The Playboy bunny costume. Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. You’re probably familiar with both designs, but less well known is the fact that Black women created them. Zelda Valdes and Ann Lowe contributed greatly to a fashion industry that overlooked and undervalued them. As Black designers start to claim their rightful place in the fashion landscape — dressing Vice President Kamala Harris and covering magazines like Vogue — it’s time to reckon with the relative invisibility of their predecessors. Who were Ann Lowe and Zelda Valdes and why were they shunned as their designs were celebrated on the world stage?
“Ann Lowe and Zelda Valdes were highly skilled technical dressmakers,” says Elizabeth Way, assistant curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “[They] took the skills passed down to them from their mothers and families and turned those skills into creative businesses — no easy feat for Black women during the early-to-mid 20th century.”
Indeed Ann Lowe was the child and grandchild of seamstresses, and the great granddaughter of an enslaved woman who made clothes for the plantation mistress. Ann studied at S.T. Taylor Design School in New York — where she was separated from white students as per social custom — before opening her own shop in Harlem, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, where she designed for the white social elite.
“The little fashion secret that’s not told is that Black women created couture work and custom gowns for society women for decades,” says Brandice Henderson, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, an organization that celebrates and empowers emerging Black designers. “We were creating and designing as slaves and not given proper credit, titles, or compensation for our work. For example, Ann Lowe’s grandmother and mother designed clothing for society women in Alabama. That’s the story of Black women all around the country.”
Zelda Valdes’ mother, Ann Barbour, was a dressmaker at a family-owned atelier in Havana, Cuba, creating custom clothing for wealthy women. After Barbour, along with her Cuban husband José Valdes, moved to the U.S. where Zelda was born, they immediately noticed their young daughter’s eye for sewing and designing. In the 1920s, Valdes worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York, and in 1948, she opened a boutique in Washington Heights called “Chez Zelda,” the first to be owned by an African-American woman.
“They were working in New York during a period in which we see a transition from dressmakers to ‘fashion designers,’” says Way, who co-curated an exhibition Black Fashion Designers featuring garments from Lowe and Valdes. “Although both worked outside of the industrialized ready-to-wear business that New York was known for, and both were women at a time when fashion design increasingly became associated with men, they were able to market themselves as elite fashion producers to their clientele while adhering to the high craftsmanship of made-to-measure, couture-like design and production. Both also made work that was highly visible: Wynn Valdes for Black entertainers and Lowe for white socialites.”
Alongside the Rockefeller and Roosevelt families, Lowe designed for one noted white socialite in particular: Jackie Onassis. In 1953, the soon-to-be First Lady chose Lowe to create her wedding gown, an ivory silk taffeta confection with a billowing skirt and a soft portrait neckline.
But Lowe would face discrimination even during the delivery process. When she attempted to drop off the wedding gown in Newport, Rhode Island, along with the bridesmaid dresses that Onassis requested, she was told to enter through a service entrance in the back of the building. “Lowe reportedly countered, ‘I’ll take the dresses back’ if [I have] to use the back door — and walked through the front door,” writes Nancy Davis for The Natural Museum of American History.
Lowe felt the sting of racism yet again when the new Mrs. Jackie Kennedy was asked about her wedding dress designer in the media. “A colored dressmaker did it,” the First Lady allegedly responded. It’s a simple, dismissive statement loaded with racist connotations. Not only did Kennedy fail to address Lowe by name, choosing instead to emphasize her race in a condescending manner, but “dressmaker” was a term relegated to Black women while the esteemed titles of designer or couturier were reserved for white men. That erasure would become a theme throughout Lowe’s life — and tragically, it endured over the many decades that followed her death.
Zelda Valdes’ clientele read like a Who Who’s of Black entertainers including Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Gladys Knight, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, and Ella Fitzgerald. For the latter, Valdes had such imagination and skill that she could see a recent picture of Fitzgerald in the tabloids, note the singer’s body changes, and design custom gowns to fit, based on her eye alone. Valdes’ couture gowns could retail for up to $1,000, and she boasted a staff of nine seamstresses. Her boutique, which later moved to 57th Street, was considered a safe haven for Black shoppers facing racial profiling, an unconstitutional practice that still persists today.
In 1960, Valdes crossed paths with Hugh Hefner who commissioned the designer to produce uniforms for his waitresses. Valdes technically didn’t design the Playboy costume, as Way is careful to point out, but she did bring the concept to life. “It was designed by the Bunnies themselves,” says Way. “[Valdes] produced the costumes, using her pronounced skills in making tight-fitting bodices to create the molded-to-the body silhouette.”
Valdes’ role in producing these costumes was all but ignored, even though they are considered a timeless piece of American iconography. The Playboy bunny uniform continues to inspire Halloween costumes and performance outfits generation after generation.
Nonetheless, Valdes’ career soared with the success of her boutique and the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers organization, which she founded to elevate Black women in fashion. One of her most notable contributions is her work with Dance Theater of Harlem, which spanned two decades and led to another great invention: dyeing dancer’s tights to match their skin tone. The ‘nude’ market, which now spans lingerie, makeup, and footwear, is still falling short of Valdes’ vision.
With such enduring contributions to the fashion industry, it’s a wonder that Valdes and Lowe aren’t considered household names. But their relative absence from fashion history records is the result of several different factors. “[Since] they did not helm lasting Seventh Avenue companies that are still around to assert their history, they have mostly been forgotten like many American fashion designers,” explains Way. “Being Black women also added a layer of invisibility to their histories that is only now being amended.”
“African Americans were not allowed to have any voice in American history, including fashion,” Henderson adds. “So, our history is left out of fashion and most other industries as well. That is why we have to preserve and celebrate our history. People like Lois Alexander Lane tried to do just that by starting the Black Fashion Museum and Harlem Institute of Fashion. Her work is preserved in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Race and Fashion Database created by Kimberly Jenkins and the History Makers are also outstanding initiatives in preserving our history.”
Even if American history at large fails to acknowledge Lowe and Valdes, contemporary Black designers still stand on their shoulders. Brother Vellies founder Aurora James recently covered the September 2020 issue of Vogue, a watershed moment for a Black woman designer. She also used her platform and connections to launch the Fifteen Percent Pledge, urging retailers to dedicate more shelf space to Black-owned brands. Pyer Moss, Sergio Hudson, and Christopher John Rogers all contributed to — and were credited for — Vice President Kamala Harris’ wardrobe during the historic 2021 inauguration. “I believe we are working towards change,” says Henderson. “However, we would love to see more Black creative directors of fashion houses in Europe. There is also a lot of opportunity in the US for brands to appoint Black designers to leadership roles.”
Way agrees the tide is slowly changing, but there’s more work to be done. “There are major efforts to recognize and support current Black designers,” she says. But in forging a path ahead, we must also seek recognition for the Black design talent that was erased from fashion history. “The work of fashion historians in museums and universities is now to bring these forgotten stories to popular culture — and make them well known.”
Jessica C. Andrews is the Deputy Fashion Editor at Bustle. As a freelance writer, she’s contributed to ELLE, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and more. A graduate of Columbia University, Jessica hails from South Orange, New Jersey and currently lives in Jersey City.
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