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The hidden figures of American fashion history

When Jacqueline Bouvier married John F Kennedy in 1953, every detail of her ivory wedding gown was pored over by journalists. But one critical fact was overlooked. The gown’s designer was not credited by name; one writer referred to her as “a colored woman dressmaker”. That designer was Ann Lowe, the couturier who had also created Olivia de Havilland’s flower-painted 1947 Oscars gown. (Lowe was uncredited on that occasion too, working on commission for the brand Chez Sonia.)

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. Titled In America: An Anthology of Fashion, the show is the second instalment of the New York museum’s year-long exploration of American style. Banner names in US fashion — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs — tend to be male and pale, while industry chronicles often focus on major makers of ready-to-wear and sportswear. But the Met show aims to shine a light on under-recognised designers from the 19th to the late 20th century.

One of the more remarkable pieces in the exhibition is a pale pink silk moire gown by the New Orleans-based couturier Mme Olympe. Dated c1865, it is the earliest American dress in the Met’s collection to bear a label identifying its maker. “This is the beginning of the emergence of the idea of the designer as we understand that concept today, as somebody with a distinct creative vision,” says Jessica Regan, associate curator at the Costume Institute.

In America, the custom of stamping a gown’s label with the name of the manufacturer, not the designer, was commonplace until well into the 1960s — a contrast with Paris, where the creator was generally credited. Olympe was French-born, which is probably why she picked up the custom. But despite this canny branding, she was working on a small scale and is now largely forgotten.

The newly married Kennedys. The designer of the bride’s dress went unmentioned in press reports at the time

According to Regan, Olympe represents “many dressmakers working in a similar way throughout the United States who, collectively, were critical to building the foundations of American fashion”.

Numerous such dressmakers were women, she says, because the craft “offered true opportunities for entrepreneurship, for economic independence. It was considered a respectable line of work, an extension of so-called natural domestic duties.” None of these women were likely to be thought of as “designers” at the time, even when they were creating original and innovative work. Even less likely to be celebrated were the African-American women in the trade.

During segregation, dressmaking had become a source of income for some African-American women. The exhibition shows the work of Fannie Criss Payne, born in 1866 to formerly enslaved parents, who was a highly regarded dressmaker in segregated Richmond, Virginia, at the turn of the 20th century — the actress Gloria Swanson was among her clients. Her dresses, with fine pintucks, lace inserts and delicate appliqués, demonstrate “a very precise technical skill and a great sense of harmony that would enhance the wearer and her figure”, says Regan. “Her clients really relied on her taste. She really does represent the height of the profession.”

That is not to say that dressmaking offered opportunities for true equality, says Elizabeth Way, author of Black Designers in American Fashion and assistant curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She describes the profession in the 19th and early 20th century as “kind of a weird position” for black women. “As a dressmaker, you obviously have so much creativity and so much agency, but you’re also on your knees, which fits a role that’s a little bit more subservient. I think that black women were able to use this role in a way that they could find success and agency but it wasn’t necessarily threatening to their white clients.”

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

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. “She was certainly the originator of the American look — you 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: Twentieth-Century Designers. But now, she says, “most fashion students wouldn’t know who she was”.

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

It is no coincidence that many forgotten names are female. When she was researching her book, Steele says that she asked why “85 per cent of the students at fashion schools are women but the majority of famous designers are men. Overall, the history of fashion is primarily sort of a genealogy of men.” In Paris there were scores of successful female couturiers in the 19th century — Madame Palmyre and Madame Victorine, to name just two — who for the most part were “sort of cast into the shadow by the rise of Charles Frederick Worth”.

Something similar happened in the 1920s and ’30s; it was a time when female designers flourished, but it is only Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli — both of whom were glamorous and excellent at creating narratives around their work, and whose companies still exist — who are really remembered.

Olivia de Havilland at the 1947 Academy Awards ceremony, wearing a flower-painted gown by Ann Lowe © Alamy Stock Photo

In Steele’s view, we tend to remember the designers whose companies are still going now — the Diors, Balenciagas, Givenchys and Saint Laurents, whose marketing departments help to keep their legacies fresh in the public consciousness. There are reasons why so many companies with longevity were launched by white men: capital. Christian Dior, for example, had a major fabric manufacturer backing him. Says Steele: “As the French fashion designer Jacques Fath said in 1954, ‘Fashion is an art. Art is creative, and men are the creators.’ And I think that, very often, backers want someone that they can promote as being some kind of genius.”

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

Perhaps one of the guests will turn up in a gown inspired by the work of a previously unsung designer and help to show the world that, as far as American fashion history goes, we have not heard the full story yet.

In America: An Anthology of Fashion, The Met Fifth Avenue, May 7-Sept 5

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