TAMPA, Fla (WFLA) — Ann Lowe was the first internationally recognized black fashion designer and her career began designing dresses for Gasparilla.
Born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Ann Lowe learned to sew from her mother and grandmother. At a young age, she had developed a love for using leftovers to make flowers that resembled the flowers in her family’s garden. This would later become his signature design.
Lowe started sewing when she was five years old. In 1916, at age 18, she moved to Tampa after local socialite, Josephine Edward Lee, ran into Lowe inside a New York City department store. Lee liked Lowe’s clothes and the way they were made.
“Mrs. Lee had a big family here and needed someone to make her clothes, so she invited Ann to come back to Florida with her and she settled in with her,” said Susan Carter, curator at the Henry B.Plant Museum.
It changed Lowe’s life. After moving out and making clothes for Lee’s family, Lower quickly became the go-to designer for Tampa’s elite. In 1924, she was chosen to design dresses for Gasparilla. Three of these dresses are on display at the Henry B. Plant Museum as part of their Gasparilla collection.
“Once in a while we end up with a treasure like Ann Lowe dresses,” Carter said. “We started with one, the museum corporation had one from a member, and we acquired two more and they’re all related to Gasparilla.”
A dress was made in 1924 for Sara Lykes Keller, a Gasparilla queen. This features the famous Lowe’s Flowers. Another dress was made in 1926 and originated by Katherine Broaddus. The third is a silk dress with tulle flowers and beads, and it was worn in 1957 by Rebecca Davies Smith for a Gasparilla event called the Jewel Circle.
“Back then it was even more important, she was living, working, drawing and making money designing Gasparilla costumes,” said Andrew Browne.
Browne is co-owner of fashion and art brand The Paper Bar. He studied Lowe’s contributions to the region.
“She was asked to work with Christian Dior in the ’40s and she said, ‘I want to do this, but here in the States,'” Browne said. “Without her being here in Tampa, she wouldn’t have been where she is now.”
As the company’s director of education, Browne taught Lowe to several students. In fact, he and his partner, Jaison Radcliff, had their students perform the 1947 Oscar Low dress made for Olivia de Havilland. They presented their final design, moodboard and illustration at a fundraiser in 2021.
After spending a few years in Tampa, Lowe moved to New York to attend ST Taylor School of Design. When she arrived, she was not welcomed by the school principal because of her race. In fact, Lower was separated from her classmates because they didn’t want a black woman in the same room.
Despite the discrimination, Lowe’s design abilities were far superior to those of his classmates. His drawings were used as examples of outstanding work for other students. Due to her skill level and ability, she graduated in half the time.
Lowe went on to design clothes for major design houses, celebrities, royalty and more. Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses. In fact, when she went to deliver the dresses, they tried to get her through the backdoor because of her race, but she refused.
Lowe never got the recognition she deserved because of the color of her skin and America’s racial climate.
“Ann didn’t put labels on her clothes, no one knew, she was just a black woman designing clothes, she was just a fashion designer,” Carter said. “We didn’t think much of her.”
Due to this lack of recognition, Lowe was never properly compensated for her work, leading her to file for bankruptcy on several occasions.
Lowe was the first internationally known black fashion designer to never receive her flowers. But now her flowers and designs are known the world over and are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian, the Henry B. Plant Museum and more.
Lowe’s dresses are on display at the Plant Museum until March 5.