3 Influential Black Fashion Designers from the Past

Black fashion designers, Ann Lowe, Zelda Wynn Valdes, and Elizabeth Keckley
(left to right) Ann Lowe, Zelda Wynn Valdes, and Elizabeth Keckley
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we decided to take some time to shed light on some influential Black fashion designers. Many of the women we cover below have not received the recognition they deserve. Whether it’s the creation of the iconic Playboy Bunny costume or the work done on iconic film Gone with the Wind, these Black female fashion designers have planted stepping stones for the current generation.

3 Influential Black Fashion Designers:

Ann Lowe


Ann Lowe was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer - and for good reason. She consistently created one-of-a-kind items that high-profile clients constantly sought after. There are numerous terms used to describe the force that was Ann Lowe - dressmaker, seamstress, couturier, and businesswomen.

She is best known for her creation of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress as well as all the attendant’s gowns. Not only did she do all the work herself, but a week before the wedding, her workroom flooded and destroyed the dresses. The wedding dress that had taken eight weeks to make was duplicated in five days. Her use of trapunto (layering of fabrics to make a dimensional effect) and flowers have impacted designers ever since.

Where’s her work now?
  • The Black Fashion Museum
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Zelda Wynn Valdes


Although Zelda is best known for designing the iconic Playboy Bunny costume, she accomplished much more than just this. In 1948, she opened up her own shop, thus making her the first Black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan.

Her dresses took control of the curves of a woman’s body; she showcased - unapologetically - the figure of a woman during a time when many found this disrespectful. Many celebrities wore and admired Valdes’ sexy yet sophisticated dresses - most notably, Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Her ability to enhance a women’s femininity is what so many people came to her for. She has the incredible ability to work seamlessly in two worlds: fashion design and costume design; this was all thanks to working with iconic celebrities of the time and the wonderful Dance Theater of Harlem. She also founded a sewing program in Harlem where she passed on her expertise to aspiring designers.

Where’s her work now?
  • Fashion Institute of Design and Technology
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Elizabeth Keckley


Elizabeth Keckley’s story is incredible and truly showcases her talent. She was born a slave, and through constant hard work and determination, she became a successful seamstress, civil rights activist, and author. She was the personal seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln - her unbelievable skill enabled her to rise through Black and white communities alike.

Her dressmaking business in Washington was where she also trained African American women to be seamstresses. Her impact on high-society dresses at that time was incredible. Besides dressmaking, Keckley wrote the book Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, which revealed a lot about her life and the Lincoln family.

Where’s her work now?
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Kent State University Museum
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