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Black American Contributions to Fashion

February 23, 2018

Black American Contributions to Fashion

Today on Ask Dr. Deb, we are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting a few African Americans who have contributed to the fashion industry!

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking; who is this white, blonde fashion designer to be talking black history. Well I am not a race or culture studies expert but I do know that the fashion industry rarely highlights black American trailblazers that have contributed to the fashion industry.


For Black History Month it is usually the norm to celebrate those with the biggest names like Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. But there are others who created milestones in Black history that deserve to be celebrated. So today, we want to talk about three black American trailblazers that have contributed to the fashion industry.


First on our list:


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The average 19th-century person couldn't afford shoes. This changed thanks to Jan Ernst Matzeliger, an immigrant from Dutch Guiana (today called Surinam) who worked as an apprentice in a Massachusetts shoe factory. Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine that attached a shoe’s upper part to its sole. 

Once it was refined, the device could make 700 pairs of shoes each day—a far cry from the 50 per day that the average worker once sewed by hand. Matzeliger's creation led to lower shoe prices, making them finally within financial reach for the average person.


Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) was the first African American person to receive a patent in the U.S., paving the way for future inventors of color to gain exclusive rights to their inventions. Born in 1791, Jennings lived and worked in New York City as a tailor and dry cleaner. He invented an early method of dry cleaning called "dry scouring" and patented it in 1821—four years before Paris tailor Jean Baptiste Jolly refined his own chemical technique and established what many people claim was history’s first dry cleaning business.

People objected to an African American receiving a patent, but Jennings had a loophole: He was a free man. At the time, U.S. patent laws said that the "[slavemaster] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual"—meaning slaves couldn't legally own their ideas or inventions, but nothing was stopping Jennings. Several decades later, Congress extended patent rights to all African American individuals, both slaves and freedmen.

Jennings used the money from his invention to free the rest of his family and donate to abolitionist causes.


More recently, Anne Lowe. An incredible designer whose work has gone unrecognized. In 1953, Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. The iconic dress was constructed out of 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. As the story goes, just ten days before the wedding ceremony a water line broke in Lowe’s New York City studio and ruined the former First Lady’s gown along with all of her bridesmaids dresses. But that didn’t stop Lowe, she worked tirelessly to recreate all eleven designs in time for the Rhode Island nuptials! Yet the only mention Lowe received by name was a blurb in the Washington Post where fashion editor Nine Hyde simply wrote “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”

Jackie O wasn’t Ann Lowe’s first famous client however. Lowe also designed for New York society families like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. The talented fashion designer also created the gown that actress Olivia de Havilland wore when she accepted the Oscar for Best Actress in 1946. Ann also blazed trails when she opened her own boutique section, Ann Lowe Originals, inside the Saks Fifth Ave department store on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1960s.

Sadly Ann Lowe, who passed away in 1981 at age 83, never truly received the recognition she deserved for her contributions to fashion history, but the indelible mark of her amazing work still lives on in the permanent archives at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Black Fashion Museum, The Smithsonian and in the hearts of fashion lovers everywhere. So let’s give it up for fashion designer to the stars Ann Lowe, a pioneer whose stamp on the fashion world will never be forgotten.

She’s largely responsible for the trends and style from NYC in that time.

These are just three people of hundreds of thousands that have contributed to the fashion industry and we encourage you to explore how black people have influenced your field.

Here are a few others that have been involved in the fashion and the arts.  

Dapper Dan

George Washington Carver

Mary McLeod Bethune

Halle Berry

Grace Jones

 Zelda Wynn Valdes

Scott Barrie

Willie Smith

Stephen Burrows 

Patrick Kelly

Carl Jones

TJ Walker

LaQuan Smith 

Tracy Reese

Kerby Jean-Raymond

Arthur McGee

Jay Jackson

Darryl McDaniels (started the trend of glasses as a statement) The iconic Cazal glasses helped to set the tone that while glasses are functional accessories they can still be fashionable. Cazals became a statement when Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels wore them and from that point on these glasses would become an iconic in the ’80s. Now, we see fashion lovers making glasses a part of their outfits even if they don’t need glasses.

Patrick Robinson

Jon Haggins

Jeffrey Banks

We encourage you to research how black people have contributed to your field, and let us know what you find!

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