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Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years

Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

May 1 through July 29, 2001

The John F.Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston

September 2, 2001 through February 28, 2002

The Corocan Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Gustave Tassell worn in India in 1962

Yellow silk ziberline dress designed by Gustave Tassell, left, was worn on trip in India in 1962, photograph of exhibition by Michele Leight

By Michele Leight

Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy were the most luminous icons of America after World War II and after his death she persevered and cultivated a persona that was celebrated and became a legendary fashioner of impeccable taste. Her impact on American culture was significant. She took America out of the staid and conservative 1950s and into the world of classy international elegance and also became an important champion of the arts and historic preservation. Although the world would plunge soon after her husband's assassination into a wildly liberated mode of often outrageous fashions and off-beat lifestyles, Jacqueline ("Jackie") Kennedy would long continue to represent for many Americans the epitome of good taste.

She wowed them in Washington and New York and many of the world's capitals and despite her very soft voice she left a discrete legacy of strong commitment to many causes. She had flair and she had substance. She was no overnight, flamboyant but lightweight sensation but a generational force, a madonna of the palace.

For many Americans, the Kennedy White House years were mostly "black-and-white" as color television was not yet widely introduced. This show may well be an eye-opener for even many "Jackie" fans for it truly shows off her famous and fabulous wardrobe to great advantage. The exhibition and the excellent catalogue also accompany most of the clothes with excellent photographs of Mrs. Kennedy wearing them.

In his introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue of the clothes featured in the show, Arthur M. Schlesinger, the historian and close Kennedy associate, writes: "She was a woman of notable beauty, at once wistful and luminous, and of acute intelligence and exacting expectation. 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. She observed the upper class conventions, but underneath a veil of lovely inconsequence she developed a cool assessment of people and an ironical slant on life. One soon realized that her social graces masked tremendous awareness, an all-seeing eye, ruthless judgment and a steely purpose. Her response to life was aesthetic rather than intellectual of moralistic."

Schlesinger continues with the observation that J.F.K. understood and was extremely sympathetic to his wife's leanings. His own tastes ran to architecture and literature and he asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his inauguration. He also requested that leading artists and writers be invited to the inauguration, which rankled the Inauguration Committee a bit. Kennedy won that battle and about 57 writers, composers and painters were present in the audience, including Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and John Steinbeck, who remarked "What a joy that literacy is no longer prima facie evidence of treason." The stage was set for a new frontier in the arts as well as politics with the ascent of the Kennedys to the American Presidency.

A passionate advocate of history, Jacqueline Kennedy "liked to know how things began and how they evolved, and her glamorous modernity was based on an intense curiosity about the past," Mr. Schlesinger observed. From the earliest days of the campaign trail, the Inquiring Camera Girl was aware of the Kennedy Administration's place in history, and, finding herself at the other end of the camera's scrutinizing gaze - the cameras loved photogenic, chic, Jackie - she played the media game to the hilt, much as Princess Diana did.

Shocked at the dreary state of the White House upon arrival at the presidential mansion, she wanted to restore the White House to a state the Kennedy Administration and all Americans would be proud of. Her winsome, videotaped tour of the restored White House, which aired February 14, 1972, was her idea and was viewed by millions of Americans who if they had not previously been conscious of her taste now acceeded to her proclivity towards high, classic style. She won an Emmy for public service from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her televised tour of the White House.

If Jacqueline Kennedy is someone you associate with happy memories of being a child in the 1960s and remembering your own mother dressing like her, or if fashion design laced with a memorable slice of American history is your cup of tea, then "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum," currently on view from May 1 through July 29, 2001, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be worth the long lines and the crowds at this popular exhibition.

Record lines now weave around the galleries at the Met to view the exhibit, so take a book along for the hour-long wait and that's on a good day. Jacqueline Kennedy and her family are very much in the hearts of Americans and many foreign visitors as well, judging by the German, Italian and British accents heard on the way to the bookshop two weeks after the show opened to the public. For those who were not around in the Kennedy years, the show will convey the mystique and the magic of a beloved American family.

