She was young. She was wealthy. She’d been to France. She was also so beautiful she would have looked good wrapped in a burlap sack. Which, in a manner of speaking, is sometimes how she dressed.
Of course, to say such a thing about Jacqueline Kennedy borders on sacrilege. It is certainly the last impression encouraged by what must be the season’s most lavish fashion show, “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.” Now on display at the Metropolitan Museum, it is a breathtaking parade of more than 80 meticulously preserved garments worn by Jackie Kennedy during her brief stint at the White House.
Like any good runway production, this exhibition is accompanied by mood-enhancing sound effects—the stentorian din of the 1960 presidential campaign—and transpires against a background of sumptuous color: facsimiles of the dramatic periwinkle and scarlet walls that Jackie introduced in her ambitious restoration of the White House. The effect is dignified, exuberant, and a formidable argument for regarding Givenchy knockoffs as America’s most effective weapon in the fight against communism. One wall text goes so far as to credit the pale pink sequined chiffon number Jackie wore to meet Nikita Krushchev in 1961 with “somewhat diffusing the tensions that had arisen from an unproductive day of discussions between the United States president and the irascible Soviet premier.”
Here you’re entitled to roll your eyes. Nevertheless, doing politics through style is the American way. And though Jackie deserves credit for salvaging a marketable national aesthetic from the frumpiness of the Eisenhower years, the idea predated her by about a century and a half. Dolley Madison, the first female clotheshorse to occupy and redecorate the White House, put her wardrobe to work on behalf of the state back in 1809.
Nor, given the national tragedy Jackie survived in the blood-spattered pink suit—without question the single best-known garment associated with her name—is it really news that America’s most influential fashion icon wore bright colors. (“A riot of juicy fruit hues amid black-and-white memories,” gasped the Boston Globe.) Juicy-fruit hues make great copy. Photo editors love them. And to be sure, there is plenty of stunning eye-candy in this collection: acid yellows, minty greens, peony pinks, and turquoises. The celadon jersey column Jackie wore to a dinner honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners in 1962 was a particularly brilliant coup, managing to seem both appropriately classical and, with its pleated asymmetry and cutaway shoulder, daringly fashion-forward at the same time.
More typical, however, is the pink-and-white raffia lace gown in which she dined with Charles de Gaulle and 300 others at the Elysée Palace in 1961. Other women would have demanded spaghetti straps, a tight bodice, an empire waist—or else gussied things up with gold bangles or pearls. Jackie understood that the fabric—intricately embossed, utterly unique, and suggested by her informal fashion consultant Diana Vreeland—was the dress.
She also understood that the dress, along with a matching stole, was all that stood between her and millions of prying eyes. No wonder she chose for it a fabric as stiff and unpliant as straw and a design that, with its form-concealing folds, gave her the allure of a geisha: mysterious and impenetrable.
The revelation here is about a wardrobe dictated less by style or politics than fear. Lost in the fuss over her hothouse colors and precocious minimalism is the fact that Jackie, an improbably young and inexperienced first lady enduring America’s first televised presidency, was terrified. This was a woman who, upon learning that her husband had won the presidential election, confessed: “I feel as though I had just turned into a piece of public property. It’s really frightening to lose your anonymity at 31.” And who, a few weeks later, in a letter to Oleg Cassini, the designer charged with furnishing her official wardrobe, was pleading: “PROTECT ME, as I seem so mercilessly exposed and don’t know how to cope with it.”
The solution was a closet full of body armor, though it’s unclear whether Cassini or Jackie deserves more of the credit for dreaming it up. (Insulted by his exhibition portrayal as a knockoff whiz doing his mistress’s bidding, Cassini told the New York Times, “Jackie had no idea about the clothes, and that’s the truth.”) Either way, the result was a tour de force of optical illusion: These were clothes that recognized Jackie’s central position on the national stage without ceding an iota of her privacy. These clothes were Parisian in inspiration and unfailingly Modernist in cut, but their starchy fabrics and formless shapes were designed to guarantee not front-page coverage in WWD (the trade rag’s publication of Jackie’s Paris couture bill had caused a scandal during the campaign) but protection from the insatiable hordes.
How else to explain the nunlike asceticism of the putty-colored overblouse dress she wore on the campaign trail or the boring beige tunic dress she posed in for a 1959 Life magazine photo shoot that accompanied the article, “Jackie: A Front Runner’s Appealing Wife”?
How better to understand Jackie’s White House uniform: the boxy, high-buttoned suit in an unprepossessing scratchy wool blend that revealed not a single curve or bit of collarbone? It’s one such pale yellow silk and wool ensemble that prompts the Met’s curator Hamish Bowles to write: “Jacqueline Kennedy’s preference for stiff and unyielding fabrics … lends an armorial quality to much of her clothing from this period.” Jackie’s perverse accomplishment was to turn vulnerability into a visual symbol of America’s youth, immortality, and power.
To purchase A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jackie Kennedy for the White House, by Oleg Cassini, from barnesandnoble.com, click here.