Wisdom Watch: Author Chronicles History of Black Designers The former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier's wedding to John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1953 was among the most photographed events in history. The future First Lady's dress, seen around the world, was the work of famed African-American designer Ann Lowe. Rosemary Reed Miller, talks about her book, which chronicles the contribution of black designers to American fashion.
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Wisdom Watch: Author Chronicles History of Black Designers

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Wisdom Watch: Author Chronicles History of Black Designers

Wisdom Watch: Author Chronicles History of Black Designers

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: presidential candidate Mike Gravel tells us what tunes he is humming in your ears next.

But first, this week as we are marking the tragedy of September 11th, it is also important to make note of happier memories.

Today is one. It would have been the 54th wedding anniversary of the late John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy, of course, became known as an American style icon, perhaps the first American style celebrity. And that status may have began with her one-of-a-kind wedding dress. And the person who made that dress was an African-American designer named Ann Cole Lowe.

Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers from 1850 to Present."

Here to tell us more about Ann Lowe's life is the book's author, Rosemary E. Reed Miller. She joins us now in our Washington studios. Rosemary, welcome.

Ms. ROSEMARY E. REED MILLER (Author, "Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African-American Dressmakers and Designers from 1852 to Present"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did Ann Lowe get into designing?

Ms. MILLER: Her mother actually - I guess, it's been generations before her - her mother actually had a super clientele in Alabama. She's from Clayton, Alabama. And she did the wedding dress and designs for the Governor O'Neal of Alabama. So that's - you couldn't go much higher than that, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So she had a good foundation?

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. So dressmaking, as you point out in the book, has very long history in the African-American community. You recount, like, stories of slave women who were able to purchase their own freedom with the proceeds from their dressmaking.

Ms. MILLER: Elizabeth Keckley would be a good example. Elizabeth Keckley ended up in Washington, D.C. There's actually a sign downtown here, you know, talking about her. But she - her mother was a good sewer. From Virginia area, they moved to St. Louis. And she did designs for the top ladies in St. Louis. St. Louis had a very substantial community there. The beer companies still were there in those days, in the 1840s. And she was selling dresses from, like, 100 to $200, you know, a dress. And she knew she was doing a very good business, and she wanted to buy her freedom.

And her owner, who actually was the second lawyer who represented the family who owned Dred Scott - he was, I think, he was one who came up with the idea that blacks weren't human beings. He told her - he didn't want to sell her. And he said, well, here's $.75. Go across a river to St. Louis, which is a free territory. And she said, no. And they went back and forth, again and again. She wanted to just continue her business, because he could change his mind and then, in the middle of the day, the slave captors would come by and pull her out of her business, which happened a lot, you know.

She and her son - she could - she learned to read, and she paid $1,800 for the two them, and then came into Baltimore and then came to Washington. And she did - Mary Lincoln put out repressor proposals for her inauguration dress, and 14 women showed up. And Elizabeth Keckley, she actually knew of Keckley, anyway - quite friendly. She had this very social standing in her community as a society dressmaker.

MARTIN: So the African-American presence in dressmaking is not - that was not a new thing by the time Ann Lowe came along. And she, of course, herself had a pedigree, because her mother had been a very sort of famous dressmaker. But so - but how did she get the commission? How did she get the Kennedy commission or the Bouvier commission?

Ms. MILLER: Ann Lowe studied under a French designer in New York. She actually had technical training, too, to kind of refine even more. She actually did her prom dresses and - it was really the mother who had been designing for the mothers. She did for the Biddles, the Rockefellers, all kinds of people like that in New York. She considered herself a designer. I mean, she was very serious about it. She even covered…

MARTIN: Was she the first African-American woman to consider herself a designer, or to be viewed that way?

