“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”      Margaret Thatcher

September 13, 1953 – Newport, Rhode Island: Newspapers dubbed it the wedding of the century. A photo of the newlyweds ran on the front page of the New York Times. Jacqueline Bouvier, a 24-year-old former debutant, married 36-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a freshman senator from Massachusetts, who had his eyes on the White House.

Jackie’s dress was one of the most photographed bridal gowns in history. The New Yorker described the dress as “a chaste confection of ivory silk taffeta with a portrait neckline, a daintily tucked bodice and a parasol skirt appliqued with frilly rosettes.” Ladies Home Journal added that the gown had been made by Ann Lowe, “a colored woman dressmaker and one of society’s best-kept secrets.”

In 1898 Lowe, the granddaughter of a slave, was born in Barbour County in southeast Alabama. Her mother ran a dress-making business for wealthy patrons in the area. By age 6, Lowe was sewing dresses. She was a gifted seamstress. When she was 16 her mother died, and she took over the business. Soon after she traveled to Montgomery to finish four ball gowns her mother had started for Alabama First Lady Elizabeth O’Neal.

When Josephine Edwards, the wife of a wealthy Florida citrus grower heard of Lowe’s work, she invited her to Florida. Lowe journeyed by train to Tampa. There she sewed ball gowns for the state’s rich and famous including Edwards’ four daughters.

 While reading a fashion magazine, Lowe learned about the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. With Edwards’s encouragement and support, the 19-year-old seamstress applied and was accepted to the design school. However, upon her arrival to register for classes, the school director called her aside. “To be blunt, Miss Lowe, we did not know that you were a Negro. You will not be allowed to attend classes here. You will have to leave.”

The following day, when Lowe was still hanging around the school, she was confronted by the director, “Miss Lowe, why are you still here?” She replied, “Sir, I know I can do the work, if you will give me a chance.” On the fourth day, Lowe was still at the school and the director let her stay on one condition: she would not be allowed in the whites-only classroom. He placed Lowe in an adjoining classroom and left the door open for her to hear.

After completing the one-year course in just six months, she returned to Tampa. With Edwards’s support, she opened her first dress salon, and it quickly became a success. In 1928, after saving $20,000, Lowe returned to New York City determined to prove that an African American woman could become a prominent dress designer. It was difficult. For two decades, she worked as a freelance seamstress at department stores, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, before opening her first shop, Ann Lowe Gowns, on 5th Avenue.

Lowe’s designs attracted high society clients, including Jackie Kennedy. Two weeks before the 1953 wedding, disaster struck. A water pipe burst in Lowe’s studio, ruining the bridal gown and 10 of the 15 bridesmaid dresses. Working around the clock, Lowe and her seamstresses recreated the dresses at the designer’s expense. The wedding gown, which had taken eight weeks to make, was recreated in a week, just in time for the wedding. Her anticipated $700 profit became a $2,200 loss. Lowe never told the family.

The Bouvier-Kennedy wedding propelled Ann Lowe to the top of New York City’s fashion design market. For three decades, she designed dresses for the nation’s wealthiest socialites, including the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers and the du Ponts. Actress Olivia de Havilland wore one of Lowe’s trademark hand-painted floral designs the night she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In her heyday, Lowe sold upwards of 500 dresses a year.

The millionaires who cherished Lowe’s incredible dresses frequently haggled her about prices, and she routinely undercharged for her work. She sewed for the joy of creating elegant designs. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit. In the 1960s at the height of her career, Lowe was virtually broke. She commuted to her shop in Manhattan from a small apartment in Harlem that she shared with her sister.

Today, Ann Lowe’s dress designs are displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her legacy endures as a trailblazer who shattered barriers and paved the way for future generations of African American fashion designers.