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Black Fashion: Two Woman who Ripped the Seams out of Racial and Gender Discrimination

Welcome, March! Here in New England, we are waiting for signs of spring and longer days but we don’t want to rush through it without a mention of Women’s History Month. This month-long awareness celebrates the long and impressive achievements of women around the world.  For example, we are wowed by the fact that…

  • Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950.
  • Lidy Nacpil bodly campaiged against the Marcos disctatorship in the Philippines at the young age of 20 while facing severe repression and violence.
  • Greta Thunburg took up activism for climate crisis at the tender age of 15 and now leads a throng of young people across the world voicing their concerns to adults and law makers about the dire consequences of climate change.
  • Or, there is Claudette Colvin a teenager who refused to vacate her seat on the bus to a white woman almost a year before Rosa Parks. She went on to become a part of a lawsuit that brought an end to her city’s segragated bus laws.
Gwendolyn Brooks, PHOTO:

Some of the achievements above are well-known but the list is long of achievements barely recognized or not at all, especially for African American females.  And, when it comes to fashion, Black designers have made significant contributions to its history which are often overlooked and underrepresented. 

We want to mention two talented fashion designers: Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe. These women are worth noting for their amazing contributions to fashion while also dealing with racial and gender discrimination so prevalent in their time.  Like what you ask? Take the fact that Zelda Valdes was relegated to the backroom of a high-end boutique as a seamstress while Anne Lowe sat in a classroom alone at a fashion school in New York City all due to their skin color.  Both women were already talented sewers at young ages and faced many obstacles to their success yet through hard work, dedication, and perseverance they became two of the most important black fashion designers of their time and paved the way for others in their wake.  

Zelda Wynn Valdes, PHOTO:

Zelda Wynn Valdes began her career during the Jim Crow segregation but that didn’t stop her from succeeding from low-paid seamstress to “Couturier ” a title mainly held by esteemed white men designers. She may have begun her career hidden away in the backroom of a high-end boutique so that shoppers wouldn’t see her skin color but her talents skyrocketed her into recognition by high-end society clientele for her sexy, feminine designs.  

She began dressing the curvy figures of the 30s and 40s like Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and Dorothy Dandridge and was so talented that legend has it she could fit a dress to any body… by eye.  Get this… Valdes once told The New York Times in an interview that she had only fit her long-time client Ella Fitzgerald one time in 12 years!  She continued on to say that all she needed was to look at Fitzgerald in the latest paper noting any changes to her figure and her newest creation would fit!  

Mae West in a figure-flattering gown by Valdes

By 1948 Valdes had opened Chez Zelda, a high-end boutique catering to elite socialites and famous celebrities.  With this boutique, Valdes became the first black woman ever to own a storefront on New York City’s Broadway.  Her glamorous career continued as costume designer with the Dance Theater of Harlem which she enjoyed for more than two decades.  Her signature innovation was to dye each dancer’s tights to match their skin tone so that the black ballerinas didn’t have to wear pink tights that mimicked the flesh of white dancers.  

Unlike Valdes who enjoyed high acclaim for her work, Ann Lowe was considered society’s “best-kept secret” and died broke and unknown even though she designed one of the most iconic wedding dresses in history.  Lowe enjoyed brisk business from the ‘20s through the ‘60s from wealthy and socially prominent women who loved her unique designs.  Unfortunately, Lowe was rarely paid the fees she asked of her clients and was often broke, and later in life, she even had to file for bankruptcy.  

Jaqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress by Ann Lowe, PHOTO:

In 1953, at 55 years old, Lowe was hired to create the dresses for the entire bridal party including the bride, for Jaqueline Bouvier’s wedding to John F. Kennedy.  Just 10 days before the wedding a flood in Lowe’s studio destroyed all of her work and she absorbed the cost to recreate every dress and ended up losing $2,200 (around $21,000 in today’s dollars).  

Ann Lowe, PHOTO:

Although the gown received a lot of publicity the press at the time only referred to Lowe as “a colored dressmaker.”  And, that was not the only discrimination that Lowe faced over the wedding gown.  After staying up for days to recreate the ruined gowns Valdes took an overnight train to hand-deliver her work only to be asked to use the service entrance at the back of the house.  Lowe refused and demanded that she be allowed to use the front entrance or she would leave with all of the dresses.   

It wasn’t until after her death that she was recognized as the pioneer African American couturier that she was, with many of her pieces preserved in museum collections including the Smithsonian National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We hope you enjoy a peek into the lives of these two iconic fashion designers and we’ll see you in the next blog!

Deb Fries works at Julianna Rae in Customer Service and writes for the blog at