Ann Lowe, Custom Designer for the Upper Crust

Ebony magazine, December 1969. Click to enlarge

Ann Lowe (1898-1981) was the first African American to open a custom dress studio on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. During the fifties and sixties, she was a favorite designer for the moneyed elite, creating debutante and wedding dresses. Perhaps her most famous client was Jacqueline Bouvier.  She designed the dress that Jackie wore to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953.  She also created the coming out dress for Jackie’s step sister, Nina Auchincloss, two years later.

Born in Alabama, Lowe came from a family of seamstresses. She began her professional career in Florida, coming to New York in 1916 to further her skills.  While attending the S. L. Taylor School of Design, she had to sit in separate classroom away from the white students.  Her first independent studio opened in Tampa in 1919.  By the late 1920s, she had saved enough money to move to New York.  There she quickly acquired an elite clientele.  Specializing in luxurious fabric and exquisite details, she claimed that she never made the same dress twice.

In 1969, Ebony published a long article on Lowe, “Dean of American Fashion Designers” by Gerri Major, that traced the ups and downs of Lowe’s career.  She was an excellent designer but not a very good business woman.  In the course of her lifetime, she opened and closed many studios and once had to declare bankruptcy.  Her lifetime of work never brought her riches; for decades she and her sister shared a two bedroom Harlem apartment.

Lowe dressed for work in a high necked black dress, a kind of uniform. Her outfit included a hat worn a hat to cover her thinning hair. By the time the article was written, she was growing frail and had lost an eye to glaucoma. After work, she had to go to bed to preserve her strength for the next day.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click to enlarge

Today Lowe is mainly remembered as the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. However, her list of clients included many other well known American names, including the Roosevelts, the Duponts, and Marjorie Merriweather Post.  Nine of her creations are housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Take a look at them here.  My favorite, of course, is this simple style in orange.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, General | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Festive Evening at Howard University, 1963

Scurlock Studio. Click to enlarge

Since it’s not that easy to find photos of older women in evening clothes, I was thrilled to discover this portrait of the Home Economics Faculty at Howard University attending the opening of their new building in 1963.  Howard University, located in Washington DC, is one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges.  Its Home Economics Department had a stellar reputation at the time, led by the renowned nutritionist, Flemmie Kitrell. That might be her on the left. Unfortunately, none of the women are identified (!); the one man is the University President, James M. Nabrit.  The photograph is the work of the Scurlock Studio, well known for its portraits of African Americans in capital.

Let’s take a look at the clothes.  The two women in the middle have on long dresses, suitable for a fancy evening out.  The shorter one partially covers her upper arms with diagonally cut sleeves; the taller white haired woman wears a shiny shawl over what looks like a simple black dress. The outfit of the woman on the left is hidden due to her glowing wrap.  My favorite dress is worn by the woman on the far right.  Her beautifully fitting long sleeved sheath has a little train in back.  She wears high gloves and what look like satin high heeled shoes.  I imagine her trying to negotiate the rising hemlines of the sixties.  As you can see, her dress is a little further below her knees than the younger woman by her side.  Perhaps she represented the garment designers and made the dress herself, with just the fit and the length that she loved.

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Women Get Weary but They don’t Give Up, 1991

Mural by Alice Patrick, photo by Robin J. Dunitz. Click to enlarge

This colorful mural by artist Alice Patrick is on the side of the office of the National Council of Negro Women in Los Angeles.  The woman in black is famous African American educator Mary Bethune (1875-1955), founder of the organization. Next to her in orange is the 1991 president, Dr. Dorothy Height (1912-2010). The other older women painted in color were meant to be anonymous women who took part in the struggle for black rights and women’s rights.  In the back are other black women of note—Josephine Baker, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Vaughn, and Florence Griffith-Joyner.

I’ve written about Mary Bethune before, a woman who favored dark, tailored clothes.  The contrast between her conservative style and the brightly dressed Height is at the center of the mural.  Height wears orange and has a piece of kente cloth draped across her lap.  We can see the contrast even in their shoes.  While Bethune wears the ubiquitous lace up oxfords, Height has on more stylish high heels.

Unfortunately I don’t quite understand the outfits of the two other women in the front row.  Maybe some of you can help me.  What is the woman on the left holding? And why does the woman on the right have a shawl over her head?  One source I read said that the woman in red, with the a no fuss hair cut and sensible but brightly colored shoes, was styled after the artist herself.

Hear Alice Patrick talk about the making and restoring of the mural here.


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Portrait with Chair, ca. 1910

Michael Francis Blake, Duke Digital Repository. Click to enlarge

This dignified portrait of an older African American woman comes from the studio of the photographer Michael Francis Blake in Charleston, South Carolina. According to the records at Duke University, most of his customers were black.  The studio was apparently a modest affair with a plain backdrop. The wooden chair pictured above is often the only prop.

