Ann Lowe was the first African-American woman to become a notable fashion designer. She was popular amongst high society American women from the 20s to the 60s. She is best known for creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1953 taffeta wedding dress.
She was born in Alabama where her mother and grandmother ran a dressmaking business. At age 16, her mother passed away and Lowe took over operations. She left her first husband because he opposed her having a career. Her second husband left her for the same reason.
She enrolled in design school in 1918. The school was segregated so she had to attend classes in a room alone. She soon rose above the other students and was able to graduate after only 6 months.
She opened her first dress salon in Florida. It quickly became a success.
In 1946, she designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each His Own, although the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg (the store) as Lowe was not getting credit for her work at the time.
She opened a second salon on Lexington Avenue in 1950 and was extremely selective about who wore her dresses.
Lowe's bridal dress for Jackie O in 1953 consisted of fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta with interwoven bands of tucking forming the bodice and similar tucking in large circular designs swept around the full skirt.
“Less than two weeks before the wedding, a flood in Lowe’s studio left the bulk of her two months of work on both Kennedy’s dress and those of her bridesmaids destroyed. After buying new fabrics, bringing in a host of emergency seamstresses, and working furiously for 10 days, Lowe was able to recreate the dresses without the Kennedys ever knowing, even as she did so at a significant financial loss. A final hitch also arrived on the big day, when she was told to use the service entrance when arriving at the Auchincloss family estate. Lowe stood her ground, stating that she would “take the dresses back” unless she was permitted entry through the front door, to which the staff eventually relented”.- Vogue magazine.
The dress, which cost $500 (approximately $5,000 today), was described in detail in The New York Times's coverage of the wedding. While the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding was a highly publicized event, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work on it until years later.
She eventually gained recognition and received the Couturier of the Year award in 1961. Design elements for which she was known include fine handwork, signature flowers, and trapunto technique.
Throughout her career, Lowe continued to work for wealthy clientele who often talked her out of charging hundreds of dollars for her designs. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit on her designs. Lowe later admitted that at the height of her career, she was virtually broke.
In 1962, she lost her salon in New York City after failing to pay all of her taxes. After having an eye removed due to glaucoma that year, Lowe had her debts to the IRS mysteriously cleared by a donor rumoured to be Jackie Kennedy.
In 1964, the Saturday Evening Post called Lowe "society's best kept secret”. In a 1965 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, Lowe said that her greatest motivation was simply “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.” In 1966, Ebony magazine referred to her as "The Dean of American Designers”.
She retired in 1972 after losing her sight. She passed away in 1981.
Her designs are currently held in a number of American museums and were included in the Met museum’s 2022 ‘In America: An Anthology of Fashion’ exhibit.
Elizabeth Keckley was born in Virginia in 1818. She was the daughter of one Agnes Hobbs and Armistead Burwell, the man who kept her family enslaved.
Her mother taught her dressmaking skills. In later years, she was moved to St.Louis where she financially supported her enslavers through a dressmaking business.
In 1855, she was able to purchase her freedom for $1200 (the equivalent of $35,000 today) and move to DC where she gained a license to reside as a free black woman.
In the 1860s, her dressmaking business in DC thrived as she serviced the wives of the political elite. Here, she was introduced to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and the two became friends, with Keckley as her primary dressmaker.
She employed 25 seamstresses in 1865 and turned a large profit.
In 1862, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Organization, which was a fund to support struggling Black Americans who had recently migrated to Washington.
After President Lincoln’s death, Mary tried to sell her clothing to raise money for her enormous debts. This was considered quite scandalous. Keckley was asked to help her with all of this. An auction was held and not only did it fail to raise the money expected, but it caused further debts, created a nationwide sensation and completely humiliated Mary.
Meanwhile, Keckley was unable to keep up with her own business as Mary commanded large amounts of her time, and it was now failing. She was approached by a writer to tell her story and they titled it Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The publishers wanted to make money while Keckley wanted to avoid poverty. When Behind the Scenes was published, Mrs. Lincoln was horrified at the invasion of the Lincolns’ privacy and the two had a big falling out. In addition, the book was as much a financial failure as the auction. The negative reaction to the book in D.C.’s white community also affected Keckley’s ability to earn a living.
