Once in a while a truly special book comes along that is uniquely astounding in both the historical facts that it reveals and the way in which the story is told. Even though this is a fictionalised account of Ann Lowe’s life, one cannot escape the fact that this remarkable woman’s life deserves a fitting tribute and Piper Huguley achieves this magnificently!
We’re than taken back to New York in the early 1950’s, about a week before Jacqueline Bouvier is to marry John F. Kennedy. The bridesmaids dresses are in various stages stages of preparation, some of them at the homes of the seamstresses who are assisting in this enormous project. But the wedding dress itself … only Ann Lowe is creating this, and it’s not quite ready. And then … disaster! She receives word in the middle of the night that there’s been a burst pipe at her shop and the place is flooded. She and her beloved sister, Sallie rush there, but it’s too late to salvage the dresses. She knows that this was no accident. It was sabotage. Who would do such a thing? But she has no time to dwell on wondering who would want to ruin her. She needs to re-create these dresses for the society event of the year. With the help of her sister and the members of her church, she gets the job done. However, her name is not even mentioned in the society pages, with the dress being described as having been made by “a colored dressmaker”.
The story opens on a night in February 1981. Prince Charles announces his engagement to Lady Diana, and Ann Lowe knows that whoever designs that wedding dress will be sky-rocketed to fame, their name forever etched within the annals of history as that designer! She’s quite right of course, even though, having designed dresses and wedding gowns for some of the biggest society names in their day, the same did not happen to her – because she was a woman of colour.
But Ann was accustomed to not being seen. From there, readers are transported to Alabama in the early 1900’s where we get a look at Ann’s early life and upbringing. She’s the grandaughter of Georgia Cole, a former slave who gave her a piece of advice that she carried through her entire life: “the key to surviving as a Black person in the world is to get you some good white people.” And even though she does eventually find herself wonderful, generous benefactors, life is not kind to Ann.
She becomes a child-bride at just 12 years old to a manipulative, cruel man, purely because she wants to be seen as a ‘grown-up’, realising too late that she had no idea what that even meant. Ann’s life seems to be one challenge after another. Even when she achieves, there is struggle and pain that she needs to go through with every single triumph. The ordeal she had to endure when attending design school was something I found genuinely upsetting to read, and it made me extremely angry to realise that although we think the world has changed so much since “those days”, when I look around at the prejudice and hate that we live with today, we don’t seem to have moved on or learnt as much as we should have.
Ann is a fighter, a champion; she perseveres under the worst kinds of hardship and every single blow that life deals to her (and there seem to be an incredibly unfair number). One has to wonder why some people have to handle so much. Her story deserves to be shared far and wide. She was incredibly gifted and deserved far more recognition than she got. When one thinks of the accolades and awards that are handed out, the big names and logos that are so easily recognised, hers really should have been up there with all of them, but sadly it’s not. Her name and her story were lost, purely because she was considered to be just “a colored dressmaker” … we lose so much because of the ignorance of those who came before us. We need to learn from that so we don’t make the same mistakes again.
Thank you Piper Huguley for sharing Ann Lowe’s story. It makes for 5-star reading. Thank you to Random Things Blog Tours for the opportunity to read this exceptional book. Take a look at what other bloggers are saying about By Her Own Design …
Piper Huguley is the author of the Home to Milford College and the Migrations of the Heart series. She is a multiple-time Golden Heart finalist. Piper blogs about the history behind her novels on her website. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and son.