The presence of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Jackie's daughter and now the only surviving member of America's most famous family, lent seriousness and grace to the press preview to this exhibition that elicits memories of good times and tragedy and the poignancy of American glory and the penitence of American violence. Black and white T.V. footage of John F. Kennedy's early campaign for the Presidency shows a youthful, vigorous presidential candidate with his equally young wife, in an era full of promise and hope for a "New Frontier" in American politics and way of life.

In his Inaugural address President Kennedy defined the spirit of his New Frontier: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage," adding the famous lines: " Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Mrs. Kennedy's elegant ivory satin Inaugural gown, designed by Oleg Cassini, is appropriately the first formal gown of the show.

The exhibition is not shown in The Costume Institute's subterranean location in the basement and is housed on the museum's second floor near the "premier" Impressionist galleries and the Vermeer show and some observers have criticized the museum with some justification for devoting "art" galleries" for "fashion" space. The Costume Institute's space, however, is limited and it is not surprising that the show is very popular.

Kicking off with photographs and memorabilia of the optimistic 1960 Kennedy "campaign trail," the show steps into its chronological slot in history, and proceeds with "sections" or vignettes featuring formal attire, travel outfits, riding clothes and personal favorites presented against large photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy wearing the outfits "in situ": at a state dinner Versailles, walking with India's dashing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, or at the Inauguration ceremony with her husband. Magazine articles, letters and newspapers displayed with the clothes - now nostalgically dated by black and white photographs - document the all-too-short Kennedy "reign" from 1961-1963, which, as the whole world knows, ended abruptly with President Kennedy's tragic assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Peering earnestly at a Time magazine cover of Jackie as the nation's stylish First Lady, a twenty-something reporter relates to the image and the Kennedy Years from the only perspective available to her youthful generation as an icon, a legend, the last of the American "royals."

All the clothes and objects in the show are in the collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum or retained by the Kennedy family, unless otherwise stated.

Hamish Bowles, the curator of the show, puts aside the dark ghosts and skillfully uses Jacqueline Kennedy's beautiful clothes - designed by world-famous fashion houses like Chanel, Givenchy and America's Oleg Cassini among others to bring back the high points of the Kennedy years in the White House, the years before Camelot and the fairy tale were overtaken by tragedy, and to subtly expose the intelligence, political "savvy" and enormous love of the arts and culture which Jacqueline Kennedy brought to her husband's administration and to her country. The show is about a great deal more than clothes or fashion: it is about grace, intelligence and charm American style and the timelessness of Jacqueline Kennedy's cultural legacy.

Complementing the exhibition is the catalog "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum," with essays by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Rachel Lambert Mellon, and Hamish Bowles, which is available from the museum and distributed by the Bulfinch Press in a hard-cover edition for $50 and a paperback edition for $35.

Hamish Bowles is the European editor-at-large of Vogue magazine and he took a leave-of-absence from the magazine to work on the show. "Her profound influence on the way an entire generation wanted to look, drees, and behave cannot be overestimated. She set the standards that American women strove to follow and, on the world stage, provided a visual metaphor for the youth and promise of the Kennedy Administration," he observed.

"Jacqueline Kennedy's personal style," the museum's press release argued "was a timely continuum, bridging the divide that then separated the old world from the new, the values of assured patrician elegance with the 'youthuake' of energy, dynamism, and forward-thinking modernity of the later 1960s. She emerges...as at once a paradigm of old-fashioned dignity, and an eternal cultural icon."

Parents with young teen girls sporting the popular, eyebrow-raising, spandex grab-every-pubescent-bump-and curve-brand of attire combined with hooker shoes take heart. Leaving nothing to the imagination may work for young ladies now, but this show might instill in the youngsters who attend it a hint of respect, even tolerance, for clothes which they might associate with their mother, or even grandma. but which nevertheless invoke admiration and awe for the sheer sophistication and style with which this extremely young First Lady wore them. The "less is more" modernist adage is almost a cliché with some of the outfits: several dresses look as though they belong on the catwalks today. True style does not age, but remains forever young, as Rod Stewart would say.