Ms. MILLER: I can't really tell you that. I mean, she does - considered it and worked that way on her own. I can't say that she was the first, but she did - she had a studio on Madison Avenue - Calvin Klein has the place now. I mean, she took it step by step to be a real designer. And she took it as a real business. A lot of people sort of had another job and they did that or they worked for somebody else. She seemed to have been very serious. She had a salon later in Saks Avenue under her own name, Ann Lowe. And then - this is 1950s.

Jackie wanted a kind of Vera Wang plain dress, and she was very Francophile. And so she wanted a very plain dress, but their mother and Joe Kennedy - and Joe Kennedy really ran the wedding - wanted a more traditional dress. And so the sketch that Ann submitted - she got plenty of the job. She did the whole wedding party. It wasn't just the bride…

MARTIN: It was this part (unintelligible) she did all the

Ms. MILLER: bridesmaid's dresses and everybody, yeah.

MARTIN: So was it just on the basis of the design or did, as you mentioned that Joe Kennedy had some influence in even something so personal, which shocks me, as a woman having your future father-in-law involved in the decision about your dress.

Ms. MILLER: He ran the way.

MARTIN: But was there politics involved? Did he think the symbolism was important?

Ms. MILLER: It was a traditional dress. It was such a different one from - that Jackie wanted. And Jackie later, and this is why Ann got kind of lost in history, and it's a sad part. People ask - because everybody covered that wedding. I mean, just every - Joe Kennedy made sure that that wedding was covered, from Life on down, every little paper and he covered it a week before the wedding. There was just, you know, things that you just couldn't find anything like that.

And so the dress was just wonderfully done, and so - he wanted his son to become president, so everything was focused that way. And he felt a French design was plain, was not what American voters might see. And then he also said, I don't have many voters in France, you know, and so he wanted very much to have it. He knew that she was Afro American, which I was sort of saying to myself like how did he feel. But, you know, he knew of her record in terms of Rockefellers and Astors, or whatever. So it was fine with him.

MARTIN: So it wasn't that he was promoting her, but it was an impediment. And what you're saying is she actually got a little lost in history because Jackie didn't love the dress.

Ms. MILLER: She didn't love the dress and people asked her who did the dress. She said, I wanted to go to France but a colored dressmaker did it. And Ann Lowe was devastated - very, you know, she had dealt with her for years, you know, Jackie was 22 then. She's done dresses for her and the family since about 17 and so she was very, you know, disappointed with that kind of thing. And most reporters did not follow through to say who was this colored dressmaker or, you know. Here in Washington, D.C., Nina Hyde, who was the fashion editor to the Washington Post who was the only one who said a Negro designer - Ann Lowe - did the dress. Everybody else was just like backed away from it and didn't say anything.

MARTIN: You tell a story in the book that - about how Ann almost did not deliver Jackie's gown to her at the Kennedy family home at Hyannis Port. Why?

Ms. MILLER: One of her relatives (unintelligible) in the city told me that she said was sort of an untold story, that two weeks before the wedding, about 14 dresses, I think, were damaged by water. And Ann Lowe, obviously, couldn't tell anybody and she couldn't charge for that. And they finished - redid the whole wedding dress and everything over in two weeks time.

MARTIN: What? Wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold up. You're saying, not the brides…

Ms. MILLER: It was like 22 pieces in the whole wedding.

MARTIN: Twenty-two pieces in the whole wedding and you're saying 14 of them…

Ms. MILLER: And more than half…

MARTIN: …fourteen of them…

Ms. MILLER: …more than half.

MARTIN: …were damaged by water?

Ms. MILLER: Yeah. They have.

MARTIN: What happened?

Ms. MILLER: Water main break. She just came in the morning, you know, damaged. And always used fine silk. And she was hoping to make, obviously, a profit from the wedding. She - looking for about 2,000 plus and this is 1950, remember. And with the damage, she ended up, you know, negative and she could not tell them that.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness.

Ms. MILLER: It's not their fault, you know.

MARTIN: No. Well, did she have enough fabric or did she order more?

