The hidden figures of American fashion history

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When Jacqueline Bouvier married John F Kennedy in 1953, every detail of her ivory wedding dress was studied by reporters. But one essential fact has been overlooked. The designer of the dress was not credited by name; one writer called her a “colored seamstress”. That designer was Ann Lowe, the seamstress who also designed Olivia de Havilland’s 1947 Oscar flower dress. (Lowe was uncredited on this occasion as well, working on commission for the Chez Sonia brand.)

Lowe’s work, including a 1941 silk wedding dress embroidered with 3D lilies, will be on display at the spring exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Title In America: A Fashion Anthology, the show is the second installment in the New York Museum’s year-long exploration of American style. American fashion banner names – Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs – tend to be masculine and pale, while industry columns often focus on major ready-to-wear manufacturers and sportswear. But the Met show aims to spotlight under-recognized designers from the 19th to the late 20th century.

One of the standout pieces on display is a pale pink silk moire dress by New Orleans dressmaker Ms. Olympe. Dated c1865, it is the first American dress in the Met’s collection to bear a label identifying its designer. “It was the beginning of the emergence of the idea of ​​the designer as we understand that concept today, as someone with a distinct creative vision,” says Jessica Regan, associate curator at the Costume Institute.

In America, the custom of labeling a dress with the name of the maker, not the designer, was commonplace until the 1960s – a contrast to Paris, where the designer was usually credited. Olympe was born in France, which is probably why she picked up the custom. But despite this clever branding, it worked on a small scale and is now largely forgotten.

The newly married Kennedys. The designer of the bride’s dress was not mentioned in news reports at the time

According to Regan, Olympe represents “many similarly working couturiers across the United States who collectively have been essential in building the foundations of American fashion.”

Many of these seamstresses were women, she says, because the trade “offered real opportunities for entrepreneurship, economic independence. It was considered respectable work, an extension of so-called natural domestic duties. None of these women were likely to be considered “designers” at the time, even when creating original and innovative works. African American women in commerce were even less likely to be celebrated.

During segregation, sewing had become a source of income for some African American women. The exhibit features the work of Fannie Criss Payne, born in 1866 to former slave parents, who was a popular seamstress in remote Richmond, Virginia at the turn of the 20th century – actress Gloria Swanson was among her clients. Her dresses, with fine pintucks, lace inserts and delicate appliqués, demonstrate “very precise technicality and a great sense of harmony that would enhance the wearer and her figure,” Regan says. “His customers really relied on his taste. She truly represents the pinnacle of the profession.

An 1860s woman's dress with a full skirt and a fitted bodice

An evening dress by Mme Olympe, c1865 . . . © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A 1940s white satin wedding dress, with a long train

. . . and a wedding dress designed by Ann Lowe, circa 1941 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

That’s not to say tailoring offered opportunities for true equality, says Elizabeth Way, author of Black designers in American fashion and Assistant Curator of Costume at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Museum. She describes the profession in the 19th and early 20th century as “kind of a weird position” for black women. “As a seamstress, you obviously have so much creativity and so much agency, but you’re also on your knees, which is a bit of a more menial role. I think black women have been able to use that role in ways that finding success and agency, but that didn’t necessarily threaten their white clients.

There are also wealthier white women featured on the show, who became stars in their day but are now fading from popular consciousness. The show includes Claire McCardell’s ‘monastic’ dress from 1949: shapeless until tied at the waist, it was typical of her pioneering, mass-produced designs.

A golden brown pleated dress with a tie at the waist

Claire McCardell’s “monastic” dress, 1949. . . © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A black duvet with a red arrow applied under the chest

. . . and ‘The Tarts’ dress by Elizabeth Hawes, 1937 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

McCardell was a big name in her day: she posed for the cover of Time magazine in the 1950s and was the subject of multiple retrospectives in the 1990s. couldn’t have Calvin Klein or Donna Karan without her,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT and author of Women of fashion: the designers of the 20th century. But now, she says, “most fashion students wouldn’t know who she was.”

They might also struggle to place Elizabeth Hawes, a prolific writer and well-known wit of her time whose 1937 “The Tarts” dress features arrows pointing at the wearer’s breasts and buttocks.

It is no coincidence that many forgotten first names are female. When researching her book, Steele says she was asked why “85% of fashion school students are women while the majority of famous designers are men. Overall, the history of fashion is above all a kind of genealogy of men. In Paris, there were dozens of successful female couturiers in the 19th century – Madame Palmyre and Madame Victorine, to name but two – who for the most part were “somehow thrown into the shadows by the rise of Charles Frederick Worth”.

Something similar happened in the 1920s and 1930s; it was a time when female designers flourished, but only Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – both glamorous and excellent at creating narratives around their work, and whose companies still exist – are truly remembered.

Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland, in a long floral dress, stands next to a man in a tuxedo.  She is holding an Oscar statuette and smiling broadly

Olivia de Havilland at the 1947 Academy Awards wearing a floral dress painted by Ann Lowe © Alamy Stock Photo

In Steele’s view, we tend to remember designers whose companies are still in business – the Diors, Balenciagas, Givenchys and Saint Laurents, whose marketing departments help keep their legacies fresh in the public consciousness. There are reasons why so many businesses that have longevity have been started by white men: capital. Christian Dior, for example, was supported by a major fabric manufacturer. Steele says, “As the French designer Jacques Fath said in 1954, ‘Fashion is an art. Art is creator and men are creators. And I think very often backers want someone they can promote as being some kind of genius.

For Steele, one of the hidden strengths of the American fashion industry is that it has long been much more diverse than its French or Italian counterparts. To mark the opening of the exhibition on May 2, the Met will host its annual haute couture fundraising gala; this year’s theme is “Gilded Glamour”, in reference to New York’s golden age at the end of the 19th century.

Maybe one of the guests will show up in a dress inspired by the work of a hitherto unrecognized designer and help show the world that, when it comes to American fashion history, we haven’t heard the whole story yet.

In America: A Fashion Anthology, The Met Fifth Avenue, from May 7 to September 5

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