Exhibition also shows equestrian outfits

In addition to her "state" wardrobe, the exhibition includes some of her equestrian outfits, photograph of exhibition by Michele Leight

Intelligent is a word frequently used to describe Jacqueline Kennedy by those who knew her well, and her educational background was impressive. Born in Southampton, Long Island, to Janet Lee and John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier spent her childhood in New York City and Long Island. In 1933 her sister, Caroline Lee Bouvier was born, but by 1940 both sisters were to experience the loss, the first of many, for them of their father with the divorce of their parents. By 1942, Jane Bouvier remarried Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., and the family moved to McLean, Virginia, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1944, Jacqueline Bouvier enrolled in Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, where she joined the drama and riding clubs and was editor and cartoonist for the student newspaper.

In 1947 Jacqueline Bouvier enrolled at Vassar College, beginning her junior year in France in 1949 where she studied at Grenoble, one of the most geographically idyllic settings for a campus in the world, and at the Sorbonne. In 1950, she transferred to George Washington University, where she graduated the following May with a B.A. Degree in French Literature. In 1951, she won Vogue's "Prix de Paris" writing contest with an entry that included a plan for an isue of the magazine based on the theme of Nostalgia and an essay describing three figures from history she wished she had known: Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde and Serge Diaghilev. That same month she was introduced to the Congressman John F. Kennedy at a dinner party. Additional support was provided by Condé Nast Publications, which noted, in a statement, that Jacqueline Kennedy that as First Lady "she sould bring these same affinities for history, high style, and poetic imagination into the national arena, and in turn present to the world an image of America that was sophisticated, worldly, and intelligent."

The exhibition has about 80 original costumes and accessories and "embraces key elements from her formal White House wardrobe - what Mrs. Kennedy herself called her 'state clothes'- as well as pieces worn during her husband's 1960 presidenial campaign," according to the museum's press release. In his announcement of the exhibition, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, said that "it is appropriate indeed that the Metropolitan, an institution with which Jacqueline Kennedy enjoyed profoundly close ties, should celebrate the timeless impact of her extraordinary, unforgettable grace and style." In his catalogue remarks, Mr. Montebellow observed that "Although she atempted to temper the level of public interest in her appearance, fascination with her style never abated."

"My mother regarded her time in the White House as an extraordinary gift," wrote Caroline Kennedy, her daugher and the president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, in the catalogue, adding that "she knew she had been given the chance to play a part in history and worked hard to be worthy of the honor. When that period of her life came to an end she worked just as hard to ensure that the history of that time would be preserved and made available to future generations."

In January, 1952, the young graduate began working as "The Inquiring Camera Girl" for the Washington Times Herald." Amongst many others she interviewed John F. Kennedy (it would have been wonderful to be a fly on the wall at that one) and Richard M. Nixon for her daily column. She also covered the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the first inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. She was 23 years old. On November 4, 1951, John F. Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and on June 23, 1953 John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Jacqueline Bouvier announced their engagement and were married at Saint Mary's Church, Newport, Rhode Island, on September 12, 1953.

Her extraordinary charm is evident throughout the show, in live footage and in photographs, most memorably at the famous dinner at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, June 3, 1961, hosted by the Austrian president, where she dazzled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an exquisite shell-pink, Oleg Cassini silk-georgette chiffon evening dress embroidered with sequins, and it is clear that Khrushchev was beguiled by her radiant appearance. He declared her dress "beautiful" and when photographers asked him to shake hands with President Kennedy after a day of unresolved negotiations and tensions between the leaders of the two superpowers he replied, "I'd like to shake her hand first."

Jackie understood the power of clothing and image and used it to reflect the internationalism of the Kennedy Administration and the promise of the 1960s. She was good for the Presidency in her own right, prompting her husband to remark wittily at a press luncheon in Paris in June 1961: "I do not think it entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it." For the dinner at the Palace at Versailles hosted by President and Mrs. De Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy presented herself in an exquisitely elegant ivory silk ziberline evening dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy, embroidered by Hurel with silk floss, silk ribbon and seed pearls, shown below.

