Jackie Kennedy is known for being one of the most stylish First Ladies in United Stated history.
Her dress suits, pillbox hats, and signature hairstyle influenced the way American women dressed in the 1960s. Her legacy is filled with many iconic outfits, one of the most iconic outfits was her silk taffeta wedding gown, which she wore to her wedding to John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1953. To this day it remains one of the most famous bridal gowns in history (it even has it’s own Wikipedia page!) and continues to influence current bridal fashions.
The dress featured a huge round skirt with interwoven tucking bands and tiny wax flowers and a portrait neckline.
Jackie’s mother, Janet Lee Bouvier, hired African American designer Ann Lowe to design the bride’s dress, as well as the rest of the bridal party’s. Janet was familiar to Lowe’s work because it was actually Lowe who had designed her own wedding dress in 1942 for the wedding to her second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss.
While the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding was a highly publicized event, it was even covered by the New York Times and the dress, in particular, was described in great detail, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work. When asked who designed her dress Kennedy would respond “A colored woman”. The designer of one of the most famous gowns in US history continued to receive no recognition for her work while she was alive.
Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama and learned sewing and fashion from her mother and grandmother who made dresses for women in high society, including the first families of Alabama. At the age of sixteen, Ann put what she learned from her mother and grandmother and finished a ball gown for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal after the death of her mother left the dress unfinished.
In 1917, Lowe moved to New York and enrolled in the S.T. Taylor Design School, a segregated school which meant Lowe had to attend class all by herself. After graduating, she opened her own dress shop in Tampa, Florida called “Annie Cohen”. Within a few years, she saved up enough money to move back to New York City and worked for on commission for stores such as Henri Bendel, Chez Sonia, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 946, she designed the dress actress Olivia de Havilland wore to the Academy Awards, Havilland won Best Actress that year for her role in To Each His Own. Lowe received no credit for designing the dress and the name on the label read Sonia Rosenberg.
Still, Lowe managed to make a name for herself. She opened up her own store in 1950 called Anne Lowe’s Gowns and the Saturday evening Post praised her work saying she was one of society’s best-kept secrets. She made dresses for famous and influential families such as the Rockefellers, the Du Ponts, the Posts and the Kennedys. “I love my clothes and am particular about who wears them,” Lowe told Ebony. “I am not interested in sewing for cafe society of social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register.”
Collections of Lowe’s designs are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Lowe’s most famous dress, Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown is on display at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Want to learn more about the history of wedding gown design in America? Check out the current exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California, The Big White Dress, on display through July 1st.