Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane.

Of the many types of gardeners a person can be, I am a devoted floralist. I’m unmoved to plant my own vegetables. I eschew shrubs. I only want the flowers. Give me a cupboard full of dinner plate dahlias, as much phlox as we can fit in my Subaru and a cumulus cloud of yellow coreopsis. Catalogs for seeds, bulbs, roots and rhizomes arrive at my house by cubic yard. Did I attend this year’s American Peony Society convention in Syracuse? With gusto.

Obviously, I’m not one for artificial flowers. I yearn only for the real thing. And yet I must make an exception after encountering the work of Ann Lowe, an American dress designer unsung in her own time and, I suspect, a fellow floralist. Lowe sculpted and scattered fabric flowers on her high society gowns for 60 years. Beyond mere adornment, she took flowers as her recurring motif and they’re among the reasons she (eventually, finally) won respect as a couturier.

December 1966 edition of Ebony magazine: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Smithsonian Institution

More than 40 years after her death, 39 dresses, including a reproduction of her most famous creation – Jackie Bouvier Kennedy’s wedding gown – are now on display at Winterthur Museum and Garden, a former du Pont estate in Delaware where something is always in bloom.

Even in October, I found a bank of hardy begonia flowering on their implausibly pink stems around Winterthur’s reflecting pool. And high on the hill, there was bright yellow goldenrod. Inside the museum, Lowe’s American Beauty roses in two-tone pink were budding and blooming – as they have for 55 years – across an ivory gown she designed for debutante Barbara Baldwin Dowd.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane

When I visited the Lowe exhibit, I took in the historical significance and gaped at the pageantry of all those gowns assembled in one place. The exhibit’s organizers say the internal construction of her dresses, including “wiggle bones” for support, further attests to Lowe’s genius. But, for me, it was the flower embellishments that did me in. They’re everywhere – studding a tulle skirt here, poking out of a neckline there.

Her American Beauty roses trellis up and over both shoulders, concluding with two blousy blooms above a nipped waist. A silk gown Lowe made in the 1930s explodes with red poppies all the way to the floor where the hem was “fussy-cut” petal-by-petal along the bottom edge. It’s hard to imagine having a bad night in either one. According to research compiled by Lowe historian Margaret Powell, one gentleman was so smitten with the flowers on his date’s Lowe original that he snipped one off as a memento. The dress’s owner appeared at Lowe’s salon, hoping for a repair.  

Lowe Learned to Sew as a Child in Alabama

By the time Lowe created the American Beauty gown, she had been at her craft for 50 years. Born in Alabama before the turn of the 20th century, Lowe was the granddaughter of an enslaved dressmaker. Lowe’s mother, also a seamstress, was working on an order for the wife of Alabama’s governor when she died in 1914, leaving a young Lowe to finish the gowns – on a deadline – in her grief. She did and called it her “first big test in life.”

Lowe had been learning the trade since childhood, when she gathered fabric scraps from the floor to make flowers. Books about Lowe say she was inspired by flowers she saw in the garden. “Only the Best,” a children’s picture book, imagines it was a honeysuckle blossom that first caught her eye.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library: Bright coral pink Ak-Sar-Ben countess gown by Ann Lowe for Saks Fifth Avenue, 1961. Collection of the Durham Museum, Gift of Ann Lallman Jessop.

What else might have been blooming in little Ann’s garden? I asked the Garden Club of Alabama, which proffered rare Alabama croton, prairie false foxglove, lemon beebalm, diamond flowers, long-leaf ground cherry and large-leaf grass of Parnassus. In 1916, Lowe left her home state – and a husband who didn’t support her aspirations – to become an in-house dressmaker for a citrus-growing Tampa, Florida, family. They had twin daughters who liked to dress alike. What of the flowers at the Lee estate on Lake Thonotasassa? I can picture Lowe drifting through flowering milkweed alongside the butterflies. Almost certainly, orange blossoms perfumed the air.