Hubert Givenchy evening outfit

Evening coat in ivory silk ziberline, left, and evening dress of some material embroidered by Hurel with silk floss, silk ribbon and seed pearls, right, both Hubert Givenchy, 1961, photograph at exhibition by Michele Leight

Jacqueline Kennedy was criticized for her "Francophile" fashion tendencies (Chanel, Givenchy, Christian Dior) by Women's Wear Daily, the fashion newspaper, and pounced on by Pat Nixon who appeared everywhere in American clothes. With unflinching political "savvy" Jackie immediately switched her allegiance to the American designer, Oleg Cassini, for her "official" wardrobe, silencing the fashion mavens who now raved about her Cassini designed outfits in the fashion gossip columns. In her own nationally syndicated "Campaign Wife" column, she remarked: "All this talk over what I wear and how I fix my hair has amused and puzzled me. What does my hairdo have to do with my husband's ability to be President?" What she was also saying was there was more to her than her hairdo.

For this reporter, who grew up in India in the 1960s, the show brought back wonderful childhood memories of the excitement and admiration which Jacqueline Kennedy generated in her lifetime wherever she went. Her "goodwill tour" of India, without her husband, accompanied by her sister Lee Radziwill (Princess Galitzine) is one of the highlights of the show. The photograph at the top of this article shows Jacqueline Kennedy "aboard" an elephant, as the guests of the Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur. The yellow silk ziberline dress with matching stole which she wore that day was designed by Gustave Tassell (1962) and is displayed on a mannequin in the foreground: "With the ladies' wardrobe in mind, Indian officials had constructed an elaborately decorated platform so that she and Princess Radziwill could mount the flamboyantly painted pachyderm named `Bibia' with the appropriate degree of dignity," Hamish Bowles noted in his catalogue essay.

Apricot silk ziberline coat and dress by Oleg Cassini

Apricot silk ziberline coat and dress designed by Oleg Cassini

The apricot silk taffeta dress, shown above with matching coat, on the second mannequin was worn to Lake Pichola in Udaipur. "This Cassini ensemble brilliantly served Mrs. Kennedy's needs: the fabric was rigid enough to keep its composure in the heat of India, and its dazzling color (appropriate to the intended setting) and sheen were calculated to ensure that she would be instantly identifiable to the crowds on the distant shore as they watched her boat on its way to the Maharana of Udaipur's white palace, where she was feted that evening," Mr. Bowles wrote.

With the Inauguration behind her, Mrs. Kennedy had to define her role as "First Lady," a term she detested, according to Mr. Schlesinger, because she "thought it undemocratic; also, 'First Lady' sounded to her like the name of a saddle horse." "Eventually she acquiesced in the usage," Mr. Schlesinger added. "She had lived in Washington for 18 years; her Washington Times Herald column had shown a particular interest in the White House and its occupants. She had a reputation for indifference or even hostility to political life; she eventually came in fact to enjoy politicians and their free and easy talk," Mr. Schlesinger continued.

According to her secretary Letitia Baldridge, she had a fantastic desire for historical knowledge. She understood that the White House was the property of the American people and not a private residence, and she planned to use it to honor achievements in the arts. After Mrs. Eisenhower gave Jacqueline Kennedy an introductory tour of the White House, Mrs. Henry ("Sister") Parish, the decorator and a friend of Mrs. Kennedy noted that she called her "and it was then that I realized that Jackie did not have two big eyes - she had dozens. Every room was observed, down to the last detail." Mr. Schlesinger wrote that the day after Mrs. Kennedy visit Mrs. Eisenhower told J. B. West, the White House chief user "in the voice, he noted , that she reserved for disapproval - 'She's planning to redo every room in this house. You've got quite a project ahead of you.'"

