February 22, 2012


It is the season of ‘Fashion Weeks’. Today, marks the end of London Fashion Week; last week, the New York catwalks were graced; and next week, the A-Listers will be sitting in the front row in Paris. Disappointingly, there are still very few Black models seen on the runways during these ‘big weeks’; nor are there many Black Fashion Designers showcasing their creations. 

London Fashion Week 2012

The first African-American fashion designer (and costume designer) was Zelda Wynn Valdes. She dressed the likes of actress/singer, Dorothy Dandridge, and pioneering opera singer, Marian Anderson, as well as designed the costumes for the first Playboy Bunnies and the dancers for Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Dorothy Dandridge and Zelda Valdes

Other notable African-American designers were Willi Smith, who designed the groom’s and groomsmen’s attire for Caroline Kennedy’s wedding to Edwin Schlossberg, and who sadly died of AIDS at the pinnacle of his career; Stephen Burrows, who was the first African-American designer to achieve international acclaim and has dressed the likes of Naomi Campbell, Cher and Lauren Bacall; and Tracy Reese whose dresses have been adorned by First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Willi Smith's Groomswear Creations, Kennedy-Schlossberg Wedding

Stephen Burrows

Michelle Obama Wearing Tracy Reese

But long forgotten and unknown to many was Ann (aka Anne) Lowe.  She was a trailblazer in fashion, who fought against many odds to achieve her success; and her biggest claim to fame was designing First Lady, Jackie Kennedy’s, wedding dress.

So, who was Ann Lowe?

In 1898, Ann Cole Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama – the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner.  She was also the daughter and granddaughter of celebrated seamstresses, who were known for sewing the wardrobes of Alabama’s society ladies. Unsurprisingly, Ann learned to sew at a very young age, and spent much of her time honing her talent, while sitting alongside her maternal role models.

At the age of 14, Ann and her mother moved to New York; and soon thereafter, Ann married ‘Mr. Cohen’. Not much was known about him, but it has been documented that they had a son, Arthur, who died in 1958. Ann's mother operated a small, dressmaking shop and had some important clients. Sadly, at the age of 16, Ann’s mother passed away, leaving Ann to complete her mother’s unfinished needlework for the Governor’s wife and carry on running the shop.  At the same time, Ann wanted to learn her craft in a more professional setting, so in 1917, she enrolled in the S.T. Taylor Design School in New York. Although she was ignored and avoided by White classmates, she concentrated on her work and graduated from the fashion design course. By that time, flowers had become very important to Ann, and she incorporated them into most of her designs, which also often used ‘trapunto’, a detailed needle technique, which uses several parallel rows of stitching to create a design on a fabric.

Ann Lowe Debutante Gown

Fearless as ever, Ann decided to leave her husband and move to Tampa, Florida with her son. There, she opened a small studio and lived there for twelve years. While living and working in Tampa, Ann was discovered by socialite, Josephine Lee, who was quoted as saying of Ann, “No one in Tampa can sew like that!”

Ann had a desire to return to New York because it was one of the most important fashion capitals in the world. So, in 1928, she moved back to New York where she worked, on commission, for major houses in the Fashion District, such as Chez Sonia (Rosenberg).  She also sold her designs in Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin – some of the most expensive and exclusive department stores in the United States. Most of those shops took credit for Ann’s work, but she did not let that daunt her. She soon earned her own reputation enjoying a client list of top society families, such as the du Ponts, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. They loved her work. She was known as "society's best kept secret," because they would rarely – if ever – admit that their clothing was being designed by a Black woman.
By the 1940s, Ann, was reaching the top of her game. In 1946, she designed and made the gown that actress Olivia de Havilland wore when she received her Best Actress Academy Award for her role in the film,  To Each His Own – although the name on the gown’s label was Sonia Rosenberg’s.

Olivia de Havilland in Ann Lowe's Oscar Dress

At this point, Ann was able to operate out of a small studio of her own. In the early 1950s, socialite, Jacqueline Bouvier, met her and ordered some of her dresses. When she became engaged to Senator John F. Kennedy, in 1953, it was to be the society wedding of the year, with 800+ guests. Jackie commissioned Ann to design and make her wedding dress, as well as the ten dresses for her bridesmaids and flower girls and the mother-of the-bride’s dress.

The wedding dress required 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta and took more than two months to make. It featured a portrait neckline and bouffant skirt decorated with interwoven bands of tucking and tiny wax flowers. The bridal attendants’ ensembles were pink faille silk gowns and matching Tudor caps. It is said that when Jackie viewed the gown, she did not care for it because it was not her style – preferring simpler lines.  However, her mother and Kennedy Family patriarch, Joseph, insisted that she wear it, as they thought it to be more appropriate for a society wedding and one for the future wife of an ambitious, prominent politician – First Lady, in fact.