Lowe attached tiny orange blossoms, a sign of love and fertility for centuries, onto the grand, A-line skirt of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. The Winterthur exhibit gives visitors an up-close look at Katya Roelse’s painstaking replica, where you’ll find the orange blossoms at the bullseye centers of seven ruffled, dinner-plate rosettes. The rosettes and swags alone took 20 yards of fabric and the work of four people over six days to complete, Roelse said.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library: Reproduction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress by Katya Roelse, 2022.

Presented with the original in 1953, did Jackie love it or say “I guess” to the dress? The historical record is unclear. Some sources say Jackie’s mother and her father-in-law-to-be, Joseph Kennedy Sr., chose the solidly American confection for her. One fashion historian said Jackie thought she looked like a lampshade in it and had wished to be in something sleeker and, well, French.

Other sources, including Powell, wrote that Jackie herself requested “a tremendous dress, a typical Ann Lowe dress.” When Lowe arrived on the wedding day to deliver the gown, she refused to use the service entrance, according to a 2021 article in The New Yorker. Lowe threatened to leave and take the dress with her if they did not welcome her through the front door, which they eventually did.

Jane Tanner Trimingham’s 1941 wedding dress with Bermuda lilies at the neckline.

Lowe’s own vision fully animates the designs on display in “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” but one gown shows her willingness to take a customer’s request. In 1941, bride Jane Tanner Trimingham asked for a dress featuring Bermuda lilies as her family had business interests there. Lowe came through with a structural marvel. Two large, beaded lilies trumpeted Jane’s decolletage and must have given wedding guests something to talk about on the way home.

For Thousands of Years, Flowers Have Been in Fashion

In adopting flowers as her signature, Lowe was carrying forward a tradition that dates to ancient times. Thousands of years ago, the wealthy in ancient Greece pinned on flowers as accessories. By the 12th century in China, flowers were being embroidered onto garments. Next came floral printed fabrics, which have cycled in and out of style ever since.

Today, the power of flowers in fashion surely endures with Women’s Wear Daily declaring 2023 “the year of floral dresses on the red carpet.”Finnish design house Marimekko, famous for its oversized floral prints, has 750,000 Instagram followers. And a new magazine ad for Valentino features model Kaia Gerber lounging in a micro miniskirt made entirely of satin roses.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library:  Bodice of Ak-Sar Ben countess gown by Ann Lowe for Saks Fifth Avenue, 1961. Collection of the Durham Museum, Gift of Ann Lallman Jessop.

As I walked the Lowe exhibit, I took note of the American Beauty roses, poppies, the Bermuda lilies, and then tried to map the rest of her floral embellishments to flowers in the natural world. Was Lowe implying pansies on a clay-orange monochrome dress edged in fluttery, folded blooms? I couldn’t be sure. The airy blossoms of coral-pink tulle on another gown left me scratching my head. And the Lowe flowers I did match to actual flowers were not studies in botanical precision.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

The Segregated Times Lowe Lived In

But it seems that was not what she was about. The flowers Lowe showered over her collection weren’t real, but I wouldn’t call them fake. They were fantasy. Fairy princess goals were always on the menu because Lowe knew her audience: society maidens dreaming of nights to remember, like Tampa’s annual Gasparilla ball, where a queen would be crowned and to which Lowe was not invited.

Creating dreamy garments for others couldn’t solve Lowe’s real-world struggles to establish a business and a brand as a Black woman. Though she had a warm relationship with the family that recruited her to Tampa, it was wrenching to learn that some wealthy clients took advantage of her and to see how segregation and racism clipped her wings. And yet Lowe remained committed to her art.

“Dresses are my life,” she told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “If I can’t design dresses, I’d rather just fly off the top of the Empire State Building.”

No longer an anonymous “colored dressmaker” – as Jackie Kennedy once called her – the Winterthur exhibition sets a few things right. After a lifetime of making dresses so others could dance the night away, Lowe has been invited to the party.

 Ann Lowe: American Couturier at Winterthur runs through January 7, 2024.