Ann Lowe: American Couturier at Winterthur

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Wedding dresses by Anne Lowe.

For decades, Ann Lowe was the go-to designer for the most selective members of high society. Her dresses were worn to debutante balls, weddings, and galas throughout the country by women named Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Du Pont, and Kennedy. In 1964, she was referred to as “Society’s Best-Kept Secret” by the Saturday Evening Post. However, her name has largely been left out of the annals of design, though her influence can be seen throughout the fashion industry.Ann Lowe: American Couturier is the largest retrospective of Lowe’s work to date, by far. A team at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library has been working to bring this show to life since 2019, though its origins go back much farther. Margaret Powell, a former curator of Decorative Arts at Winterthur, researched Lowe’s history and work throughout her career. She delved into Lowe’s life, the techniques she used to create her garments, and the impact of her designs on Lowe’s clients and the fashion world.

“We are excited to tell this story,” said Kim Collison, curator of Exhibitions at Winterthur. “We are trying to tell more stories about American craft that have gone unrecognized.” The exhibit highlights the unique talents of the Winterthur staff. So well-known locally for its gardens and holiday displays, Winterthur also has state-of-the-art conservation clinics, labs, and researchers. “Our conservation labs were able to do the work needed to conserve the dresses,” said Collinson.

Wedding Gown of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy by Ann Lowe. Credit - Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Elizabeth Way, associate curator at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), is the guest curator of this exhibition and is passionate about Lowe’s work and legacy. “She overcame so much,” said Way, noting that Lowe, as a Black designer, faced unique yet all-too-common challenges that continued throughout her life and career. “She persevered to land in history with so many amazing dresses that are a huge part of American history and culture. She really shaped American fashion.”

A stunning highlight of the show is a reconstruction of one of Lowe’s most famous dresses, the gown Jacqueline Bouvier wore for her wedding to John F. Kennedy in 1953. Katya Roelse, a University of Delaware Professor in the Fashion and Apparel Program, worked with a team of students to recreate every detail of the dress, even those that would not be visible when it was on display. The original dress is preserved at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Roelse worked with the team there to carefully examine the dress, measuring every seam, line, and panel.

“She used quality materials,” Roelse said, which had to be sourced. Most were simple, but others proved challenging. “There was one component, I didn’t know what they were called, and she uses them in all her dresses, these little s-shaped metal bars that cover the bustline and can flex in different directions.” It took some research to identify the “wiggle bones” and then find someone to provide them for the dress. But these tiny details, even down to the “something blue” small bow hidden in the layers of petticoats, all were faithfully recreated.

Dress bearing names of Black fashion designers by B Michael. Worn by Dawn Davis at the 2021 Met Gala.

With so many dresses on display, choosing a favorite is an impossible task. Each has a story. A beautiful coral gown is scattered with ostrich feathers that had drooped over the decades, so the conservation lab carefully custom-dyed and replaced each one. A dress that was originally a brilliant white lace confection, created for a debutante ball, stands out in the deep gray blue that it was dyed to be worn again for other events. A placard tells the local story of a beautiful navy blue dress that has a pop of lime green in the back, which was discovered at an estate sale and found to be an Ann Lowe original by the owner of Malena’s Vintage Boutique in West Chester.

“We really wanted to look at her legacy in fashion and how it has influenced today’s designer,” said Collison. The exhibition ends with a selection of dresses created by current Black designers which reference Lowe’s work, in style, substance, and name. The mostly hidden work of Black designers, couturiers, and seamstresses which has been central to American design throughout our history is finally having its moment. This exhibition is a glorious tribute and adds to the fabulous legacy of Ann Lowe.

Ann Lowe: American Couturier will be on view from Sept. 9, through Jan. 7, of next year. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is located at 5105 Kennett Pike, Wilmington. More information can be found at Winterthur.org.

Do you think you may have an Ann Lowe design in your closet? Those who may have information or other resources are invited to share with Winterthur by emailing LoweResearch@Winterthur.org.

About Victoria Rose

Victoria Rose (she/her) is an editor, writer, avid reader, self-described geek, and fan of all things creative. Her passion for words has led to her current career as a freelance editor, and she is the owner of Flickering Words, an editing service. When not wielding a red pen (or cursor), she loves reading books of all genres, playing video, board, and word games, baking ridiculous creations to show off on the internet, or enjoying the gorgeous outdoors. She is a board member of the West Chester Film Festival and part of the Thirsty Monsters, a team of streamers from around the world who fundraise for various charities supporting LGBTQIA+ and accessibility rights. She can be found online @WordsFlickering or the Brandywine Art Guide @BrandywineArtGuide.

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