Elizabeth Keckley never made any money from the book.
She left Washington to take a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1892. Due to a mild stroke, she resigned the following year.
Today, only a limited number of Keckley dresses have survived. She had an eye for detail and her designs showed a polished elegance. The use of bolder, more simplified shapes was uncharacteristic of the Victorian era, but in time, it began to typify American fashion. Keckley’s work was early in the development of American designers’ distinction from their European counterparts. Despite the challenges she faced in her life, Elizabeth Keckley was influential on the visual culture of the 1860s, and the broader history of American fashion.
She was portrayed by Gloria Reuben in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln.
Earlier this year, actress Sarah Jessica Parker wore a dress to the Met Gala that was based on a dress Keckley had designed for Mrs. Lincoln.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes was an American fashion designer and costumer. She is the first notable fashion designer who made Playboy Bunny costumes.
She was born in Pennsylvania in 1905 and grew up in North Carolina. In the 1920s, she started to work in her uncle’s tailoring shop in New York. At the same time, she was working at a High-end boutique and worked her way up to become the shops first black sales clerk and tailor.
She started her own dressmaking business in 1935.
Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body hugging gowns, which unapologetically extenuated a woman’s curves- the freakum dress.
In 1948, Valdes opened ‘Zelda Wynn’, or ‘Chez Zelda’, her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway. Valdes said that her shop was the first black-owned business on Broadway. Her clientele included Gladys Knight, Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt.
Valdes also dressed the entire bridal party for the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington, aka Maria Cole and Nat King Cole.
Valdes also created a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who LIFE Magazine dubbed "the Black Marilyn Monroe”.
In the 1950s, she moved to midtown and was charging about $1,000 per gown.
She helped to popularize and define the look of a woman’s curvy silhouette.
Her role in glamorizing women caught the attention of Playboy's Hugh Hefner who commissioned Zelda to make the bunny costumes for the Playboy Playmates. She created the original Playboy Bunny costume, which was presented at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago in 1960.
Beginning in the 1960s, Valdes directed the Fashion and Design Workshop of the ‘Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams’.
She was also one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black talent in the fashion industry.
In 1970, Arthur Mitchell (the first black principal dancer to perform in the New York City Ballet) asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. By 1992, Valdes would design costumes for eighty-two productions.She did away with the traditional pink tights of ballet … all the dancers wore tights that were dyed to match their skin tone.
She closed her business in 1989 but continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001 at the age of 97.
Jay Jaxon was born Eugene Jackson in Queens NY in 1941. As a teenager, Jaxon moved in with a family that lived nearby, helping with child care while attending high school. The family frequently made clothing at home, using fabric and patterns from bustling Jamaica Avenue.
He originally began studying to become a lawyer but switched course and enrolled in costume design at FIT, graduating in 1966.
He started his own fashion label and launched it in luxury Fifth Avenue department stores before travelling to France.
He was the first African-American couturier in the Paris haute couture houses, assistant designing for Givenchy, YSL and Dior and head designing for Jean-Louis Scherrer in the late 60s and early 70s.
He returned to New York in 1973 and started designing for various companies including Benson & Partners as well as his own label. He also designed for Pierre Cardin’s American collection.
Unlike many designers, he could make his own patterns, draw illustrations and technical flats, and sew by hand and machine.
The New York Times described his work as:
“….Consistent, with a focus on clean, fluid pieces designed with the drape of each garment’s fabric in mind. There were flowing trousers and easy jackets; skirts and dresses cut on the bias for movement. Though they expressed simplicity, his garments, even sporty ones, carried a sense of sophistication and grace.”
Jaxson said in 1970:
“I’ll use the colours of all the people of the earth — cream, beige, tan, brown and some yellow and reddish tones, possibly stressing the combinations of brown and white.”
He moved to California in the mid-80s and worked as a costume designer. He designed the suit Annie Lennox wore to the 1984 Grammy’s, as well as several costumes for the singer Thelma Houston.
He worked on TV shows like Ally McBeal, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Angel.
He passed away from cancer in 2006.
Fashion historian Rachel A. Fenderson created an archive of Jaxon’s work and curated an exhibition in 2019 entitled ‘Jay Jaxon, 40 years of fashion design brilliance; past, present and future’.