I’ve changed the color of photo and darkened it a little so you can see more of the detail of this older woman’s clothing.  Duke gives the approximate date range for the photo as between 1910 and 1918. Her shirtwaist and skirt combination were standard apparel for American women of all ages and races in 1910. By 1918, it would have been out of fashion.

The skirt appears to have six gores, a common shape.  Her white shirt has a high collar and what looks like a lace insert in the front.  It’s hard to tell because of imperfections in the photo.  It’s also hard to judge whether or not it buttons down the front.

For me, this portrait is an example of the power of “less is more.”  She wears the simplest of all outfits. Her accessories are also quite simple, including a beautiful belt buckle, a two stand necklace, and drop earrings.  But these minimal details combined together create real elegance.

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Hand Sewing, 1942

Howard Liberman, Office of War Information, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

In honor of Black History Month, I’m seeking out photos of older black women.  This beautiful portrait of a woman doing hand sewing has been on my radar for a long time.  It is one of a series of photos taken by government photographer Howard Liberman at the Quartermaster Corps in Philadelphia.

The photo caption reads: “The nimble fingers of many American women are now contributing to the war effort in various quartermaster corps depots. This elderly woman is handstitching sleeves on an army overcoat.”  You would be wrong if you thought she was assigned to a menial task. Hand sewing provides much more accuracy than machine sewing, and setting sleeves is difficult and precise work. This unnamed seamstress was probably highly skilled.

And take a close look at the dress she is wearing.  It has an interesting diagonal line that runs from the top center button to the side.

Technical drawing of the popover dress via the blog Pintucks. Click to enlarge

This would have something in common with the McCardell popover dress, although the buttons run down the center and the sleeves are different.

Sharp eyed reader Kai Jones has another idea, speculating that it is a shirtwaist style with a self fabric tie at the neck. The diagonal line you see so clearly is the edge of one of the ties.

Whatever the structure, I wonder if our skilled seamstress designed the dress herself.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

About Pantsuits, Not Politics

The American media is abuzz with interpretations of what Melania Trump might have meant by donning a white pantsuit to her husband’s first State of the Union speech.  If you want to read a particularly clever analysis, try the article by the New York Times’ fashion reporter, Vanessa Friedman.

Speculation is fun, but what interests me is the fact that she was wearing a pantsuit at all.  I see this as another breakthrough for women in pants. In general, American First Ladies have a more restrictive dress code than other women in politics.  While many congresswomen have shown up to the annual speech in pantsuits, as far as I can see this is the first time a First Lady has done so. (Please correct me if I’m wrong).

There was a lot of bad fashion press when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Chancellor Angela Merkel, both wearing pantsuits.  Suzy Menkes called them “two political war horses who have won the right to wear what they want—which in their cases meant obliterating their femininity so that their clothes became as unremarkable as the guys.” (“Boy Meets Girl,” New York Times, February 28, 2010).  She doubted that a pantsuit could ever be remade into an attractive garment for a woman.

But none of the commentaries I have read about our new First Lady’s choice of clothing attacks the idea of the pantsuit itself.  We can speculate on the reasons—Melania Trump signals her femininity with her long hair, big makeup, high heels; she is much younger than “political war horses” who have made their mark with pantsuits in the past; her version is fashion forward and could never be confused with a man’s suit.  But maybe, just maybe, it shows that the pantsuit is finally safe for all women to wear in almost all situations.  I’m looking for it at the next inauguration ball.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Older Women in Pants, Mid-Century Edition

1946. Click to enlarge

It isn’t easy to find photos of older women in pants before World War Two, although I am doing my best to uncover them.  After the Second World War, the numbers climb.  We can credit the same explanation often given for younger women adopting this style. Older women also wore pants for their war jobs—see here and here.  At least some must have decided to continue this practical mode of dressing in work and leisure situations.  It’s hard to imagine the woman above, who looks like she had lots to do on the dock, showing up in a skirt.

Anne Spencer, 1947. Click to enlarge.

This photo of Anne Spencer, renowned writer, gardener and Civil Rights activist, show practical pants in the garden.

1948. Click to enlarge

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The three above are just a sampling of my photos showing women camping, hiking, and relaxing in pants.

What about more public situations?

Boston, 1952. Click to enlarge

1959. Click to enlarge

The Boston area shopper headed to the market in pants in 1952, and the free spirit Vida looks as if she is off to meet friends at a coffee shop in 1959.

Obviously this is just a random collection. It’s only in the seventies that older women take to pants in large numbers and photos become much easier to find.  But a very slow trend is already emerging in the post war era. It will finally end in someone like me, who owns not a single skirt or dress.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | Tagged | 1 Comment

Turbans and the Older Woman

Arlington Heights Memorial Library via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

Do you associate certain kinds of hats with certain age groups?  At the beginning of the twenty century, the bonnet tied under the chin was linked to older women.  For me, it is the turban that I associate with this age group.  (I’m using the term turban to refer to a structured hat, not a tied kerchief, like Rosie the Riveter’s.  Not everyone follows my usage, as can be seen in this ad.)

