TAMPA, Fla ( WFLA) — Ann Lowe is the first internationally recognized Black fashion designer and her career began with designing dresses for Gasparilla.
Born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Ann Lowe learned how to sew from her mother and grandmother. At a young age, she had developed a love for using scraps to make flowers that resembled the flowers in her family’s garden. This would later become her signature design.
Lowe began sewing as early as five years old. In 1916, at age 18, she moved to Tampa after local socialite, Josephine Edward Lee, bumped into Lowe inside of a New York Department store. Lee liked Lowe’s clothes and the way they were made.
“Mrs. Lee had a huge family here and needed someone to make their clothing, so she invited Ann to come back to Florida with her and she set up residence for her at her house,” said Susan Carter, Curator at the Henry B. Plant Museum.
This changed Lowe’s life. After moving 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 those dresses are on display at the Henry B. Plant Museum as a part of their Gasparilla collection.
“Every now and then we end up with a treasure like the Ann Lowe dresses,” Carter said. “We started with one, the museum society had one from a member, and we’ve acquired two more and they all relate to Gasparilla.”
One dress was made in 1924 for Sara Lykes Keller, a Gasparilla Queen. This features Lowe’s famous flowers. Another dress was made in 1926 and was born by Katherine Broaddus. The third is a silk dress with tulle flowers and pearls, and it was worn in 1957 by Rebecca Davies Smith for a Gasparilla event called the Jewel Circle.
“Back then it was even more of a big deal, she lived, worked and designed and made money designing Gasparilla costumes,” said Andrew Browne.
Browne is the co-owner of the fashion and art brand, The Paper Bar. He studied Lowe’s contributions to the area.
“She was invited to work with Christian Dior in the 40s and she said ‘I want to do that, but here in the United States’,” Browne said. “Without her being here in Tampa, she wouldn’t have been where she is now.”
As the Education Director of the company, Browne, has taught several students about Lowe. In fact, he and his partner, Jaison Radcliff, had their students interpret the 1947 Oscar dress Low made for Olivia de Havilland. They presented their final design, mood board and illustration during a fundraiser in 2021.
After spending a couple of years in Tampa, Lowe moved to New York to attend S.T. Taylor School of Design. When she arrived, she was not welcomed by the school’s director because of her race. In fact, Lower was segregated from her classmates because they did not want a Black woman in the same room.
Despite being discriminated against, Lowe’s design abilities were far greater than her classmates. Her designs were used as examples of exceptional work for the other students. Due to her skill level and abilities, she graduated from her program in half the required time.
Lowe would then go 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 making her go through the backdoor because of her race, but she refused.
Lowe never got the recognition she deserved due to the color of her skin and the racial climate of America.
“Ann didn’t put labels in her clothes, no one knew, she was just a Black woman just designing clothes, she was just a fashion seamstress,” Carter said. “She wasn’t thought of very much.”
Due to that lack of recognition, Lowe was never properly compensated for her work, which led her to file for bankruptcy multiple times.
Lowe was the first Black internationally recognized fashion designer who never got her flowers. But now her flowers and designs are known internationally 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 5th.