THE SUBTLETIES OF WEAR
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — With the opening of “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” next week, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art may be surprised to learn that America’s most fashionable First Lady, an enduring icon clad in cropped boxy jackets and pillbox hats, did not intend to be dominated by her clothes.
Kennedy wielded a global influence on style during her time in the White House, 1961-63, and the effects are still palpable. Yet the overall impression left by the collection of 80 or so looks included in the Met’s exploration of her clothes from that period is of the simplicity of her wardrobe — mostly solid day dresses and gowns, cut to her body with loose, wide necklines and oversize bows intended to soften the appearance of her broad face.
“She was going for an understated effect with her clothes so that she herself was the dominant force,” said Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue, who took a leave of absence from the magazine to curate the exhibit. It will be previewed tonight at the Costume Institute’s annual benefit.
“Jackie did not want her clothes imposing a presence on her personality,” Bowles said. “Even when the construction was very sophisticated, the effect is simplicity. As lovely as the clothes are, she was much more than just clothes.”
The exhibit is intended to explain how her clothing, through its reductive nature as well as the intentions of its wearer, carried subtle yet forceful messages about the new First Lady and, in a larger sense, the new spirit of the U.S.
It opens with the clothes Jackie wore on the campaign trail — a pale lemon suit and a scarlet double-face coat from Givenchy along with his prototypical pillbox hat are early illustrations of the elements that would quickly become known as the “Jackie style.” A bow on the hat, for instance, was meant to be worn off center, not right in the front as Kennedy has it in an accompanying photograph taken during an Oct. 19, 1960 ticker-tape parade through Times Square. The adjustment of a hat might not seem important, but it sent a message, said Bowles: “It shows she was not a slave to designer dictate.”
Kennedy’s inaugural wardrobe follows, including the ivory silk gown and cape she designed, working with Diana Vreeland and Ethel Frankau, the fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, loaned from the Smithsonian Institute, as well as Oleg Cassini’s contributions to the festivities. That includes the ivory silk twill gown she wore to the National Guard Armory gala on Jan. 19, 1961, which Bowles describes in the exhibit’s catalog as “a masterstroke of image making” for its symbolic ceremonial color and lack of embellishment save for a cockade that subtly refers to the First Lady’s fascination with history and pride in her French ancestry.
In the following galleries, Kennedy’s wardrobe from her tours through Canada and Europe in 1961 and India and Latin America in 1962 is drawn out to make several points about her style; most notably, that her very conscious decisions as to the color, style and embellishment of her clothes were meant to display respect to her international hosts, while setting herself apart. The red wool Pierre Cardin day suit she wore May 16, 1961, for example, was meant as a complement to the vivid red uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Her dresses and suits selected for her tour of India display the palette of a basket of Easter eggs — all solid pastels selected to stand out in a crowd of women attired in saris as bright and faceted as jewels.
“She was a resounding success, which is how Jack became aware of how potent her effect could be,” Bowles said. Other looks were created for specific events, and Kennedy agonized over the details, like a theatrical black Cassini gown she wore for her audience with the Pope on March 11, 1962.
The exhibit continues with elements of Kennedy’s “off-duty” attire, selected to illustrate the early tremors of the impending revolution away from Fifties formality. Bowles shows Kennedy in bare legs and flat sandals, a breezy Herbert Sondheim day dress, aviator sunglasses and a head scarf. “This throws her official state wardrobe in relief so you have a sense of how costumey it was. She was dressing for a role,” he said.
The ensuing galleries are designed to show Kennedy’s White House dressing room, where the metaphors and inspirations depicted in Pierre-Marie Rudelle’s trompe l’oeil doors are explained, as well as a room dedicated to Kennedy’s restoration of the White House, populated only by the red Chez Ninon day dress she wore during the 1962 White House tour taped for CBS. “The White House Years” concludes with Kennedy’s day and informal evening clothes worn at the White House and a final gallery of her formal gala evening dresses, where the walls are painted with seating charts for various events, blown up like sparkling black snow flakes, and the soundtrack is of Pablo Casals’s “A Concert at the White House.”
The impact of Jackie’s wardrobe has been so great that it’s come to overshadow the original meaning. But just as her quietly girlish voice often masked the mature and well-thought-out intellect of the First Lady’s projects, the exhibit makes the argument that her attire has had a more profound impact on style than if she had used a bully pulpit. “Jackie’s ability to take the Francophile influences and marry them to breezy American sportswear had an enormous impact on American design and even a potent influence on the couture,” Bowles said. “She affected everything.”