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08/02/2017

From Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress

 

To mark the start of black history month in the US, Claude Hector, who sells men’s suits in New York and has an interest in fashion history, began tweeting an ongoing thread about the often overlooked achievements of black fashion designers. His first post, on Feb. 1, was about Ann Lowe, a name many Americans won’t recognize, despite her historical significance. Lowe designed the wedding formal dresses of Jacqueline Bouvier, who of course became Jacqueline Kennedy once she married.

Visitors to the John F. Kennedy Library Museum admire Jacqueline Bouvier Kenndey's wedding dress in Boston, May 27.  John F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister Caroline donated the dress to the museum after their mother's death.  The dress is made of over 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. - RTXHHRH

That dress, an exquisite piece of American history in ivory French taffeta and pink silk faille, is just one part of Lowe’s legacy. Born in Alabama in 1898, Lowe learned to sew from her mother and grandmother, a former slave who set up her own dress shop after the American Civil War. Lowe took over the business at age 16, after her mother died. She eventually left for New York to enroll in a couture course, which she was nearly rejected from because of her skin color.

In the years that followed, Lowe became a favorite for private commissions among the society crowd, and ultimately, American high-fashion’s first black designer.

Lowe’s story, like those of many other black contributors to fashion history, is often forgotten, which can leave black Americans today feeling that they have no place in American fashion tradition. Hector began his project, he says, because he was trying to find himself somewhere in that history. “I started searching out black contributions to the world of fashion years ago and realized that no one shines a light on some of these pioneers,” he says.

Even contemporary designers are frequently overlooked. The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum at FIT, which has organized an exhibition on black designers that runs through May, points out that they “make up only about one percent of the designers covered by VogueRunway.com, the most comprehensive online site for viewing collections from fashion weeks around the world.”

It’s a shame given the impact black designers have had, and continue to exert today, on fashion in the US and beyond.

“Oftentimes they’re just left out of fashion history,” says Ariele Elia, co-curator of the Museum at FIT’s black fashion designers exhibition. “I know that when I was studying fashion history for my master’s course, none of these designers were ever mentioned.”

Zelda Wynn Valdes, for instance, was a mid-century designer who created some of the extraordinary eveningwear worn by performers such as Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, and Ella Fitzgerald, though she’s probably most well-known as the manufacturer of the Playboy Bunny costume. (She didn’t design it, Elia says, but she won the commission to produce it.) She was also the president of a professional group in the 1950s that supported and helped raise the profile of many black designers, at a time when the New York fashion industry was effectively still segregated, not legally but in practice.

Later, people such as Scott Barrie, Willie Smith, and Stephen Burrows helped shape decades of American sportswear. Barrie, for example, was a master of sexy matte jersey formal dresses uk, who Elia says deserves to be regarded alongside Halston when people think of those who defined the look of Studio 54 and the 1970s.

 

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