Jacqueline Kennedy was 31 years old at the inauguration of the 35th president. She was by nine years the youngest presidential wife to enter the White House with her husband. For the inauguration gala she ordered Oleg Cassini, her official designer, an evening gown in ivory double faced silk satin twill. Completely different to the conventional ceremonial look, this majestic dress so suggestive of a bride or a debutante was a masterstroke in her image making. It has established JBK in the national consciousness as women of commanding personal style, with a sense of history and her place in it.
The inauguration dress relied on the splendour of its fabric, and simplicity of its lines inspired by Balenciaga’s wedding dress of Dona Fabiola marrying King Baudouin of Belgium – symbol of power, tradition. It was in white the most ceremonial colour symbol of pureness and innocence. One single detail, the cockade at the waist created a link with her French past, Bouvier ancestors, with her love of history and affinity with the 18th century. It also suggested loyalty as it was similar to the cockades worn in battlefields. Technically a cockade on the waist level gave also the illusion of a trained overskirt, opening to reveal the skirt beneath inspired by the 18 th Century fashion.
Jacqueline Bouvier was a young woman of notable beauty and intelligence. She had been reared in a class, a time and a place with a classical conservative education. Although she observed the upper class conventions, she nevertheless developed her own assessment. She had a great appreciation of arts and knowledge of history. She was an accomplished linguist, with a degree in French literature. In fact she loved everything French. Her elegant continental tastes were revealed in her interest in fashion, decoration and culture. Above all she had total mastery of detail, endless, endless detail.
What is really important is that she also had a keen understanding of the semantics of dress and of the ways in which she could use her public image to help communicate the more abstract ideals that were dear to her.
In projecting a vision of dynamic modern elegance, she was communicating idealism, internationalism, and striving for social change.
She used her wardrobe of “state clothing” as a shield and style as an effective weapon. A reductive elegance that ensured her clothing would remain a quiet foil to her personality. Thus, she was not concerned with the latest fashion developments but with the establishing the fundamentals of her style.
Even when she was young she insisted on cleaner, neater, more compact lines and material with firmer body so that the garments would hold their shape. The work of Chanel or Givenchy was closest to her emerging fashion aesthetic in the 1950s and continued to shape her style.
During the presidential campaign, she preferred beautifully made French pieces. According to WWD reporting, Jackie with her mother in law were spending an estimated 30 000 dollars per year for Paris clothes and hats which was more than most United States professional buyers purchase. She ordered mostly from sketches, Cardin, Grès, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Chanel models.
Her image as first lady is a carefully constructed one. She was at once the representative of the old fashioned dignity (a love of history, appreciation of ceremony) and a pop culture icon, who had an intuitive understanding of the power of image in an age when television was becoming a potent medium. Even during the presidential campaign, she had as much popularity as her husband. Women craved to see what she was wearing and she was bombarded with questions, the kind of questions usually asked to a Hollywood movie queen.
However, attacked by the republicans she had to find a solution in how to combine her exquisite French taste with the American patriotism. Pat Nixon was claiming that the American designers were the best in the world and she was mostly buying her clothes off the racks in different stores around Washington . Increasing political pressure coming from the unions for her unpatriotic wardrobe forced her to find a compromise. She asked Diana Vreeland, then the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar her suggestion of designers, reminding her that she liked terribly simple, covered up clothes, nearest to Balenciaga and Givenchy or Chanel velvet suits.
Diana Vreeland came with names Stella Sloat, Ben Zuckerman and then the nation’s first designer Norman Norell. Jackie Kennedy choose to everyone’s surprise Oleg Cassini as the coordinator of her wardrobe, who was initially recommended by the Kennedy family. What was her reasoning behind going for Cassini, that relatively unknown Paris born Hollywood costume designer who just happened to open his fashion house on the Seventh Avenue ?
It certainly helped that he was independent of the hegemony of Paris couture but most importantly thanks to his Hollywood years, before being an artist himself, he was a trained professional with the only purpose of creating the wardrobe of a star, thus creating a persona. He was trained to dress the individual where the story dictated the fashion.Cassini approached each project with a movie costume designer’s eye, envisioning how the actress would look in close ups or from a distance. In his hands, fashion was a mere supporting tool helping him to build the image of a star. And that was the quality that JBK needed the most.
