Jackie The Clothes of Camelot
By Jay Mulvaney
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Jay Mulvaney
All rights reserved.
The Inauguration Ensembles
Jackie Kennedy put a little style into the White House ... and suddenly "good taste" became good taste. I had a small part to do with this. I occasionally gave Jackie advice about clothes. I did suggest that she carry a sable muff on Inauguration Day. It was only for practical reasons — I thought she was going to freeze to death. But I also think muffs are romantic because they have to do with history.
— Diana Vreeland
The birth of an icon in three magical ensembles: two evening gowns and a simple cloth coat that changed American fashion. When Jacqueline Kennedy emerged from her Federal townhouse on the evening of January 19, 1961, in a glorious white satin gown — simple, regal, offset only by her "camellia beauty"— it was the first step on a thousand-day fashion journey that held the world in its thrall.
In the creation of her wardrobe for the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy approached the task with a serious discipline — it was a public image that she would forge, an image that would be the distaff counterpoint to the words and actions of her husband. She would strive to enhance and elevate the tastes and aspirations of a country, and as she said once in reference to the entertainment she offered at the White House, "As long as it's the best, that's what matters." To achieve this best, she entered a collaboration with her sister, Lee Radziwell, the great fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and designer Oleg Cassini.
Jackie took her rich sense of history and style and worked with Cassini to create a look that would revolutionize not just the First Lady but the "fashionable lady" of the early 1960s. Cassini, a Russian aristocrat who designed costumes for Hollywood films in the 1940s and '50s, realized that this collaboration was akin to a theatrical event, set on the largest stage in the world. He recalls that "Jackie reminded me of an ancient Egyptian princess, very geometric, even hieroglyphic, with the sphinxlike quality of her eyes, her long neck, slim torso, broad shoulders, narrow hips, and regal bearing. ... I wanted to dress her cleanly, architecturally, in style. I would use the most sumptuous fabrics in the purest interpretations. I called it the A-line.'" He was a friend of both her husband and her father-in-law, a man whom she could trust to be discreet in many areas, not the least of which was protecting the enormous costs of building a world-class wardrobe from becoming a political liability. Joe Kennedy was keenly aware of this, advising Cassini not to "bother them at all about the money, just send me an account at the end of the year. I'll take care of it." In this unique collaboration, Cassini was a vehicle for a very calculated impression of an individual sensibility.
Wearing a black-and-white glen plaid wool suit and a red suede beret, and accompanied by her press secretary, Pamela Turnure, Jackie waves to well-wishers as she prepares to board the family's private plane, the Caroline, to fly to Washington for the inaugural festivities.
With Jackie casting an apprehensive glance toward the falling snow, the glamorous couple, with pal Bill Walton in tow, prepares to leave for the Inaugural Gala. Her Oleg Cassini gown, of sumptuous white Swiss double satin, appealed to Jackie's sense of elegant simplicity.
"The first sketch was of a simple white satin full-length evening dress. ... The lines were unusually modest ... but the quantity of the fabric and the luxury of the satin made it regal, and altogether memorable. I watched her carefully for a reaction and it was immediate, visceral. 'Absolutely right!' she said."
— Oleg Cassini
Jackie had arranged, through her social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, to borrow the emerald-and-diamond necklace from Tiffany's, Tish's former employer. She warned Tish, though, that "if it gets in the newspapers, I won't do any more business with Tiffany's. If it doesn't, we'll buy all state presents there."
Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy leave their Georgetown home for the last time. Of her costume — a fawn-colored wool coat with a sable ring collar and matching sable muff, and that famous pillbox hat — Jackie said at the time, "I just didn't want to wear a fur coat. I don't know why, but perhaps because women huddling on the bleachers always looked like rows of fur-bearing animals."
Oleg Cassini showed fashion editors a sketch of the inaugural ensembles just after the announcement of his selection as official couturier in January 1961. Recalling those days forty years later, he said, "I dressed her very young. ... It was a metamorphosis of Jackie, from playing one role on to another one on a grander scale."
"I know we are all older and wiser now; but do you remember how exciting it all seemed then? Do you remember how young they were, how fresh they looked, and how proud we were of them?"
— Oleg Cassini
Jacqueline Kennedy enters the White House for the first time as First Lady. Numbed by the freezing temperature, still unwell from the birth by cesarean section of her son two months earlier, and facing the daunting prospect of five inaugural balls that evening, Jackie retired to the Queen's Bedroom for some much-needed rest. She missed the first social event, a reception for her and the President's families, in the home that she would preside over for the next thirty-four months.
President Kennedy had invited Vice President and Mrs. Johnson to the White House before setting out for the inaugural balls. They were in the Red Room when Jackie floated in, wearing a gown of her own design. "Darling," JFK said to his wife, "I've never seen you look so lovely. Your dress is beautiful." Turning to an usher, he proclaimed, "Bring some wine." A bottle of iced Dom Pérignon was immediately produced, and the new President toasted the radiant First Lady.