Jacqueline Kennedy did have big plans for the White House, but implementing anything new in this American institution was no simple matter. Headlines in the newspapers declared " Kennedy's Pick Nun to decorate White House. "Sister" Parish's name was confusing to those who did not know she was a famous decorator.

On her first working day in the White House, Jackie met David Finley, the chairman of the Federal Commission of Fine Arts to discuss ways and means of soliciting gifts that would reclaim the historical integrity of the White House, perhaps even a committee to raise funds for the purpose. He was so delighted he made the first donation himself, a beautiful Eighteenth Century walnut highboy in the Chippendale style. She had a will of iron, and, according to Mr. West, a "Do you think?" or "Could you please" was as much a command as Mrs. Eisenhower's "I want this done immediately."

Messing about with America's "sacred cow" also required legal and political cover. President Kennedy got involved, and a month after the Inauguration, on February 23, 1961, The Fine Arts Committee for the White House became a reality, serving as a body to "locate authentic furniture of the date of the building of the White House (1802) and the raising of funds to purchase this furniture as gifts for the White House." (Schlesinger). "Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there," Mrs. Kennedy told Hugh Sidey of Life magazine: "It would be sacrilege merely to redecorate it, a word I hate. It must be restored, and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship."

With flawless political instincts, Mrs. Kennedy had the foresight, at the suggestion of Jayne Wrightsman, to persuade Henry Francis Du Pont, a Republican whose renown collection of American furnishings and decorative arts were displayed at his very impressive museum, Winterthur near Wilmington, Delaware, to become chairman of the Fine Arts Committee for guiding the acquisitions policy toward exemplary American pieces. Even the staunchest critics could not find fault with Du Pont's credibility and connoisseurship.

In his memoir, "Upstairs in the White House (1973), Mr. West provided the following commentary about Mrs. Kennedy:

"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 than anyone I have ever met. Yet she was so soft-spoken, so deft and subtle, thta she could impose that will upon people without their ever knowing it."

Mr. Schlesinger added the following:

"Relaxed and uninhibited, she was always popping up everywhere, wearing slacks, kicking off her shoes, sitting on the floor, hair flying in every direction. She poked fun at everything, including herself. she was highly organized but rarely held herself to a schedule."

Formal State dinners were re-invented and exuded imagination and style. Convivial round tables seating 8 or 10 replaced the formidable, conversation-stopping "E" shaped tables of the past. The First Lady's choice of fashions, food, flowers and music were carefully orchestrated to protect and reinforce the Kennedy image of vital intelligence, high culture and youthful sophistication. "Her style was not vanity but a way of living, not simply adorning herself but expressing her vision of beauty in the world," wrote Richard Martin, the late Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, maintaining that she inspired millions of Americans to embrace the arts and historic preservation as important parts of national policy.

While the clothes might strike many as the focus of the show and there are superb examples on display for others, it will be her love of the arts and culture, in addition to the clothes, which leaves a lasting impression. The absence of pants, or pantsuits except in the equestrienne "vignette" show her observation of the lady-like proprieties in her public and official roles although she enjoyed wearing them in private. Fast-forward to Hillary Rodham Clinton's pantsuits custom made by Oscar de la Renta, and it shows how the "taboos" have been overturned for women since Jackie's and our own mother's day. It is interesting to note that despite the high-ranking designer clothing she favored, the clothes did not wear her she wore them. In all aspects of her life she was very much her own person at a time when the majority of women were expected to play the supportive, but never the equal, component in a marriage.

There is a wonderful "off-guard" photograph in the exhibition catalogue of Jackie walking to a Good Friday service in Palm Beach, Florida, at St. Edward's Church, April 20, 1962. She is dressed elegantly though casually, exuding comfort and modernity: "She galvanized America by eschewing the hidebound formalized elegance of the fifties that decreed hats and cover-ups for church. Instead, she wore a favorite sleeveless sundress by the popular 7th Avenue manufacturer Herbert Sondheim, (father of the songwriter Stephen), who was known for the lady-like propriety of his clothes. In a head-scarf, goggle-eyed, white-framed glasses, and Jack Rogers sandals, she was dressed like any other Palm Beach 'elegante,' but much of America thought otherwise. 'Little did we realize that we would have in Jackie, a sort of beatnik, a gilded one, of course,' wrote one outraged citizen," Mr. Bowles wrote.