Similar to Queen Elisabeth who had worked her image with her court dressmaker, Jackie Kennedy established the guidelines for her own image with Oleg Cassini: silhouettes were defined; colours were clear, bright and pure so that she could be spotted easily in a crowd. Hats did not cover the face that the public had come to see. Understated modern elegance, clear lines, solid colours, and ease of movement were essential. She hated patterns on fabrics.
She didn’t require the subtleties of construction and detailing that the workrooms of the Paris couture provided, as they are only apparent to the wearer. Instead for her gala entertaining and travels, her clothes had to be above all photogenic and easy to read in a crowd.
She kept her sense of theatre and kept giving historical and cultural messages throughout her White House years. One of the good examples is her audience with Pope John XXIII in Vatican in 1962 in her theatrical long black silk and wool Alaskine dress matched with a traditional lace Spanish veil. Another one is her unmistakably from far away spotted apricot silk zibeline dress worn during a daytime boat ride on Lake Pichola in Udaipur , while officially visiting India and the President Nehru the same year. One can mention many others: The Azure blue silk crepe evening gown worn by her to a Foreign Ministry Reception in Mexico City . Or her pink silk radzimir dress chosen for the Christmas at White House.
Jackie Kennedy worked with Cassini in a way Marie Antoinette worked with Rose Bertin at the court of Versailles in the 18th Century. JBK sent regularly to Cassini’s workrooms pages from fashion magazines, often with her own suggestions and sketches. Oleg Cassini took JBK‘s references as starting points, simplifying and then exaggerating lines and details. She often specified the material that she wanted for her clothes, occasionally including swatches. She also sent original Paris couture clothing that she owned, to be inspired with or sometimes to be copied line for line in different fabrics.
Her informal clothing revealed a very different and maverick aspect. A carefree youthful style, orange pullover sweaters, shocking pink Capri pants, a bouffant hairdo. For her private wardrobe she also continued to wear luxuriously casual clothes of Princess Irene Galitzine or Emilio Pucci’s sports clothes. She also experimented with fashionable resources of the moment such as the Manhattan boutique A la Carte and, Chez Ninon through which she has acquired clothing that was legitimately made in America , although designed in Paris . She exchanged clothes with her sister Lee Radziwill and she also continued to own originals. As she feared to get the image of Marie Antoinette or Josephine of the sixties, she kept sending the bills to Joseph Kennedy.
The result of the Jackie Kennedy’s image projection had an unexpected impact not only on the fashion industry at home and abroad but also on the nation’s philosophy of style. She has been responsible for bringing to the widest public the understated look. This look was one that till now has been a strictly upper class fashion. With her elaborate bouffant coifs a shimmering haute couture gowns, no one had a greater impact in the 60s then Jackie.
In March 1961 Women’s Wear Daily noted that the Jackie looks had become part of the retail ad language. Ladies home Journal wrote “Jackie’s slightest fashion whim triggers seismic tremors up and down Seventh Avenue . WWD described her wardrobe “epidemic” and wrote,” She influenced the women of the world to look and feel better”. No surprise that at the Manhattan ’s Easter Parade in 1962, there were half a million “Jackie’s” on the street, all teen age and under. While she headed the best dressed list for four years and was inducted into the fashion hall of fame in 1965, the newly crowned Miss America sighed if only I looked Jackie…
As the first lady, Jackie Kennedy has revolutionized the taste of the nation by converting it to an appreciation of her refined and sophisticated Francophile tastes. She brought several unusual qualities with her to the White House. She wanted to make the White House a showcase for great American art and artists. She created the position of White House curator for the first time and to supervise and guide all these activities the White House Historical Association. White House during Kennedy years had hosted the most prominent artists, painters, writers and musicians of America together with politicians where Jackie Kennedy played a dazzling role.
Not only did she promote culture and the arts at highest levels, she also brought to the public awareness a discriminating style and an expertise in fashion, decorating and entertaining. In doing so, she became the symbol of the liberation from the notion that America had to be bourgeois.