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05 January 2017

Laura Freeman's and Deborah Blumenthal's FANCY PARTY GOWNS

The story behind the story:
How FANCY PARTY GOWNS,
The Story of Ann Cole Lowe,
became a book.

Author Deborah Blumenthal and illustrator Laura Freeman
interview each other about the book and more.

Laura: Deborah, tell us a little about how the book came to be.
Deborah:
I'm always hunting for story ideas – when I'm reading newspapers and magazines, when I'm talking to people, when I'm walking down the street, or just sitting in a coffee shop overhearing other people's conversations. In the case of this book, I was going through my Facebook feed when I came upon a post that my friend Jackie W put up. She often puts up posts about politics, important causes, and sometimes women in history. I read her post about Ann Cole Lowe, the woman who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding gown, perhaps the most photographed dress in history, and I was intrigued.
     I hadn't heard anything about Ann and I thought that maybe it was just me. Surely history buffs and feminist historians would know about her, but that wasn't the case. It turned out the reason Ann failed to get the recognition she deserved was that she was African-American and she was perpetually battling prejudice, despite her gifts as a couture designer, and the demand for her work.
      The more I looked into Ann's life, the more her story gripped me. Her mother ran a business in Alabama making fancy dresses for society women, but when Ann was only 16, her mother died. Ann already knew how to sew, so she took over her mother's business. In fact, Ann's whole life was about embracing challenges and doing the work she loved.
      When she was commissioned to make not only the wedding gown for Jacqueline Bouvier's marriage to Senator John F. Kennedy, but also all the dresses for the wedding party, Ann finished the job in time, but ten days before the wedding, ten of the sixteen gowns were damaged by a flood in Ann's workroom. Ann bought more fabric and hired people to help, and she completed the job, losing money instead of earning it.

Laura, tell us a little bit about what drew you to the project, and what challenges you faced bringing the story to life.
Laura:
I had never heard of Ann either but when I learned of her I was immediately drawn to her story. My Dad's sister; my Aunt Theresa, suffered similar injustices in the same time period. She also lived in Alabama and worked as a seamstress. She also created beautiful dresses for the white women in her town and was taken advantage of and underpaid for her hard work and talents.
      I could find very few photos of Ann, none of her as a young woman or child but I noticed how her high cheekbones resembled my sisters and I ended up using my sister as a model in many of the spreads.

Laura: This is a book about high fashion. Have you worked in that world?
Deborah:
Not unless wearing fancy jeans qualifies. More seriously, while high fashion is part of the theme of this book, the bigger story is about a woman who pursued the work she loved, despite the struggles she endured along the way.
     I will say, though, that anyone looking at pictures of Ann – and there were very few I could find - can tell she dressed in an elegant, understated, effortless way, and I think that's typical of most style icons (except maybe for standouts like Iris Apfel, -who create winning looks by piling on the accessories and going over the top).

Laura: I'm not a fashionista, but I did work in the fashion industry for ten years as an in house illustrator at Polo/Ralph Lauren. Although I do appreciate fashion, (who doesn't like to look good!) I was probably the only artist in the mens design department who was more interested in children's books than in fashion.
     That said, my time at Polo definitely added to my illustrations for this book, especially the endpapers with the swatches (above). And Polo was where and why I started using Photoshop, which is how I create all my illustrations. I had sooo much fun with the patterns and saturated colors. Ann's gowns were so lovely, they definitely inspired me!
Laura: Tell us more about what you hope readers will be inspired by in this book.
Deborah:
Well, of course follow your dreams and do work you love. But I'd love to see the book inspire kids to leave their computers and do things like learn to sew or embroider, do lacework or beading. There are so many rewarding, artistic pursuits. Enough with the video games!

Laura: I love that Ann knew her own worth and didn't let other people define her. In spite of adversity she knew she had what it took. She worked hard to reach her goals and never gave up.

e: Hi guys, Elizabeth popping in here! What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again? 
Laura: Expressions, body position, color, placement on the page, all these things translate to emotion for the viewer. I catch myself making the same expression as the character I'm drawing. I like to think that if I feel it when I'm making the art, the viewer will feel it too.
e: Thanks!
Laura: Going from serious to frivolous - Deborah, what kind of clothes do you wear to work, and where do you shop?
Deborah:
Jeans and t-shirts in warm weather, jeans and sweaters in the winter, with a well-cut blazer. Most important for me is that clothes fit well. And since I'm tall, pants have to be long enough! I do most of my shopping online. I'm a big J Crew fan.

Laura:
Ha! I work at home so depending on my deadline and mood you might catch me in pajamas and robe but more often than not, depending on the weather, it's jeans and a sweater or or yoga pants and a t-shirt. I definitely like to be comfortable! Occasionally, I do like to dress up but it's rare that I get to.

e: Thank you both!

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