First, since Black hair is certainly a topic on fashion front lines, let me pay homage to my own maternal Great Grandmother (at left), Celia Lucinda (Upshaw) Lane, who was the first Black woman to own a Velvatex College of Beauty Culture in Kansas. Her daughter, my maternal Grandmother, Mrs. Annie Lucinda (Lane) Evans (September 15, 1931 – April 20, 2013) was one of the college’s first graduates. Many of the women in my family would say that I inherited my grandmothers’ gift for haircare. Annie Evans, and her daughter, my mother, Deborah, are also lifelong seamstresses. Grandma Annie could make fine apparel without patterns, simply from the ideas in her creative spirit – that entity shared by all designers.
The following is an excerpt about the founder of Velvatex:
In 1926, M. E. Patterson of Little Rock incorporated Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, then known as Velvatex Beauty College, which was the state’s only approved beauty school for people of color… Patterson dubbed the school “Velvatex” because she believed African-American hair emulated the feel of velvet. « read more
Hayman, Syd. “Like Velvet.” Arkansas Times, February 2019. Online at https://arktimes.com/entertainment/ae-feature/2019/02/01/like-velvet-history-in-black-hairstyles-in-arkansas (accessed February 1, 2021).
Hayman, Syd. “Velvatex College of Beauty Culture.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, August 2020. Online at https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/velvatex-college-of-beauty-culture-14491/ (accessed February 1, 2021).
Black by Popular Demand
The National Association of Fashion And Accessory Designers (NAFAD) was founded in America in 1949, to promote equal opportunities for Black fashion designers. Today (as with ever before – just that it is now not so much silenced), with the rising tide of Black talent, the fashion industry is facing its deficits and calling forth its hidden giants as Black lives demand more Black fashion designers.
GSyndicates Black honors the history of Black fashion designers. In my journey to discover my designer genes that inspired designer jeans – among other fashion plates, I came upon these great shoulders (in order of birth)…
Ann Cole Lowe (December 14, 1898 – February 25, 1981) was America’s first Black high-fashion designer, from rural Clayton Alabama. Lowe and I share an element of history (including our culture and designer genes: we are each the third generation out of slavery – the great granddaughters of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner. Lowe’s grandmother was raised as an enslaved dressmaker for her white owners. After the Civil War, she opened her own business. Ann, like myself, learned to sew from both her grandmother and her mother, and showed marked talent even from the early age of six.
Lowe’s designer genes came from her mother Janey and grandmother Georgia. These influences both worked as seamstresses for the first families of Montgomery and other members of high society. Lowe was just 16 when her mother passed. Lowe inherited her mother’s unfinished fashionable work including four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal. Lowe finished the dresses.
Although Lowe was (perhaps unbeknownst to herself) married to her design work, she wed Lee Cohen in 1912, with whom she had a son, Arthur Lee. Cohen’s lack of admiration for Lowe’s design prowess likely led to their parting. He wanted her to give up working as a seamstress. While she complied for a time, the #fashioncall could not be put to rest. After being hired to design dresses for a Florida based tycoon, Lowe took her son and left (Arthur Lee later worked as Lowe’s business partner until his untimely death in 1958 from a car accident (a second marriage, to a man whom Lowe quoted as having said he, “…wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses”, also ended)).
Lowe enrolled in a couture course at S.T. Design school in 1917, taking a sabbatical from her Florida job. The school was then segregated. Lowe’s classes hosted only one student – herself! Her white schoolmates refused to sit in the same room with her. In fact, the college head was shocked to learn that Lowe’s application was that of a Black woman. Despite the potentially lonely education, Lowe studied hard and graduated early in 1919. Lowe and her son returned to Tampa, Florida and opened her first dress salon. It successfully catered to Tampa’s high society. However, Lowe returned to New York City in 1928 and lived in New York for the rest of her life.
After working for a time under the auspices of various labels on commission – including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, Lowe grew weary of not being credited for her work. In 1950, Lowe and her son opened a second salon, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, on Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Lowe’s unmatched designs thrilled high society matrons from the 1920s to the 1960s. She became known as “society’s “best-kept secret” (Minutaglio). Ebony magazine called her the “Dean of Designers.” Much like my mother taught me, Lowe learned and practiced that the inside of the garment, however unseen, was as important as the outer appearance. The inside of her garments were beautifully finished with her trademark excellent technique.
