African American designer’s historic dresses on display in Tampa: ‘Her legacy is unmatched’

In Tampa, museum curators carefully unpacked the irreplaceable fabric of dresses that are treasured by both historians and designers. The dresses help tell a story of unbelievable talent and breaking through racial barriers. 

The dresses were designed by Ann Lowe, who honed her craft in Tampa and went on to become a top international fashion designer. She was the first Black woman to achieve such fame in the field. 

“Her story is really an incredible story – an African American dressmaker who came to Tampa in 1917 as a young woman,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. 

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She met Tampa socialite Josephine Lee in a department store. Lee had twin daughters, and the two and all of their friends needed gowns for Tampa’s Gasparilla Ball. 

Lowe made the best gowns around.

“She was known in Tampa in the 1920s,” said Daniel Carpenter of the Henry B. Plant Museum. “She was hired by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla to make the outfits for the court in 1924.”

One of the dresses she made for that celebration is a key piece of the Plant Museum’s Gasparilla exhibit. Three dresses that Lowe created just arrived back in Tampa after a special exhibition in Delaware. 

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One dress is part of the collection at the Tampa Bay History Center while two belong to the Henry B. Plant Museum. 

“The 1924 gown worn by the Gasparilla Queen is the oldest known work by Ann Lowe,” said Carpenter. “It’s really very special.”

Lowe learned how to sew as a little girl from her mother and grandmother. Her Gasparilla creations in Tampa were just the beginning, though. 

She went on to attend a fashion design academy in New York. 

“Her designs exceeded her classmates,” said Kite-Powell. “They were used as examples by her school, and she finished the classes faster than any other student.”

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The best-known creation of her career came in 1953. 

She designed the wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married the future president – John F. Kennedy. 

“The Bouvier-Kennedy Wedding of 1953 was kind of the classic wedding of the century,” said Kite-Powell.

The classic designs of Lowe became legendary along with her unlikely rise to where no Black woman had gone before.  

“She’s got an incredible story. Her legacy is unmatched, and it’s very special that we’re able to display her gowns,” said Carpenter.

Gowns made in Tampa are the earliest creations of a fashion legend.


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