Sunday Lifestyle

White House fashion: The Jackie Kennedy years

- Tingting Cojuangco -

It wasn’t only John F. Kennedy winning the election as 35th president of the United States in 1960 that thrilled me. It was Jackie Kennedy’s obvious pride in assuming the supporting role of the youngest first lady ever in America. Holding her fur muffler during that cold January inauguration, her confidence challenged me to be as decisive as I could at 31.

 A woman’s role behind every man is scrutinized and seldom praised by the eagle-eyed public, and the worst of her is laid bare. That’s the consequence that victory brings a wife suddenly thrust into the limelight. A man can’t be victorious without a woman — wife or mother or sister or aunt — yet, she has to prove herself tenfold, be more perfect than the heavenly creatures.

Or maybe that didn’t apply to the public’s enthusiasm over Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy. The American folks saw in the Kennedy couple their living traditions throbbing in the White House and gave them national support.

“‘First Lady,’ she hated the title and instructed her staff that she should be known, not as first lady, but as Mrs. Kennedy,” wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his essay, “Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House.” Mrs. Kennedy thought the term “First Lady” undemocratic, also it sounded to her like the name of a saddle horse.

Schlesinger noted, “She was a young woman of notable beauty, at once wistful and luminous, and of acute intelligence. She had been reared in a class, a time — the 1940s — and a place — Newport, Rhode Island — where young ladies were taught to conceal their brains lest they frighten young men away.

“Jacqueline Kennedy brought several unusual qualities with her to the White House. One was knowledge of the arts. Her response to life was aesthetic rather than intellectual or moralistic. In public, she was elegant, aloof, dignified, and regal. In private, she was casual, impish, and irreverent. She had a will of iron, with more determination that anyone I have ever met. Yet she was so soft-spoken, so deft and subtle, that she could impose that will upon people without them ever knowing it.”

To her appreciation of the arts, Jacqueline Kennedy added a passionate sense of history. She liked to know how things began and how they evolved, and her glamorous modernity was based on an intense curiosity about the past. With her historical sense, she understood that the White House was not a private residence but the property of the American people. “Relaxed and uninhabited, she was always popping up everywhere, wearing slacks, kicking off her shoes, sitting on the floor, hair flying in every direction. Poked fun at everything, including herself. She was highly organized but rarely held herself to a schedule. She conducted expeditions into dusty storerooms and warehouses in search of forgotten treasures.”

Jacqueline Kennedy proved adept at seeking out experts. “You can’t do it all by yourself, so you must pick the people you know who are qualified for each field and tell them what [it is] you wish,” she once said — “and supervise it all, as nothing is ever any good without [the] overall unified supervision of the person who is putting all this in motion.”

Working with her favored American designer, Oleg Cassini, and his team, along with her other fashion resources — her hairdresser, Kenneth Battelle, and Roy Halston Frowick and the millinery department of Bergdorf Goodman — she created an image that blended her informed tastes in fashion with the gravitas of her new role.

“I will never become stuffy,” she wrote to Cassini, “but there is a dignity to the office that suddenly hits one.” 

Lee Radziwill notes that her sister Jacqueline “had a great sense of what was appropriate — and of what the public wants of you, because that’s who you’re pleasing.” 

In response Jacqueline Kennedy said, “I feel as though I had just turned into a piece of public property. It’s really frightening to lose your anonymity at 31.” As first lady, therefore, she used her wardrobe of “state clothing,” as she characterized it, as a shield and style as an effective weapon.

How will America’s new first lady, Michelle Obama, hold her own? Hardly will she be an isolated case — she is the partner of a very powerful man.








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