About the Holiday
During this month we recognize the contributions of black women across the fields of literature, fine, performing, culinary, and healing arts. To celebrate, research black women artists and attend exhibits, readings, or other events that showcase these talented women.
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe
Written by Deborah Blumenthal | Illustrated by Laura Freeman
From the time that Ann Cole Lowe was old enough to thread a needle, she loved to sew. While her momma and grandma worked at their sewing machines, making dresses for the socialites of Alabama, Ann sat nearby turning “the wisps of cloth” that fell to the floor into “flowers as bright as roses in the garden.” Even at a young age Ann understood that “doing what you love could set your spirit soaring.”
When Ann was only sixteen years old, her momma died. Not only did her mother’s death leave Ann bereft, it left her in charge of the business, and many women were waiting for gowns, most importantly the Alabama governor’s wife. “Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.” She sat down and finished the dresses. “Then she stood up and ran the business.”
In 1916 a woman in Florida hired her to sew dresses. She also sent Ann to design school in New York. Because she was African American, however, Ann was required to study in a separate classroom by herself. Ann was not deterred. She continued to make unique gowns and dresses, and her client list grew. Finally, Ann had saved enough money to open a salon of her own in Manhattan. Sometimes she didn’t have enough money to pay all the bills, but she persisted. Her life was about “what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.”
One day Ann received an order for a wedding dress from a woman who was marrying a United States senator. The woman’s name was Jacqueline Bouvier and the man was John F. Kennedy, a future president of the U.S. Ann bought 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta and designed a beautiful dress with a bouffant skirt and pleated bands decorated with tiny wax flowers. She also made the dresses for Jacqueline’s attendants.
Then ten days before the wedding, Ann walked into her workroom and discovered that a water pipe had burst, flooding the dresses, material, everything. Ten of the sixteen gowns Ann had sewn were destroyed. “Ann though about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.” She ordered new fabric, hired more seamstresses, and went to work. On this job she lost money instead of making it, but none of that mattered. In eight days all of the dresses were ready.
When Ann delivered the gowns to the mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the butler who answered the door told her workers needed to use the back entrance. Ann replied that “if she had to enter through the back door, the bride and bridesmaids wouldn’t be wearing her dresses for the wedding.” The front door swung open. On the day of the wedding—September 12, 1953—the whole world oohed and aahed over Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s gorgeous gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses, but not many people thought about or knew the name of the woman who had created them. “Why? Because Ann Cole Lowe was African American. And life wasn’t fair.”
Ann continued to design and sew party dresses and evening gowns for the women of high society. She “didn’t make fine clothes to get rich or famous,” however, but, as she once said, “‘To prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.’” In 1961 Ann finally gained public recognition for her work when she was named “Official Couturiere” in honor of the 33 ball gowns she created for an elegant ball in Omaha, Nebraska. She proudly accepted her award as the fashion world applauded.
An Author’s Note explaining more about Ann Cole Lowe’s life and work follows the text.
With straightforward storytelling adorned with lyrical passages, Deborah Blumenthal reveals Ann Cole Lowe’s lifelong love of fashion design, her struggles, and her ultimate acclaim. Lowe’s natural talent, single focus, self-confidence, courage, and persistence come through as she overcomes obstacles and prejudice to become the first African American couture designer. Children interested in fashion and history will find much to spark their curiosity and desire to know more about the woman and her times. Blumenthal’s repetition of Lowe’s philosophy to think about what she could do instead of what she couldn’t change will inspire readers to push past difficulties and find solutions.
Laura Freeman’s full-bleed illustrations are as bold and vivacious as Ann Cole Lowe herself. Beginning with the endpapers, which are scattered with drawings of Lowe’s one-of-a-kind gowns, Freeman takes readers on a tour of the workrooms and salons stocked with the fabrics that gave form to Lowe’s creativity. While the backgrounds are typically brilliantly colored and patterned, twice Freeman places Lowe on a completely white page—after her mother has recently died and she is left alone to finish dresses and when she is segregated from the other students in design school. These pages make a moving and effective statement. Children fascinated by fashion will love seeing the beautifully depicted gowns, and may be stirred to create styles of their own.
Ages 4 – 8
little bee books, 2017 | ISBN 978-1499802399
To learn more about Deborah Blumenthal and her books for children, young adults, and adults, visit her website!
Discover a gallery of illustration work by Laura Freeman on her website!
International Month of Black Women in the Arts Activity
Create Your Own Party Dress
With this easy craft you can make a fun sheath dress for playing dress-up. It’s also a great party activity! All you need is a plastic or paper party table cloth, Sharpies, and your imagination!
- 1 plastic party tablecloth (1 cloth will most likely make 4 dresses)
- Sharpies or other permanent markers
- Ribbon, scarf, crepe paper garland, or other material for a belt
- Newspaper, old sheeting or other material to protect the floor
- With the table cloth folded along one edge, cut a rectangle the appropriate size for the child
- In the middle of the folded edge cut a V-shaped or rounded opening for the child’s head. Begin with a small opening and enlarge it as needed
- Lay the dress on newspaper or other material to protect the floor
- Draw and color shapes, lines, figures, or other designs on the dress
- Slip on over a shirt and pants or leggings
- Add a belt with a ribbon, scarf, piece of crepe paper garland, or other material
Picture Book Review