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Jackie Kennedy: The almost forgotten story of her wedding dress

by Ivan Sanna Del Brocco
29. November 2022

Simply-Si Wedding Planner looks back at the story behind Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress.

For designer Ann Lowe, designing the future First Lady's wedding dress should have been a career-defining moment.

Between you and me, it certainly would have given my career as a bespoke tailor and wedding planner a bit of a boost too. But almost 70 years later, the story is still almost unknown.

12. September 1953 Jackie Kennedy & John F. Kennedy (Getty Images)

The Dress

On the day Jacqueline Lee Bouvier married John F. Kennedy in 1953, she wore a custom-made dress by Ann Lowe. Some have called it the "most photographed wedding dress in history".

The wedding dress Jacqueline dreamed of was not an American dream, and therefore Joseph (J.F.K.'s father) could not allow it. Jacqueline preferred French designers and modern simplicity, which was in direct opposition to Joseph's desired statement of romance and post-war prosperity. Naturally, Jacqueline capitulated. However, she felt that the dress did not flatter her small stature and "thought it looked a bit like a lampshade". Jacqueline's simple, streamlined fashion sense would eventually become the hallmark of her iconic White House style when she favoured American designer Oleg Cassini.

As a Wedding Planner for international weddings and bespoke tailor, you can advise clients as best as you can. With Joseph Patrick "Joe" Kennedy, the father of J.F.K, we too would probably have had a hard time.

Made from fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta, the dress had the dramatic "New Look" silhouette that was fashionable in the early 1950s. The fitted bodice had a portrait neckline and was embellished with interwoven ribbons of pleated fabric. The skirt was described as "full bouffant". It also featured a sewing technique called "trapunto", which used ruffles and concentric circles to create a multi-layered, dimensional effect.

In her book, Everything Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Book: A Portrait of an American Icon, Kathleen Tracy describes the rest of Jacqueline's bridal ensemble, including her billowing lace veil:

"Jackie wore her grandmother's lace veil, fastened in her hair with a small lace tiara decorated with traditional orange blossoms. Her jewellery was minimalist: a single strand of family pearls, a diamond pin (a wedding gift from Jack's parents) and a diamond bracelet Jack had given her the night before the wedding. Her bridal bouquet consisted of white and pink spray orchids and gardenias."

Although the wedding took place years before the couple moved into the White House, Jacqueline's wedding dress is considered not only one of her most iconic looks, but also "one of the most iconic wedding day looks of all time".

The disaster

Ann Lowe Designerin
Ann Lowe Getty Images

In 1953, Lowe received a major commission.

She was commissioned to design the wedding dress of Jacqueline Bouvier,

as well as all the dresses for the bridesmaids and the mother of the bride. I would have jumped

to land this job as a bespoke tailor or wedding planner.

By then, Lowe had been working with the Bouviers for years, and she had a friendly relationship with 24-year-old Jackie, she later said. But it wasn't really Jackie's show. The groom's father - the famously domineering Joseph Kennedy - was involved in every detail of the wedding planning, including the dress, as author Rosemary E. Reed Miller reported in a 2007 interview with NPR. So we can all imagine how relieved Ann Lowe was when all the dresses were ready and just waiting to be delivered. But things turned out differently than expected.

Now, as an international wedding planner you know that something unexpected can happen at any time.

As a tailor you are a little more relaxed, because when the gowns are ready; what could

possibly go wrong?

Rose Detail on Jackie Kennedy Wedding Dress
Detail Jackie Kennedy Wedding Dress Pinterest

Unfortunately, the job turned out to be a nightmare for Lowe. Just ten days before the Kennedy wedding, disaster took its course. A pipe burst in Lowe's studio, covering ten of the fifteen dresses - including the bride's dress - with water, rust and dirt. Lowe and her employees kept the ordeal a secret from the Kennedys and had to remake in ten days what had originally taken them eight weeks. Lowe also had to buy new materials and hire additional seamstresses, turning any gain into a huge financial loss.

When the dresses were finally ready, Lowe decided to hand-carry them from New York City to Newport, Rhode Island. The staff at the door insisted that she enter through the back door, but Ann refused. She threatened to take the clothes back if she was not let in through the front door.

Wedding Location John F. Kennedy Jacqueline Bouvier
Hammersmith Farm Wedding Location JK & JFK Getty Images

Ann Lowe and the lack of recognition

As a tailor, wedding planner or wedding celebrant, you also live from the recognition of your own work. It doesn't matter whether it's a luxury wedding in Tuscany or a small, intimate celebration in your own garden. With a wedding like that of JK & JFK, as a wedding planner you naturally hope for follow-up orders. And with the big family of the Kennedys, there was a lot of potential for follow-up orders.

