Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American woman named Ann Cole Lowe who rose to become high “society’s best kept secret”, named as one of the first leading Black fashion designers in American history.
Ann Cole Lowe was born to Janey Cole Lowe on December 14, 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. Her mother, Janey, was a well known seamstress as well as Ann’s grandmother, Georgia Ann Cole, both of them tailoring and designing dresses as dressmakers for high society in their generations. Some of those older generation of people continued to hire in the Lowe family which would be beneficial to Ann in the future. Ann’s grandfather, General Cole, was an African American carpenter.
It was through her background of seamstresses that she learned how to sew, specifically through her mother. Unfortunately, her mother passed away suddenly when Ann was only 16 years of age in 1914 and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Alabama with a head stone reading “Janey Cole Lowe (1860-1914) The Mother of Ann Lowe Fashion Designer“.
At her mother’s death, there was a gown that was left incomplete, and that was the gown of the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal. This is the dress that Ann would finish for her mother and launch her solo career as a fashion designer.
Ann Lowe continued her education in Montgomery, Alabama and soon traveled to New York to attend the S.T. Taylor Design School.
Her time at S.T. Taylor Design School wasn’t easy socially. Upon her acceptance to the school, they didn’t know that she was a Black young lady, therefore, they placed her alone in a classroom to learn in solitude because the laws were against integration. She had to be segregated from white students.
This didn’t stop her. As an African American, this was life, and just like all others of her race, she knew what she had to do. Therefore, she did it.
After receiving her diploma from S.T. Taylor Design School, still in her teens, she met Mrs. D.C. Lee of Thonotosassa in Atlanta, Georgia and talked her into moving to Tampa, Florida in order to design some gowns for her daughter’s wedding. Well, Ann ended up designing gowns for all of her daughters’ weddings and living in Tampa, Florida, opening her own salon.
While in Tampa, she also designed gowns for high society’s pageants, proms and more. She’d made quite a name for herself in the state of Florida among the elite, however, she moved back to NY in 1928, where she would continue to get orders to send down south to Florida, such as the dress pictured in the photo above.
She’d earned and saved enough money to move back to New York, work in other salons and then open her own salon there. At this time, her son, Arthur Lee, was also working with her in the industry, having split from her husband Lee Cohen.
Her new Black-owned shop on Lexington Avenue was called Ann Lowe’s Gowns in 1950.
In 1953, Ann Lowe was chosen and hired as the designer of choice to design the wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier to John F. Kennedy on September 13, 1953. Ann Lowe designed the special wedding dress out of inspiration from one of her mother’s classic designs of the past.
Though she’d designed many gorgeous gowns for the wealthy elite such as the one worn by Jacqueline (Jackie O), many times, she never got credit for it while they were being worn and fawned over. Wearers tended to not credit her for the designs, but only keep her name within a specific circle. This caused many in the circle to begin desiring discounts for the dresses Ann designed, although they had plenty money to pay for them.
Soon, by her giving in to their demands, Ann went into debt, having a salon to keep open, employees to pay and even having to purchase the fabric to make such stunning gowns for the elite such as the Rockefellers, Biddles and Auchinclosses.
Things got worse in 1958 when her son, Author, was killed in a car accident. Her shop on Lexington Avenue closed due to debt, but eventually she was able to open another salon, her final shop, on Madison Avenue. The shop was called Ann Lowe Originals, and the shop was open from 1968 to 1972. She was the 1st African American woman to own a store on Madison Avenue.
Ann Lowe passed away at her adopted daughter’s home, Ruth Alexander, in Queens, New York due to a long illness on February 24, 1981.
Over the span of her life, she is responsible for designing well over 2000 dresses, awarded the Couturier of the Year Plaque by New York Fashion and her dresses now featured at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
Year: 1880; Census Place: Clayton, Barbour, Alabama; Roll: 3; Page: 246B; Enumeration District: 016
The Tampa Times, Tampa, Florida January 10 1968, Wednesday, page 18
[4 ]Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, New Jersey) · 28 Feb 1981, Sat · Page 17
Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 16 October 2020), memorial page for Ann Cole Lowe (1898–24 Feb 1981), Find a Grave Memorial no.38007298, ; Maintained by A. L. Parrish (contributor) 46498466 Unknown.