Florence Hendrickson of Arlington Heights Illinois wore a turban to her women’s group meeting in 1962 perhaps with the intent to look dramatic and stand out in a crowd.  Not only is her turban high, but it is decorated with a sparkly pin.

Wayne State University Library via DPLA. Click to enlarge

Famous blue singer Sippie Wallace from Detroit looks to have used her gauzy turban in the same way.  In both cases, quite a bit of the women’s hair (or wig) still shows.

Click to enlarge

In other cases, older women might have turned to turbans to cover up their hair almost entirely. The woman above has only a few curls visible in front. It would be a quick solution for those having a bad hair day, but who still wanted to look a little dressy.

Click to enlarge

In this mother/daughter photo, the younger woman doesn’t wear a hat at all, while her mother is mostly covered up.  Are those spangles on her turban, or just a reflection from shiny fabric?

Click to enlarge

Eleanor Lambert, publicist for clothing lines, went to the hairdresser almost every day.  Anytime she didn’t like the results, she put on a turban.  In the photo above, not a bit of her own hair shows.

Fashion advertisements and drawings often show young women in turbans. But in the photos of turbans on actual people, I find the style skews old.  What do you think?

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990 | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Bowling Club, 1962

Los Angeles Times. Click to enlarge

“Members of the Fifty and Over Bowling Club cheer as team member Ann Queen makes her strike.” So read the caption in the Herald Examiner newspaper when this photo as published in 1962.  There’s lots to see here.  The women still wore the short hair styles of the fifties–no Kennedy bouffants for them.  Ms. Queen dressed in pants, with bowling shoes, just the outfit to make a strike.  However the woman standing to the right of her appears to have on a skirt, although it’s hard to see.  Was she even a member? Her shirt looks to be a different cut and color. Too bad we have no indication of what the other woman member was wearing aside from the club logo.

And for all of you vintage collectors–I’d give a lot for one of those shirts.

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Tobé Coller Davis–the First Lady of Fashion Forecasting

Tobé Coller Davis and Sylvia Porter, ca. 1957. Click to enlarge

If you read about the history of the American garment industry, it doesn’t take long to come across the name Tobé Coller Davis (1888-1962).  After a varied career in clothing companies and department stores, she opened a fashion forecasting company in the 1920s. Today she is widely regarded as the founder of that lucrative industry in the United States.

I found an account of Tobé’s life quite by accident in the book The Fashion Director by Elaine Jabenis. Born to Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee in 1888, her given name was Taube, which means dove in German.  Her father was in the garment industry. The family moved to New York around 1910, but her father’s new business didn’t take off.  By 1914 Taube went out to work on her own, gaining experience in a wide range of jobs including a brief stint as a custom dressmaker.  In 1918, she was hired as advertising director for the Franklin Simon department store.  Here she learned skills that would serve her well in her own company—follow fashion news, keep an eye on Paris styles, and observe what the most fashionable women were wearing.

When did Taube become Tobé? It must have been before she launched her company, Tobé and Associates, in 1927.  Beginning with just four clients, she put out a weekly newsletter predicting which of the new French fashion trends would make inroads into the American market. Expanding her reach, she started a yearly event called “The Fashion Forum” in 1929, a three day seminar of lectures and demonstrations about fashion trends and advertising techniques.  The business boomed.

Good Housekeeping, 1938. Click to enlarge

By the mid thirties—in the midst of the depression–she had over 100 clients. She renamed her company Tobé—her first name alone apparently enough—and moved to the poshest part of Fifth Avenue.  The ad above calls her America’s “style dictator.”

Red Book, 1938

In 1937 she and Julia Coburn, then editor of Ladies Home Journal, founded the Tobé- Coburn School for Fashion Careers. An innovation at the time, it was designed to train women to take on executive positions in department stores and fashion companies.  Maybe one day I’ll take a look at the school’s archives, housed at the New York Public Library.

In the fifties, she also started to write syndicated fashion columns for newspapers called “Tobe Says.” (Perhaps newspapers couldn’t be bothered to add the accent mark.)  I discovered one published in early 1961 called “It is Your Duty to Stay Young.”  Did older women find it reassuring? “The trick is to look young but not ridiculous. Don’t pretend to be twenty if you’re in that indeterminate middle age that stretches from forty to seventy, for there’s a modern way of looking young no matter what your age.  It begins with your hairdo, your skin, and particularly your skirt length this season.”

It’s not easy finding photos of Tobé, so it’s hard to say if she followed her own advice.  The large press photo above was like taken in 1957, when Tobé was approaching seventy.  Her skin is certainly beautiful, but I wouldn’t say her style looks particularly young.  She wears many markers of a well off older woman—a dress with a raised waist (perhaps to disguise a menopot), a flowery hat, and beautiful pearls.

But who needs youth if you have energy?  Tobé founded an industry and a legacy. The fashion report and the school she started (now refocused and renamed) still exist today.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, General | Tagged , | Leave a comment