Ms. MILLER: She had to go out, that's the whole the problem. You have to reorder special fabrics and…

MARTIN: Did it match?

Ms. MILLER: They kept calling her. No. The dress was totally done over. They kept calling her to see how's the dress, how's it coming along, and can we get it? Well, soon. And they kept doing this again and again.

So about two or so days before the wedding, she was ready to deliver. And she decided after all that she better take that dress on her self and the whole thing. And when she got to the front door, in Newport in Rhode Island, the butler didn't know who she was but he'd considered her a trace person and you go around to the back as a trace person. And Ann thought she was a designer, you know, with a rather special delivery. And he told her, you know, she said like, if I can't come in the front door they'll be no wedding. And the guy heard her.

MARTIN: He let her in?

Ms. MILLER: Oh.

MARTIN: He let her in?

Ms. MILLER: There was a wedding.

MARTIN: There was. Okay. Well, good for her.

Ms. MILLER: He wanted the job.

MARTIN: Ann did go on. To some success, she had her own self-named boutique at Sacks Fifth Avenue - that's no small thing, that's still considered a big deal.

Ms. MILLER: Yes, sure.

MARTIN: But - and she was also known as the dean of American designers. But her name is still is a bit loss to history. Why do you think that is?

Ms. MILLER: I don't know. Again, because when she first started out, one had this super clientele - this is a clientele that you want to be in the paper (unintelligible), you know. And she sort of went along with that and felt that was, you know, she had this very - she said, I don't deal with cafe society. I mean, people who literally were like at the Stork Club and, you know, cafes after theater and whatever would hang there.

MARTIN: But fewer people in entertainment, people…

Ms. MILLER: Yeah. She said I don't…

MARTIN: …the club crowd.

Ms. MILLER: …I do not sew for those people.

MARTIN: Oh. Excuse me.

Ms. MILLER: Yes. Yes. Well, we would call it probably the red-carpet type. You know, she actually was on the social register herself. That was sort of good in a way but it meant, it was a little bit anonymous and so she had staff and whatever. And people, you know, finally got to her and said, you better start being more promotional. So when this wedding came through, she understood this was really a special thing and that's why she was very (unintelligible). That one time that she had a clientele going along with Joe Kennedy, really wanted as much promotion as possible.

And so it would have been good for her, and it didn't work. And reporters just did not take that up until about probably that 1996 we hear, you know, people started picking up that if had been done. But it had been written about it, you know. It wasn't any secret or anything. The dress is in the Kennedy library right now.

MARTIN: How did the story end for her? We all - we so often hear of stories, of people having a grand beginning and then somehow they kind of fade into obscurity. How did it end for Ann Cole Lowe?

Ms. MILLER: Well, one, a lot of dressmakers have trouble with their eyes because they're doing fine work. Ann was one of these very proud people and it was, you know, kind of, really, it is sad. But she lost her eyesight and she - then would she keep sketching.

But in those days you didn't have Social Security. She was working for herself and she has some IRS problems of paying taxes. And she tried to have this, I would say, wonderful business facade, you know. She would, really, thought of herself as some, you know, New York designer. But that costs money and it costs - it's usually people invest with you and then you have other products and things like that.

This is '53 and this is a feisty Afro-American woman and she - I don't think she focused on getting investments and name - she didn't even do labels. I have one of her dresses from the 1950. She didn't do a label. I've just - after that she did. You know, black fashion (Unintelligible) was one of the people who helped highlight her and things like that. But basically it was one of those kind of things of her fading. And people have been very helpful to her but there was just the money, you know, aspect of - when you lose your sight it is very difficult. And she died when she's in her 80s. It's not like, you know, died young.

MARTIN: A bittersweet tale.

Ms. MILLER: Yes.

MARTIN: Rosemary E. Reed Miller is the author of "Threads Of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers 1850 to the Present." She joined us here in our studios in Washington.

Rosemary, thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. MILLER: A pleasure.

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