Unfortunately, despite overcoming all the major obstacles, Lowe did not receive proper recognition for the dresses. When reporters asked Jacqueline who had made her wedding dress, she explained that she had wanted something French, but instead "a coloured dressmaker" had made it. Only one reporter, Nina Hyde of the Washington Post, followed up and found out Ann Lowe's name. She was not even mentioned in the numerous other reports. Understandably, Lowe was very disappointed.

Lowe doesn't seem to have held it against her, though. As early as 1964, she told the Saturday Evening Post how "sweet" Jackie Kennedy, by then a widow and former First Lady, had been to her. That same year, Ebony said, Kennedy found out what Lowe had done to her wedding dress 11 years earlier.

Despite her brilliance and reputation, Lowe was often taken advantage of by her clientele, who traded down her prices to a fraction of their actual value. By the mid-1960s, she was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and in trouble with the IRS.

Then an "anonymous friend" paid her back taxes and halved her debt. Lowe suspected that the anonymous friend was Jackie.

Ann Lowe

Ann Cole Lowe: 14. December 1898 – 25. February 1981

Ann Lowe was born the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner and grew up with her older sister. Her mother and grandmother worked as seamstresses for wealthy families in Montgomery, Alabama, with Ann Lowe helping out. They recognised Ann's talent at a very early age. When Lowe was 16 years old, her mother died. At that time she had just worked on four ball gowns for Elizabeth Kirkman O'Neal, the wife of the Governor of Alabama. Using the talent and skills Ann Lowe had learned from her mother and grandmother, she finished the dresses.

In her teens, she married the elder Lee Cohen and gave birth to their son Arthur Lee. She complied with her husband's wish to give up sewing for a short time. When she was commissioned by a Florida woman to make a wedding dress and dresses for her daughters, she jumped at the chance and travelled to Florida. The couple separated.

In 1917, Lowe moved with her son to New York City, where she began training at the S. T. Taylor School of Design. Due to racial prejudice against blacks, her fellow students refused to be in the same class, so she completed the training quickly and in private lessons. After graduating in 1919, she left New York with her son to live again in Tampa, Florida. There Lowe opened a fashion salon under the name "Annie Cohen" and worked for upper-class women. After saving $20,000 of her earnings, she returned to New York City in 1928 and worked on commission for luxury department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. She was supported in her business by her son.

Opening Article Saks 5th. Avenue New York Times
Opening Saks 5th. Avenue / New York Times

In 1946, she designed the gown Olivia de Havilland wore at the Academy Awards for Best Actress for Mother's Heart; however, the gown carried Sonia Rosenberg's label.

Olivie de Havilland im Kleid der Oscar Verleihung
Olivia de Havilland Pinterest

Because Lowe received little attention as a fashion designer, she and her son opened a second salon under the name "Ann Lowe's Gowns" on Lexington Avenue in New York, which attracted wealthy high society clients. The Saturday Evening Post later called Lowe "society's best kept secret". During her career, Lowe was known for being very selective in choosing her clients.

Ann Lowe 558 Lexington Avenue

"I love my clothes and I value who wears them. I'm not interested in sewing for coffee house society or social climbers," she told Ebony magazine in 1966.

Several generations of famous families such as the Auchinclosses, Rockefellers, Lodges, Du Ponts and Biddles were among them. In 1953, she was commissioned to design the wedding dress of future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier and the dresses for her bridesmaids for her wedding to then Senator John F. Kennedy. Lowe had been chosen by Janet Auchincloss, Jacqueline Bouvier's mother. She had previously commissioned Lowe to design the wedding dress she wore at her 1942 wedding ceremony to Hugh D. Auchincloss.

Her creativity, however, failed to bring her economic success. Throughout her career, Lowe worked for a wealthy clientele who often talked her out of charging higher prices for her designs. After paying her staff, she often failed to make a profit on her creations. Lowe later admitted that she was practically broke at the height of her career. In 1962, she lost her salon in New York City after failing to pay taxes.

That same year, she had her right eye removed because of glaucoma. While she was recovering from the procedure, an anonymous friend paid off Lowe's debts, which allowed her to return to work afterwards. Soon after, a cataract developed in her left eye, but it was saved with surgery.

In 1968, she opened a new shop, "Ann Lowe Originals", on Madison Avenue. Lowe retired in 1972.

Ann Lowe Haute Couturier
Ann Lowe Evening Post 1962


Bride and Groom after the ceremony in a Tuscan Abbey, bride in white dress and groom in a black tuxedo

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