This description of the inaugural-ball costume was released to the press:
The dress is a full-length sheath of white silk peau d'ange veiled with white silk chiffon. The hip-length bodice is richly embroidered in silver and brilliants. It is covered by a transparent overblouse of white silk chiffon. The back of the bodice is similar to the front.
The floor-length cape is made of the same white silk peau d'ange and completely veiled in silk triple chiffon. Under the ring collar, the cape is fastened with twin embroidered buttons. The shape of the cape is an arch from shoulder to hem with soft waves in back. It is also lined with white silk peau d'ange and has two arm slits.
With the ensemble Mrs. Kennedy will wear 20 button white glacé kid gloves and carry a matching white silk peau d'ange tailored clutch purse. Mrs. Kennedy's shoes will be matching white silk opera pumps with medium high heels.
Jackie looks faintly bemused at JFK's expression (perhaps he'd learned that the inaugural-ball gown cost three thousand dollars). Later in the evening he said to the throngs at one of the parties, "I don't know a better way to spend an evening — you looking at us and we looking back at you."
The inaugural gown was indeed Jacqueline's own design, created for her by the custom shop at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. It precipitated a minor crisis within the fashion world, however, as, prior to Cassini's appointment, Jackie had commissioned Bergdorf's for the gown to wear at the inaugural balls and Ben Zuckerman for a coat for the swearing-in ceremony. She compromised, writing to Cassini that, to her relief, "all the furor is over — and done without breaking my word to you or Bergdorf's. Now I know how poor Jack feels when he has told 3 people they can be Secy. of State." Bergdorf's got the inaugural gown —"One dress," Oleg sniffed to the press — and Cassini the coat and dress worn for the inauguration.
Early Fashion Influences
Jackie came dashing in, laden with dresses, fashion magazines, and a sketch pad. She was as gracious as her mother, as she explained that the ready-made dresses needed some alterations in the waistline and the bustline. After showing the dresses to me, she brought out her own sketches — if they could be called sketches. "Squiggles" would be more appropriate. "Mother recommended you highly, Mrs. Rhea, and said you'd be able to understand what I want," Jackie said with a warm little smile.
— Mini Rhea.
I Was Jacqueline Kennedy's Dressmaker
In 1950 Jacqueline Bouvier sketched this amusingly candid self-portrait:
As to physical appearance, I am tall, 5'7", with brown hair, a square face and eyes so unfortunately wide apart that it takes three weeks to have a pair of glasses made with a bridge wide enough to fit over my nose. I do not have a sensational figure but can look slim if I pick the right clothes. I flatter myself on being able at times to walk out of the house looking like the poor man's Paris copy, but my mother will run up to inform me that my left stocking seam is crooked or the right-hand top coat button is about to fall off. This, I realize, is the unforgivable sin.
Jackie's mother, Janet Auchincloss, had encouraged her to enter Vogue's Prix de Paris contest in 1951. She won, impressing the editors with her flair and originality, choosing playwright Oscar Wilde, ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, and poet Charles Baudelaire as the three men she would most like to meet. She won the contest but turned down the first prize — a yearlong editorship split between New York and Paris. Returning home to Merrywood, her stepfather's estate outside of Washington, Jackie was introduced to her mother's dressmaker, Mini Rhea, who recalled Mrs. Auchincloss telling her, "My daughter would just love you. She likes to design her own clothes and I know she would love to work with someone like you who could help her with them." Jackie did have many ideas about design and fashion, and her collaboration with Mrs. Rhea presaged the work she would do a decade later with Oleg Cassini. Rushing in with fabrics, sketches, and pages pulled from fashion magazines, she and Mrs. Rhea enjoyed a close relationship, so much so that Jackie would stop by the dress shop to change clothes for her dates with the young senator from Massachusetts.
The dressmaker was impressed by the young woman's strong sense of self. "I'm trying to develop a certain clear-cut line," Jackie would tell her, rejecting the prevailing styles and finding inspiration in French fashion magazines. If she liked a particular dress, she would have it made in different fabrics, with only modest changes.
Marriage, and her emergence as the wife of a public figure, enabled Jackie to expand her scope. She became a reliable customer of the Paris couture. One designer, talking about her preferences, said at the time, "She prefers simple things, always a little sporty, and insists on being underdressed. She orders many daytime models [in her] favorite colors — Gauguin pink, followed by black, turquoise, gray, and white. One time she fell in love with a coat and immediately took it to London with the hem just basted."
Greatly attuned to political fallout, Jackie once offered this bit of fashion philosophy: "I don't like to buy a lot of clothes and have my closets full. A suit, a good little black dress with sleeves, and a short evening dress — that's all you need for travel."
Her mother, Janet, once said, "I like to use the word original in describing Jacqueline. She was brilliant ... gifted artistically and always good in her studies. ... She was very intense and felt strongly about things. She had enormous individuality and sensitivity and a marvelous self-control that perhaps concealed inner tensions. I wouldn't dream of telling Jacqueline what do to. I never have."
Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters. Caring, sharing, each and every thing that we are wearing ...
Lee Radziwell once told Barbara Walters, "And, of course, like most siblings, even though we were particularly close, she found me, I guess, quite annoying, being four years younger. One of the most outstanding things she did to me was to hit me over the head with a croquet mallet so that I was unconscious for about a day, I was told." Exceptionally close for many years, the two daughters of Jack Bouvier and Janet Lee were certainly stylish. Their fashion sense evolved over the years from these identical dresses worn throughout their childhood to strong individual styles that would land both of them in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame in the 1960s.
Though it's somewhat jarring today to see nine-year-old Jackie wearing what looks like a swastika on her Indian costume, worn at an equestrian contest in the 1930s, its reversed design is actually an ancient symbol of the sun. Jackie had a lifelong passion for horses and riding, fostered by her mother, a champion rider herself.
Jackie poses at Hammersmith Farm with her mother, sister Lee, and half brother Jamie in 1947. "My mother was very strict, and very old-fashioned, as ladies of her generation were," Lee Radziwell once said. "She would say things to Jackie and me like 'You girls had better learn to play cards or you are going to grow up to be lonely old maids.' She had such classic taste. Her style was either like this [one] dress which she wore every year for Christmas for something like twenty years and was so wonderful, or sports clothes."
"Being nervous before" is how the debutante Jacqueline inscribed this photograph, taken before a dinner dance that served as a joint coming-out party for her and Newport friend Rose Grosvenor. Jackie's white tulle dress, which came off the rack from a New York department store, cost fifty-nine dollars. Later that year, society columnist Igor Cassini, Oleg's brother and the Liz Smith of his day, bestowed upon Jacqueline Bouvier a dubious honorific: "The Queen Deb of the year for 1947 is Jacqueline Bouvier, a regal brunette who has classic features and the daintiness of Dresden porcelain. She has poise, is soft-spoken and intelligent, everything the leading debutante should be. Her background is strictly 'Old Guard.' ... Jacqueline is now studying at Vassar. You don't have to read a bunch of press clippings to be aware of her qualities."
The day before sailing for France for her junior-year studies at the Sorbonne, Jackie and her sister students pose with the cultural counselor to the French embassy. Even at twenty, her fashion sense was eye-catching.
Using her "Inquiring Photographer" bulky camera, Jacqueline Bouvier photographs her fiancé before joining him for a sail on Cape Cod's Lewis Bay. Engaged in June 1953, they were wed in Newport three months later. They are similarly dressed in khaki shorts and white shirts.
The "lampshade" dress — Caroline Kennedy once said that her mother "really didn't like the dress that much. ... I think she thought it looked a little bit like a lampshade." Jackie was much more vehement to designer Carolina Herrera, telling her, "I had a very bad experience with my wedding. It was the dress that my mother wanted me to wear and I hated it."
Jackie does Donna Reed in this simple shirtwaist dress and cardigan sweater. She and an equally casual JFK greet supporters near Hyannis Port in 1954, the summer after their wedding.
JFK took this snapshot of Jackie and pal Dave Powers in the swimming pool at his father's house in Palm Beach, where he was recuperating from back surgery. To avoid an unsightly tan line, Jackie untied the halter-top bands and wore this modest bathing suit strapless.
In a tailored suit with a prominently featured collar, white kid gloves, and an alligator handbag, Jackie listens attentively as Jack talks with a reporter upon their return to Washington from his recuperation in Palm Beach.
JFK joins his wife and his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the April in Paris Ball at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Her strapless satin gown with a simple bow decoration is an early indication of the geometric simplicity found in Oleg Cassini's designs during the White House years. The satin cloak, the glittering evening bag, and the pearls were staples of Jackie's "dressed up" look.
Jackie, wearing a Chanel suit and a pillbox hat, laughs as JFK attempts to cut into a huge cake celebrating his forty-first birthday during a campaign stop in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Actor David Niven recalls dancing with Jackie at New York's El Morocco in 1958: "JFK sat in the back room and when I asked Jackie why he wouldn't join us, she laughed and said, 'He doesn't want to be photographed doing something so frivolous. ... He wants to be President.'" Her silk tulle gown is adorned with tiny silk flowers, and on her wrist is the diamond bracelet that was a wedding gift from her husband.
Jackie again chooses Chanel, a longtime favorite, to wear on the campaign trail during JFK's 1958 senatorial reelection bid. Here she watches a young expert demonstrate his skills with a Hula Hoop.
Sitting in the sunroom of her Hyannis Port house, Jackie discusses details of the Ebony Fashion Fair with members of a local women's club. Her cotton dress was a staple of her summer wardrobe. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jackie The Clothes of Camelot by Jay Mulvaney. Copyright © 2001 Jay Mulvaney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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