Yes, I know what you’re thinking – this isn’t crimeworm’s usual fare…but I was so intrigued when I read about this book, I knew I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to read and review it…
It’s the story of Ann Lowe, a young black fashion designer who learnt to sew from her mother and grandmother (her grandmother had been a slave; that’s how close Ann was to that ignominious chapter in history.) But she was a fast learner, and grew up to surpass her mother and grandmother, in vision, talent and achievement.
So was it the inspiring nature of Ann’s story that appealed most of all?
Not initially – it was the fact that I adore clothes, and the history of clothes design. I’ve only been able to splash out on a few designer handbags in my life – fashion designers don’t tend to design for, shall I say, curvier women like me. (And since becoming disabled, it’s even harder keeping control of my, er, curviness. Or fat, to be blunt.) However, it doesn’t stop me enjoying seeing what others wear, and complimenting them on it.
However, once I was engrossed in Ann’s story she did come across as an exceptionally inspiring woman. She was obsessed with the idea of opening her own shop, and because of her incredible skill – she didn’t use patterns, as she said she could picture what she was designing in her head – white women flocked to her to get their clothes made in the latest fashions and colours.
But her life wasn’t without tragedy and sadness, was it?
It certainly wasn’t – she lost her grandmother and mother within a short space of each other, and made the mistake of marrying a slick-talking tailor who really only wanted her skill with a needle. She was so young and small when she gave birth to her son it left her unable to bear more children (this all happens fairly early in the book, so I don’t really think I’m veering heavily into spoiler territory by revealing this.)
So I’m guessing she managed to extricate herself from this marriage…
She did, although I’m revealing no more of the plot! Suffice to say Ann took her mother and grandmother’s advice, which was, “to find white folks who are good to you.” Ann manages this, and then some, although their quid pro quo was to have one of the finest dressmakers of the time create showstopping wedding gowns, trousseaux, ballgowns, and everyday dresses for them – and the friends they let in to their best kept secret!
She’s quite an inspiration, then?
She absolutely is, and I feel it’s somewhat sad that her name’s been airbrushed from fashion history – particularly as she was responsible for the design and creation of one of the most famous and beautiful wedding dresses of the 20th Century – the one worn by the stunning 24-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier when she married the up-and-coming young Senator, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. The rest of that particular union is, as they say, history…
Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, as designed and created by Ann Lowe
An accident in her showroom meant Ann had to start from scratch ten days before the wedding, didn’t it?
It did – and with the help of ladies from her church, she managed to recreate the wedding dress as well as those of the bridesmaids (again, this isn’t a spoiler, as this accident – if it was one, as opposed to sabotage – is revealed at the very beginning of the book.) However, it meant Ann took a bit of a hit financially on the creations, rather than turning the large profit she deserved.
Overall, though, you enjoyed this book?
Wow, yes, I so did! Ann is someone you can’t help rooting for, from her childhood, to her teenage years, to adulthood. I find it sad that her name is not better known, but hopefully, with the publication of this book, more and more people will discover her work, and her name will eventually be up there with the best known fashion designers of the middle years of the 20th Century, like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
As this isn’t my usual type of read, I’m finding it difficult to find books to compare it to, but one book I particularly enjoyed which I think it’s comparable with is The Help by Kathryn Stockett – it’s set in a similar time, and is just as educational and eye-opening.
Very highly recommended!
With thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the blog tour invitation, and HarperCollins for the ARC. This has in no way affected my review which reflects my honest opinion.
Author Piper Huguley
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BLURB: The incredible untold story of how Ann Lowe, a Black woman and granddaughter of slaves, rose above personal struggles and racial prejudice to design and create one of America’s most famous wedding dresses of all time for Jackie Kennedy.
1953, New York City
Less than a week before the society wedding of the year where Jacqueline Bouvier will marry John F. Kennedy, a pipe bursts at Ann Lowe’s dress shop and ruins eleven dresses, including the expensive wedding dress, a dress that will be judged by thousands. A Black designer who has fought every step of the way, Ann knows this is only one struggle after a lifetime of them. She and her seamstresses will find the way to re-create the dresses. It may take all day and all night for the next week to accomplish the task, but they will do it.
Raised in Jim Crow Alabama, Ann learned the art of sewing from her mother and her grandmother, a former slave, who are the most talented seamstresses in the state. After Ann elopes at twelve with an older man who soon proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, her dreams of becoming a celebrated designer seem to be put on hold. But then a wealthy Tampa socialite sees Ann’s talent and offers her an amazing opportunity—the chance to sew and design clothing for Florida’s society elite. Taking her young son in the middle of the night, Ann escapes her husband and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
Based on the true story of one of the most famous designers of the twenties through the sixties who has since been unjustly forgotten, By Her Own Design is an unforgettable novel of determination despite countless obstacles and a triumph celebrated by the world.