Lowe is best known for her ivory silk taffeta wedding dress design worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. However, Lowe was snubbed by Kennedy who when asked by reporters about her dressmaker, responded that she had wanted something French, but instead “a colored dressmaker” did it (Martin). Only one reporter, Nina Hyde of the Washington Post, actually followed up to discover Ann Lowe’s name (Martin). All of the numerous other stories ran without any mention of her. Understandably, Lowe was very disappointed.
While Lowe commanded high prices for her designs, she was often talked down and barely made a profit on what should have been lucrative sales.
This marked underprofitting plagued Lowe’s business years and left her at once bankrupt. She even had a loss of over $2,000 on the Kennedy dress that is one of the most iconic gowns of all time. Lowe charged only $500 for the ensemble that actually had to be made twice! The original gown was destroyed in a freak flood that ruined Lowe’s design studio and several of the Kennedy designs including the bride’s and some bridesmaids’ dresses. Lowe swallowed the cost, re-ordered fabric, and had her seamstresses working overtime to re-make the dresses. After all of the sacrifices Lowe made, she was still asked by guards at the wedding venue to use the service entrance because she was Black. Lowe refused, stating that the dresses would not be delivered at all if they had to be delivered under an umbrella of prejudice. She said, “If I have to use the backdoor, they’re not going to have the gowns!”
Lowe was challenged in later life with bad eyesight and completely lost one eye, with the other later being saved by surgery. She told the Saturday Evening Post that although she had to “work by feel”, people told her that she had “….done better feeling than others do seeing.”
Sadly, Lowe died at 82 on February 25, 1981, without achieving notoriety or financial success that equals her current renown.
Though she did not live to see it, a collection of five of Lowe’s designs are presently held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three of her designs are on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Several other of her designs were included in an exhibition on black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016. A children’s book, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe written by Deborah Blumenthal was published in 2017. Author Piper Huguley wrote a historical fiction novel about Lowe’s life.
“1953 – Ann Lowe, Jacqueline Kennedy’s Wedding Dress.” Fashion History Timeline, 13 June 2020, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1953-lowe-kennedy-wedding-dress/.
Laneri, Raquel. “Why Jackie Kennedy’s Wedding Dress Designer Was Fashion’s ‘Best Kept Secret’.” New York Post, New York Post, 16 Oct. 2016, nypost.com/2016/10/16/jackies-wedding-dress-designer-is-finally-recognized/.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Ann Lowe.” Last modified 16 January 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Lowe.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 – September 26, 2001) was an American fashion designer and costumer. She is credited as the original creator of the Playboy Bunny costume. Valdes is frequently quoted as having said of herself, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful…”
Valdes was born Zelda Christian Barbour in Chambersburg, PA, but grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina where she trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music. In the early 1920s, Valdes worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, Valdes began working in a high-end boutique as a stock girl. Eventually, she worked her way up to sales and making alterations. Valdes was the boutique’s first Black sales clerk and tailor. She knew how to design for any body type and could accentuate the best of every body.
She claimed to own the first Black owned business on broadway when she opened “Zelda Wynn” in 1948, her design and dressmaking studio in New York. Valdes dressed a host of celebrities and charged near $1,000 for a single gown in the 1950s (that would be about $10,000 US today). Wynn was one of the founders of the NAFAD. The clothing label featured at the top of this post is from a dress worn by Ella Fitzgerald (circa 1940s), designed by Zelda Valdes.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Zelda Wynn Valdes.” Last modified 23 January 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_Wynn_Valdes.
Mildred Blount (born 1907) was an American milliner (hat maker) noted for her creations for the production of Gone With The Wind, and for celebrities and other people in high society.
Blount’s worked at Madame Clair’s Dress and Hat Shop in New York City, where she developed an interest in millinery. She and her sister, who was a dressmaker, later opened their own dress and hat shop with target market of wealthy New Yorkers.
Blount’s career was energized after her designs were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She was asked to design hats for the films Gone with the Wind and Easter Parade, as well as for the cover of the August 1942 Ladies’ Home Journal. Later in the 1940s, Blount ran a hat shop in Beverly Hills, California. She catered to clients such as Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marian Anderson, and others. Blount reportedly died in 1974 in Los Angeles, California.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Mildred Blount.” Last modified 25 September 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Blount.
Ciao for now!