her clients and when she became engaged to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953, her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier employed Ann Lowe to create and sew her wedding dress as well as all the dresses for the entire wedding party! Lowe had designed Bouvier's wedding dress when she married her second husband, Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr.
Jaqueline's dress was made of ivory silk tafetta, had a large skirt and what is called a portrait neckline. The dress was partially destroyed along with nine of the bridesmaid's dressses when a pipe burst in her Lextington Avenue shop a little more than a week before the wedding. Ann had to remake these dresses but lost money on the order. She never received credit for the design which won world-wide praise.
Despite income tax issues and some health problems, Ann persisted and opened a boutique in the Saks Fifth Avenue store in 1961. She was awarded the Couturier of the Year in 1961. Ann soon was designing and sewing dresses for numerous high society ladies. She was never interested in dressing the average woman. "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."
Several of Ann Lowe's gowns are now part of the holdings of the Museum of African American History. Ann Lowe passed away in 1981 at the age of eighty-three.
Fancy Party Gowns captures the essence of the Ann Lowe story. It is a remarkable story because Lowe was African-American and succeeded at a time when racism was still very much in evidence in American society. Blumenthal takes young readers from Ann's childhood in Alabama where she caught the love of sewing from her grandmother and mother to her taking over her mother's shop upon her death to Ann designing and sewing Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding dress. Eventually Ann's achievements were recognized. She received the Official Couturiere
Blumenthal lightly mentions some of the struggles Ann overcame. Although slavery had been abolished in the previous century, racial prejudice against African Americans still dominated much of American life in the early to mid-twentieth century. Ann often encountered this; she experienced the humiliations of segregation, she often did not receive the credit due to her. In spite of this, Ann persisted. She continued to design and sew fancy dresses, elaborate gowns and women loved and wore them.
Accompanying Blumenthal's biography are the bright illustrations of Laura Freeman. Freeman had her sister stand in as a model for some of her illustrations because she noticed that her sister shared the same sort of facial features as Lowe. The colourful illustrations in this picture book were done using photoshop.
Ultimately Fancy Party Gowns is about a young woman persevering to achieve her dream of doing what she loves - designing and sewing beautiful gowns and dresses.
The author has included a note at the back with more information about Ann Lowe and a For Further Reading list that includes books and blog posts about Lowe.
You can see some of Ann Lowe's designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where five of her dresses are in their collection.
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal
New York: Little Bee Books 2017