To his enormous credit, Mr. Bowles never allows the tone of the exhibit to sink into morbidity, especially for those who have some memory of the end of the Kennedy era. There is an intake of breath as a giant image of husband and wife in an intimate moment in a convertible presents itself in the final section of the show: mercifully, it was taken a year before the fateful ride through Dallas. The only image at the show that causes immense sadness is the tender Richard Avedon portrait of Mrs. Kennedy in a Givenchy dress, holding her newborn baby, John, which appeared in Harper's Bazaar in February, 1961.

There are pictorial tributes to Jacqueline Kennedy's efforts to save Grand Central Terminal from the wrecker's ball, and references to the magnificent Egyptian monuments of Abu Simbel that she lobbied the President to persuade Congress to commit funds to save from the threat of flooding by the construction of the Aswan Dam. The United States became the largest contributor to UNESCO'S efforts, and as a "thank you" the Egyptian government offered another monument that was similarly threatened. Mrs. Kennedy chose the Temple of Dendur, which, which after some competitive institutional jockeying, was installed in the new glass-enclosed wing of the Metropolitan Museum in 1978. She could see it from her apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue when it was lit up at night.

"Working with her favored American designer Oleg Cassini, and his team, along with other fahiore sources, her hairdresser, Kenneth Batelle, and Halston, and the millinery department of Bergdorf Goodman, she created an image that blended his informed tastes in fashion with...her new role. ...Her clothes were informed with an understated modern elegance, characterized by cleanliness, solid colors, and ease of movement....In the years following World War II, socially prominent women of real personal style, such as Babe Paley, Gloria Guiness, and C. Z. Guest, had the subtle nuances of their tastes in fashion, decorating, and entertaining scrutinized in elitist magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Town & Country, yet their influence remained limited to their own sequestered worlds. Instead, the potent appeal of movies, television, and popular music guided the way woman wanted to look and behave. Jacqueline Kennedy transformed this dynamic. She succeeded in "redeeming fashion from the puritan ethic of sin," wrote Marilyn Bender of the New York Times (in The Beautiful People, 1967).

In August, 1960, Mrs.Kennedy wrote to Diana Vreeland that she "must start to buy American clothes and have it known where I buy them," because of controversies over her inclination to famous French fashion houses. Mrs. Vreeland suggested Stella Sloat, Ben Zuckerman and Norman Norrell.

Inaugural ball gown by Oleg Cassini

Cover of exhibition catalogue shows Inaugural Ball gown designed by Oleg Cassini

"In addition to Mrs. Vreeland's choices, the designer Oleg Cassini, a Kennedy family friend, proposed himself as a candidate to work withthe first lady, apparently at the suggestion of hisbrother Igor, the influential Hearst gossip columnist who had once named Jacqueline Bouvier "debutante of the year." Before the November 8 electon Oleg Cassini wrote to Mrs. Kennedy with the asssurance that '"naturally, the dresses you get here will be specifically made for you, with your counsel and direction and in keeping with your marvelous sense of personal fashion. In reply Jacqueline Kennedy asked Cassini to "get started designing me something, then send me some sketches, and, if I like them, I can give you credit to doing most of my Spring wardrobe....The urbane Cassini, born in Paris to Russian citizens and raised in Florence, became an American citizen in 1942. He had known Joseph P. Kennedy since the war. As Cassini remembers, it was Ambassador Kennedy who encouraged him to leave the Hollywood studio system (where he gained a reputation at Paramount with dramatic costumes for his wife Gene Tierney's starring vehicles in The Razor's Edge and Shanghai Gesture) and to establish his own Seventh Avenue fashion house, whe he did in 1950.

