Arts and Leisure

Emblem of a New Age: Jackie Kennedy Gets A New Wardrobe

First Lady-elect Jackie Kennedy in November 1960 faced a dilemma no other 31-year-old housewife ever encountered. She needed a new Jackie Kennedywardrobe for the White House in just a few weeks, but she was weak and bedridden, having given birth to her son John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., by Caesarian section on Nov. 25.

Harper’s Bazaar fashion columnist Diana Vreeland helped out by sending over sketches from a variety of American designers – and they had to be American, of course. So when Oleg Cassini answered an urgent call from the president-elect to visit Jackie Kennedy in the hospital, he found her in bed surrounded by those sketches.

Cassini was a naturalized Russian aristocrat and international playboy. He and his brother Igor, who wrote a society column, were long-time friends of the Kennedy clan. Oleg played golf with the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, and he had become friendly with Jackie during the early years of her marriage.

“She only had a few dresses,” reflected Cassini. “She knew that to have a decent wardrobe when she entered the White House, she had to think of it. And thus the new Jackie was an image in a way created by her and me.” Joseph Kennedy, the old movie producer, understood the power of image and told Cassini to spend whatever he needed.

She also relied on Marita O’Connor at Bergdorf-Goodman as her personal shopper. Before entering the hospital, she decided to buy nearly all of her clothes and accessories at the Fifth Avenue department store. Letters to O’Connor, which will be auctioned this month, show Jackie Kennedy knew what she wanted.

She was intent on eclipsing the dowdy era of the Eisenhower presidency. She liked spare, simple dresses that Audrey Hepburn wore so well. And she hated wearing hats but knew she couldn’t avoid them, so she asked O’Connor for “easy-to-wear back-of-the-head pillbox ones.”

Most of all, she wanted to be unique.  “I want all mine to be original & no fat little women hopping around in the same dress,” she wrote in a waspish letter to Cassini.  She didn’t get her wish: millions of American women emulated her style, the simple lines of her dresses, her pillbox hats and her bouffant hairstyle.

Jackie was no dope, and she knew she’d have to be careful about her image. She urged Cassini to be discreet in a letter written on Dec. 13, 1960: “I refuse to have Jack’s administration plagued by fashion stories of a sensational nature & to be the Marie Antoinette of the 1960s.” Earlier that year, the New York Times had reported she spent $30,000 a year on clothing. She put an end to the story by responding,  “I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.”

By the eve of the presidential inauguration, her new wardrobe was ready. It was a smash.

Film costume designer Edith Head called ‘The Jackie Look’ “the single biggest fashion influence in history.”

She kicked off The Jackie Look with a stunning white satin Cassini gown at the pre-inaugural concert and gala orchestrated by Frank Sinatra and presidential brother-in-law Peter Lawford. A blizzard had struck Washington, D.C., and biographer Randy Taraborelli wrote the snowstorm was “a magical backdrop for a modern-day snow queen.”

The president-elect’s limousine was slowed to 10 mph as it crept through the streets of Washington from the concert to the gala. Hundreds lined the streets to see the glamorous couple. President-elect Kennedy said, “turn on the lights so they can see Jackie.”

Seventeen letters written by Jackie Kennedy to Marita O’Connor will be auctioned off in Amesbury, Mass., on Nov. 23 as part of a three-day auction of Kennedy items at John McInnis Auctioneers, according to the Boston Globe.  Click here to see a reproduction of one of her letters to O’Connor.

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