By Her Own Design: A Novel of Ann Lowe, Fashion Designer to the Social Register

Written by Piper Huguley
Review by Gini Grossenbacher

1953, New York City. In this novel’s first chapters, Ann Lowe faces the consequences of a broken pipe, a ruined wedding dress, and a lifetime of struggle as a Black designer in a majority-white fashion world. Commissioned to design and make the hand-sewn dress for Jacqueline Bouvier’s marriage to John F. Kennedy, Ann and her design team have to start from scratch to re-create the dress in six days. The novel moves to 1907 Clayton, Alabama, where Ann learns about the seamstress trade from her mother and grandmother, a formerly enslaved person. Ann is gifted with the needle at an early age, creating eye-catching features on dresses, such as rosettes that provoke admiration from her mother’s customers, the governor, and the high-society white women who order the important gowns for cotillions and weddings. Ann elopes at twelve with an abusive older man who crushes her dreams of becoming a famous dress designer. Yet, in time she is hired as a seamstress for Mrs. Dempsey Cowan Lee of Tampa, a wealthy citrus magnate with two daughters. From that point, Ann Lowe becomes one of the most famous designers of her era.

The novel’s voice, tone, and dialogue wrap the reader in the world of the Jim Crow South of 1907, and through the enfolding narrative, we experience Ann Lowe’s ups and downs as she leaves all she has known in Alabama and journeys to Tampa with only her fashion designs in her head. This story shows the importance of Ann’s courage and hopes as she encounters cruelty, discrimination, and poverty on the way to uncertain fame. Through it all, Ann never loses her dream, and when she gains the respect and trust of Jacqueline Bouvier, she nearly loses it because of a broken pipe. An essential hidden history brought to life.