Sewing the rows of ruffles on the reproduction wedding dress are (left to right) 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.
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson
July 11, 2022
The replica of the famous dress pays tribute to the talent of seamstress Ann Lowe
In a study room in the department of fashion and apparel studies on the University of Delaware campus, a professor and three students spent most of June painstakingly recreating a famous wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married the senator at the time. John F. Kennedy in 1953.
As they cut, basted and gathered 154 yards of taffeta edging to hand sew in tiers around the voluminous skirt of the dress, they almost felt like they were reliving history. But they were clear on one thing: it wasn’t Jackie Kennedy’s dress. It was Ann Lowe’s dress.
“Ann Lowe was an amazing, creative designer who had many well-known clients, but as an African American she never got the credit she deserved,” said Katya Roelse, a fashion studies teacher. and clothing, who leads the project. “That wedding dress was the culmination of her life’s work, and you can see so many aspects of it that are pure Ann Lowe.”
Close-up of a handmade rosette, characteristic of designer Ann Lowe’s style. Seven rosettes will embellish the skirt of the finished dress.
When Roelse and his undergraduate research assistants complete their work, the resulting replica of the dress that was worn at the first lady’s future society wedding will be a key part of an upcoming exhibit at the Winterthur museum. “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” which opens in September 2023, will feature 40 of the designer’s designs from the 1920s to the 1960s, many of which have never been exhibited before, and highlight her influence on American fashion.
The curator of the exhibition is Elizabeth Way, associate curator at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, who graduated from UD in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in clothing design and history.
The original wedding dress is kept at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where it is too delicate to be displayed on a mannequin, let alone travel to Winterthur. In order to include such a recognizable and admired object in the exhibition, it was decided to create a reproduction of it.
Students (left to right) Kayla Brown, Maya Bordrick and Alex Culley study how the dress will fall while Katya Roelse holds it on a mannequin in the Fashion and Clothing Studies workroom.
Roelse and Kate Sahmel, a textile curator in Winterthur, traveled to the Kennedy Museum and spent three days in the archives with the dress. Sahmel studied the fabrics Lowe used, while Roelse took countless measurements and took detailed notes so she could understand and replicate the construction of the dress.
“There were no designs available; I just had to figure it out,” Roelse said. “To be there in the archives, surrounded by all these artifacts [of Kennedy’s life]I really felt the weight of the story.
Back in Delaware, work on what Roelse calls “this amazing project” was frustratingly delayed by supply issues in ordering the specific types of fabric needed. Once everything happened, she and her students started sewing.
The team working on the dress demonstrates how voluminous the skirt is.
Summer Fellows Maya Bordrick, Alex Culley and Kayla Brown immersed themselves in the project, which they described as involving far more intricacy of hand sewing and design than they had encountered before.
“I wanted to work on this project because I thought it would be a unique experience,” Bordrick said. “And I wanted to know more about Ann Lowe and her techniques.”
Students said they felt responsible for presenting Lowe’s work with as much care and precision as possible, and they marveled at the account of a pipe burst in Lowe’s studio just 10 days ago. before the wedding, sending her and some 35 employees on a marathon session to recreate the dress and nine bridesmaid dresses that had also been destroyed.
“I feel like my students and I walk in his place,” Roelse said of Lowe. “It’s not just about copying a dress. It’s about trying to experience the creative process, and I think that gives empathy and understanding.
Katya Roelse and Kayla Brown adjust the partially finished skirt on a mannequin. The dress has no waist seam, another signature design element from Ann Lowe.
The ivory silk taffeta skirt with its multiple layers of ruffles, all of varying widths, is just one element of the dress, which also consists of a silk-faille underskirt or petticoat, a corset and a bodice. The skirt is decorated with seven hand sewn ornate rosettes, each with small flowers made of polymer clay in the center.
Many design details are characteristic of Lowe’s work, including the absence of seams at the waist. This technique, Roelse said, “creates a beautiful line” but also places weight and pressure on the finished dress that can add to its fragility over time.
Studying the original, she wondered if some of Lowe’s techniques could have been modified or performed more effectively.
“But the answer is the way she did it was the best way, the only way,” Roelse said. “She knew the fabric, she knew the seams, she knew what she wanted to give the dress that perfect, handmade look. It couldn’t have been done any other way. »
Katya Roelse (left) and Kayla Brown hold rosettes up to the dress as Alex Culley (kneeling) checks their placement on the skirt and Maya Bordrick (far right) observes the work.
Learn more about Ann Lowe
Ann Lowe, born in Alabama in 1898, created couture dresses for families as prominent as the Roosevelts and du Ponts and for debutantes, heiresses, actresses and society brides from Olivia de Havilland to Jacqueline Kennedy. , but remained virtually unknown to the general public for decades.
She learned sewing from her mother and grandmother and became a trailblazing designer, fashion insider and essential contributor to American culture, known for her distinctive feminine and elegant style.
As an African-American seamstress, her work has often been overlooked by the fashion world and the media. When she personally delivered Jacqueline Bouvier’s dress just before her wedding in 1953, she was first told to use the service entrance at the back of the house. Lowe refused and was admitted through the front door.
Kennedy’s “fairytale wedding” was widely covered by the media, but Lowe’s name was missing from nearly all of that reporting. Asked about her dress, the bride called the designer a “colour seamstress”.
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 dress was created in cooperation with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.