Disaster averted…but it was not! Ten days before the wedding, a water line broke, which flooded Ann’s studio and ruined the wedding gown, as well as all of the bridal attendants’ gowns and Jackie’s mother’s dress. Ann’s skill as an ultimate professional, as well as her finances, were put to the test. She had to purchase more fabric, materials and accessories, and hire extra help to work around the clock to remake the gowns. So, what would have been a $700.00 profit resulted in a $2,000.00 loss.

In an effort to promote Senator Kennedy’s imminent political career, the wedding received high recognition; but the designer’s name was left out of most newspapers. Nina Hyde, Social Fashion Editor of the Washington Post, gave Ann the most credit of anyone, stating, “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”

Still going strong in her 70s, she opened a store inside Saks Fifth Ave, and appeared in a 1960 magazine ad for the store. Subsequently, she opened her own salon, Ann Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue. She was awarded the Couturier of the Year Plaque and appeared in the National Social Directory and the 1968 Who’s Who of American Women. 

1960 Saks 5th Avenue Ad

However, Ann’s luck began to fade. She was not very good with record keeping, and in 1962, her salon was seized by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes owed, while she was undergoing surgery to remove an eye ruined by glaucoma. When she was released from the hospital, she learned that her debt had been paid by an anonymous benefactor. Many have thought it to have been Jackie Kennedy, but to this day, the person has never been confirmed. Ann then developed cataracts in her other eye; but thankfully, that eye was able to be saved.

Ann Lowe died in 1981 at the age of 83, having quietly set the fashion world on fire with a flame that she would never let be extinguished. Her creations can be seen in a permanent collection in the Costume Institute at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.  In 1997, the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum had the Textile Conservation Center of the American Textile History Museum in Boston, restore Jackie’s wedding gown.

You can learn more about Ann and other notable African-American fashion trailblazers in: Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers, 1850 to Present, by Rosemary Reed Miller.

Lorraine Pascale is a chef, who is a former supermodel. She achieved recognition by being the first Black British model to appear on the cover of American Elle magazine; and in 1998, she was featured in the famous, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Despite her success, Lorraine knew that relying on her looks might not be the best way to secure her future, so she tried various vocations, including a brief stint as a car mechanic.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, 1998

She eventually enrolled in a diploma culinary course at London’s Leiths School of Food and Wine and found that cooking “fitted her like a pair of old jeans." After gaining her diploma, she did a series of 'stages' in some London restaurants but, realizing that restaurant hours would not suit her, Lorraine established herself as a specialist cakemaker, with an exclusive contract with Selfridges.

She eventually opened her own shop, Ella's Bakehouse, in Covent Garden, London and recently presented her own BBC Food television show,  Baking Made Easy, which has a corresponding cookbook. Enjoy this decadent, but easy recipe for Cookies and Cream Fudge Brownies!

Cookies and Cream Fudge Brownies
By Lorraine Pascale, Baking Made Easy

  • 165g/5½oz butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 200g/7oz dark chocolate, grated or finely chopped
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 2 free-range egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds only (or alternatively 2 tsp vanilla extract)
  • 165g/5½ oz soft light brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • pinch salt
  • 154g/5½oz pack chocolate cookies/biscuits, such as Oreos, broken into quarters
  • Confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar), for dusting

You will also need Parchment baking paper


Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease a 20cm/8in square baking tin with butter, then line with baking paper with the paper overlapping the sides a little.
Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the grated (or chopped) chocolate. Leave to stand for a few minutes, or until the chocolate melts, and then stir together. Alternatively, you can put the chocolate and butter in a bowl and melt in the microwave in 25-second blasts, stirring well each time.
Whisk the eggs, egg yolks and vanilla together in a large bowl until the eggs begin to get light and fluffy. Add the sugar in two additions, whisking between each. Pour it around the side of the egg mix so as not to knock out the air that has been whisked in. Keep whisking until the mixture becomes stiffer. Once the egg mixture is ready, pour the chocolate into it - again around the sides so as not to knock the air out.
Add the flour, cocoa powder, salt and a third of the cookies and stir until fully combined, then pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Scatter the remaining cookies over the top, pressing them in slightly. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25–30 minutes. The middle should be very so slightly gooey. Leave the brownies to cool in the tin - the top will sink and crack a little.
Pull the brownies out using the overlapping paper and cut into squares. Dust with icing sugar.

Sources: Wikipedia, Nikki Thomas Network, Bride Chic, Ms. Style & Grace, Google, Bing, BBC Food

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