The September 12, 1953 nuptials of Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis (née Bouvier) to then US senator John F. Kennedy lives on in history as a homegrown fairy tale (or de facto royal) wedding, down to Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress made by African American couturier Ann Lowe.
Life magazine sent photographer Lisa Larsen to document the event for a story detailing the scene where “600 diplomats, senators, and social figures” attended the Newport, Rhode Island, ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Boston. (Pope Pius XII even sent a special blessing.) “Outside, 2,000 society fans” hailed the newlyweds, who would later shake hands with 900 reception guests. “The whole affair, said one enthusiastic guest, was ‘just like a coronation,’” Life reported.
On the eve of the civil rights movement, the union of the future president and first lady portended the romanticized Camelot White House era and also established Kennedy Onassis as an American style icon. Elizabeth Way—associate curator at The Museum at FIT and author of Black Designers in American Fashion—explains images of Kennedy Onassis on her wedding day were “very widely circulated,” including the front page of The New York Times. “This was even before Jackie Kennedy had earned this reputation as this very fashion-forward first lady,” Way says. “So the images of her wedding dress are arguably, still today, this big fashion moment for women.”
But in a universally relatable situation, the bride’s future in-laws wielded authority over the big day, including the wedding dress. Just returned from Paris, the socialite and neophyte journalist reportedly preferred a French designer, but the Kennedy patriarch and DC kingmaker, Joseph, insisted Kennedy Onassis wear an American brand to send a message of diplomacy. “There were so many other stakeholders besides Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy,” Way says. “His family and her family—it was these dynasties coming together and creating this political American moment.”
Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress designer, Ann Lowe, was a sought-after dressmaker to elite East Coast families—like the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, and Roosevelts—for bespoke bridal and debutante gowns. Lowe also designed the nuptial dress of Kennedy Onassis’s mother, Janet Auchinchloss, as well as the debutante confections of sister Lee and stepsister Nina Auchincloss. “She was an American couturier dressing some of the most noted ladies of her time,” says Neil Brown, CEO of Amsale, which he co-founded with his late wife, Amsale Aberra. The Ethiopian American bridal designer is celebrated for defining the modern American wedding dress, and the New York City–based brand continues creating opportunities for aspiring Black fashion designers through the Amsale Aspire initiative.
Lowe learned the craft of 19th century–style custom-dressmaking from her mother and formerly enslaved grandmother, both of whom ran a business together during Reconstruction in the Jim Crow–era South. Legend has it that Lowe took inspiration from a dress made by her mother for Kennedy Onassis’s wedding design.
The pristine pleating on the gown’s bodice, intricate scallop pin tucks, and complex rosette embellishments with dainty wax orange blossoms nestled in the center—all meticulously done by hand—are trademarks of Lowe. “Flowers were something she did over and over and over again,” says Way, emphasizing Lowe’s near-magical talent in engineering elaborate 3D aspects with monochrome white materials. “She was just really great at almost sculpting the fabric and building up into three dimensions from a flat surface.”
Lowe’s expertise continues through to the foundational construction techniques. “The way she built the inside of her bodices was very intricate and structural. If you look at the inside of an Ann Lowe piece, especially from the ’50s and ’60s, it’s very distinctive,” Way says regarding Lowe’s masterful optimization of fit, draping, and comfort for the wearer.
Kennedy Onassis’s wedding dress, too delicate to exhibit, is currently preserved in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The Boston institution provided access to the iconic wedding gown to University of Delaware professor and designer Katya Roelse for replicating the historic piece for an upcoming exhibition. “Ann Lowe, American Couturier” will run from September 9, 2023 to January 7, 2024 at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum Garden and Library.