Just who is Ann Lowe? Except for a few fashion-world insiders, that’s a question most of us would ask – until now. This Black designer’s life is a remarkable story, a tale of exceptional talent triumphing against obstacles that would have stopped someone less gifted or less tenacious.

Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama, into a family of highly successful African American dressmakers, a skill passed to her from her grandmother (a formerly enslaved woman) and her mother. Lowe was sewing from the time she was six years old, and by the time she was a teenager she had developed her technical expertise and a recognizable design flair.

Through diligent curatorial research – including that of guest curator Elizabeth Way (of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology) and co-curator Alexandra Deutsch of Winterthur – American Couturier follows Lowe’s remarkable trajectory. It began in Alabama, where she first became known by society mavens (and their debutante daughters) for her elegant gowns. Lowe then continued her work in Tampa, Florida, her career culminating in a move to New York, a city then – and still – the pinnacle of American fashion and design.

Throughout six decades (from the 1910s through her retirement in 1972), Lowe created gowns that influenced both international style and the work of other American designers. Her intricate, elegant creations were custom-made for debutantes, heiresses, actresses, and society brides, including the likes of Marjorie Merriweather Post, Olivia de Havilland, and Jacqueline Kennedy, all of whom (and many more) have gowns on view here. The exhibition includes forty of her most dazzling creations, mounted in a striking installation (Winterthur-style) that highlights the beauty and intricacy of these dresses.

During her career, Lowe sometimes worked in her own atelier under her signature, but she also worked for other garment houses creating dresses with the signature intricate construction that – while they didn’t carry an “Ann Lowe” label – were clearly her designs. Gathering these widely scattered garments from archives, closets, attics, and vintage shops was a process that took many years, and it’s the curators’ hope that American Couturier will allow even more of her dresses to come to light.

One of the highlights of the elegant exhibition is a recreation of the famous wedding dress that socialite Jacqueline Bouvier wore to wed John F. Kennedy, a gown that made headlines but amazingly didn’t catapult its designer to prominence. Held in the collection of the JFK Library, the dress was too fragile to be displayed, so with her team textile expert Katya Roelse (a University of Delaware Fashion and Apparel professor) recreated it stitch for stitch, a painstaking but rewarding process also documented here. And when the exhibition closes in January, this beautiful replica will be donated to the Kennedy Library for display.

Because each gown was custom-made for a particular woman, Winterthur’s exhibition team also had to custom-make each mannequin. This intricate process – for which the display team developed a special new technology – is also documented in a fascinating concurrent mini-exhibition titled Getting Dressed with Ann Lowe: The Art of Mounting Historic Garments.

American Couturier also showcases gowns by several contemporary designers whose design practice was influenced or inspired by Lowe’s achievements: B Michael, Tracy Reese, Amsale Aberra, Dapper Dan, and Bishme Cromartie (a recent winner of the Project Runway fashion competition). On October 20 and 21 Winterthur will hold a two-day symposium exploring Ann Lowe’s legacy, and the exhibition also features a major publication released earlier this fall.

Ann Lowe worked in America’s mid-century fashion business, where the fact that she was both Black and a woman were substantial obstacles to her receiving the recognition that her work so richly deserved. In fact, archival materials on display cite Ann Lowe as “society’s best-kept design secret,” an oversight that will surely be remedied by this dazzling exhibition of her dazzling gowns.

Make it a Wilmington Weekend

Winterthur's Ann Lowe: American Couturier is just one of three outstanding exhibitions on display in Wilmington & the Brandywine Valley this fall.  Turn your visit into a weekend getaway and explore The Brandywine Museum of Art's Abstract Flash: Unseen Andrew Wyeth, a remarkable body of 38 never-before-seen abstract watercolors and visit the Delaware Art Museum's The Rossettis celebrated paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, such as Found and Lady Lilith, contextualized among masterpieces from the Tate Britain's collection and loans from public and private collections worldwide. And don't forget, Wilmington always offers tax-free shopping, dining and entertainment. Start planning your getaway at VisitWilmingtonDE.com.

Plan Your Wilmington Weekend Getaway