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Sewing the tiers of ruffles onto the reproduction wedding gown are
(from left) students Kayla Brown and Maya Bordrick and instructor Katya
Roelse. The team used 154 yards of taffeta trim, basting and gathering
it to make the ruffles.
In a Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies
workroom on the University of Delaware campus, a professor and three
students spent most of June painstakingly re-creating a famous wedding
gown worn by Jacqueline Bouvier as she married then-Sen. John F. Kennedy
As they cut, basted and gathered 154 yards of taffeta trim to
hand-sew in tiers around the gown’s voluminous skirt, they felt almost
as if they were reliving history. But they were clear about one thing:
This was not Jackie Kennedy’s gown. This was Ann Lowe’s gown.
“Ann Lowe was an amazing and creative designer who had many
well-known clients, but as an African American, she never got the credit
she deserved,” said Katya Roelse, instructor in fashion and apparel
studies, who is leading the project. “This wedding gown was the
culmination of her life’s work, and you can see so many aspects of it
that are pure Ann Lowe.”
When Roelse and her undergraduate research assistants complete their work, the resulting replica of the gown that was worn at the future first lady’s society wedding will be a key element in an upcoming exhibition at Winterthur Museum. “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” opening in September 2023, will feature 40 of the designer’s creations from the 1920s through the ’60s, many of which have never before been exhibited, and will illuminate her influence on American fashion.
Curating the exhibition is Elizabeth Way, associate curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum, who graduated from UD in 2008 with bachelor’s degrees in apparel design and history.
The original wedding gown is housed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where it is too delicate to display on a mannequin, much less to travel to Winterthur. In order to include such a recognizable and admired item in the exhibition, it was decided to create a reproduction.
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A close-up of a handmade rosette, a hallmark of designer Ann
Lowe’s style. Seven rosettes will embellish the skirt of the finished
Roelse and Kate Sahmel, textile conservator at Winterthur, traveled
to the Kennedy museum and spent three days in the archives with the
dress. Sahmel studied the fabrics that Lowe used, while Roelse took
countless measurements and made extensive notes so that she could
understand and duplicate the gown’s construction.
“There were no drawings or patterns available; I just had to figure
it out,” Roelse said. “Being there in the archives, surrounded by all
these artifacts [of Kennedy’s life], I really felt the weight of
Back in Delaware, work on what Roelse calls “this incredible project”
was frustratingly delayed by supply issues in ordering the specific
types of fabric needed. Once everything arrived, she and her students
Summer Scholars Maya Bordrick, Alex Culley and Kayla Brown dived into the project, which they described as involving much more hand-stitching and design complexity than they had previously encountered.
“I wanted to work on this project because I thought it would be a unique experience,” Bordrick said. “And I wanted to learn about Ann Lowe and about her techniques.”
The students said they felt a responsibility to showcase Lowe’s work as carefully and accurately as possible, and they marveled at the account of how a pipe burst in Lowe’s studio just 10 days before the wedding, sending her and some 35 employees on a marathon session to recreate the gown and nine bridesmaid’s dresses that had also been destroyed.
Students (from left) Kayla Brown, Maya Bordrick and Alex Culley
study the way the gown will fall as Katya Roelse holds it on a mannequin
in the Fashion and Apparel Studies workroom.
“I feel like my students and I get to walk in her shoes,” Roelse said of Lowe. “It’s not just copying a dress. It’s trying to live through the creative process, and I think that imparts empathy and understanding.”
The ivory silk taffeta skirt with its multiple layers of ruffles,
all of varying widths, is just one element of the gown, which also
consists of a silk faille underskirt or petticoat, a corset and a
bodice. The skirt is decorated with seven ornate, hand-sewn rosettes,
each with small flowers crafted of a polymer clay in the center.
Many of the design details are characteristic of Lowe’s work,
including the lack of a waistline seam. That technique, Roelse said,
“creates a beautiful line” but also puts weight and pressure on the
finished gown that can add to its fragility as time passes.
In studying the original, she considered whether some of Lowe’s techniques could have been altered or done more efficiently.
“But the answer is that the way she did it was the best way, the only
way,” Roelse said. “She knew the fabric, she knew the stitching, she
knew what she wanted to give the dress that perfect, hand-crafted look.
It couldn’t have been done any other way.”
Ann Lowe, born in Alabama in 1898, created couture gowns for such
prominent families as the Roosevelts and du Ponts and for debutantes,
heiresses, actresses and society brides from Olivia de Havilland to
Jacqueline Kennedy, but she remained virtually unknown to the wider
public for decades.
She learned dressmaking from her mother and grandmother and went on
to become a trailblazing designer, a fashion insider and a vital
contributor to American culture, known for her distinctive feminine and
As an African American couturier, her work was often overlooked by
the fashion world and the media. When she personally delivered
Jacqueline Bouvier’s gown just before her 1953 wedding, she was
initially told to use the service entrance at the back of the house.
Lowe refused and was admitted through the front door.
The Kennedy “fairy tale wedding” was covered extensively in the
media, but Lowe’s name was missing from almost all of those reports.
When asked about her gown, the bride referred to the designer only as “a
In 1964 The Saturday Evening Post called Lowe “Society’s Best-Kept Secret.”
This article contains information from the Winterthur Museum,
Garden and Library. The reproduction gown was created in cooperation
with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Article by Ann Manser, photos by Kathy F. AtkinsonOriginally published July 11, 2022