For the Inaugural Gala, Cassini designed an evening gown, shown above, in ivory doubled-faced silk satin twill. "This majestic dress, so suggestive of a bride or a debutante, was a masterstroke of image making," the catalogue noted, "establishing Jacqueline Kennedy in the national consciousness as a woman of commanding personal style, with an unerring sense of history and of her place in it....Otherwise stripped of embellishment, the dress has a single telling detail in the cockade that hovers at the waist. It as an element that pointed to Jacqueline Kennedy's pride in her French Bouvier ancestry, her profound love of history, and her particuarly affinity with the eighteenth century. A formalized rosette of fabric, the cockade had its roots in the field of battle, where it was worn as a badge of loyality, different colors indicating particular allegiances. ...An early press sketch from the Cassini studios reveals that the designer had originally considered placing this element high on the chest - a medal of honor, perhaps, or a winner's rosette. During fittings it slipped to the waist, where it focused atention instead on the break of the skirt."

Celadon silk dress by Oleg Cassini

Celadon silk dress by Oleg Cassini, 1962

Cassini's designs were very beautiful. For an April 29, 1962 dinner at the White House honoring Nobel prizewinners of the Western Hemisphere, he designed a "liquid, columnar dress...suggestive of ancient statuary," according to the catalogue. It is shown above and the catalogue also shows a black-and-white photograph of Mrs. Kennedy wearing the dress sitting next to Robert Frost.

While many of Cassini's designs were classic and simple designs in the vein of Chanel and Givenchy, he clearly had a very fine feel for even more ornate and more spectacular designs. For a dinner at the Elysée Palace in Paris, Cassini designed an awesome pink and white raffia lace evening dress with scalloped edges with matching stole, a truly ravishing and extremely feminine ensemble. For the Schönbrunn Palace dinner with Khrushchev in Vienna, he designed a shell pink silk-georgette chiffon evening dress embroidered with sequins that the catalogue described as "high-voltage glamour," another fabulous and flamboyant knock-out.


Joan Morse dress for A La Carte

Rose pink honecomb-weave wool dress by Joan Morse for A La Carte, photograph of exhibition by Michele Leight


Mrs. Kennedy would read and clip fashion magazines and get advice from Diana Vreeland and her sister, Lee Radziwill and, according to the catalogue, "experimented with fashionable resources of the moment such as the Manhattan boutique A La Carte. It was run by Joan Morse, who later became a Warhol acolyte....At the opposite end of the spectrum was Chez Ninon, a couture salon established by socially well connected Nona Park and Sophie Shonnard in the late 1920s....Through Chez Ninon Jacqueline Kennedy acquired clothing that was legitimately made in America, although designed in Paris....From the shocking pink Cassini coat that she wore on her arrival in India to the shining yellow Tassell dress that she chose for an elephant ride, Mrs. Kennedy's every outfit was a dazzling photo opportunity and helped to reinforce the positive world view of America."

Joan Morse evening dress and cape, 1962

Another Joan Morse for A La Carte was a hot-pink-and-gold-silk organza and metallic broacaded silk organza evening dress and cape, 1962

Another Joan Morse for A La Carte was a hot-pink-and-gold-silk organza and metallic broacaded silk organza evening dress and cape, 1962, that was sensationally dazzling, shown above.

More personally, Jacqueline Kennedy was deeply involved with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and intended to honor the memory of her husband and his commitment to the arts. She also chose the site for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, which was dedicated on October 20, 1979, and worked closely with the architect I.M. Pei on its realization. She began a career as a literary editor in New York City in 1975 after the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis. She worked at Viking Press and at Doubleday and Company, and she edited the books for several exhibitions at the Costume Institute, then under the aegis of Diana Vreeland, among them "Vanity Fair" (1977) and "Costumes of Royal India" (1985). Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in New York on May 19, 1994, and is buried next to John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery.

On October 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy said at a speech at Amherst College: "I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace and beauty that will reward achievements in the arts as well as achievement in business or statecraft" With these words he echoed his wife's deepest wishes.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is available at www.amazon.com and www.ashraya-ny.org

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