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First lady of fashion

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An exhibit celebrates Jackie Kennedy's stylish years in the White House

Nobody needs to be told that the Kennedy myth is not what it used to be. But there's one part of it that no amount of historical revisionism will undo. The Kennedys, especially Jackie, changed the climate of taste in America. From the moment they assumed center stage, they chased away all memory of Mamie Eisenhower's tiered-ruffle dresses and the bamboo furniture in the solarium of Ike's White House. (After Mamie took her on a tour of the place, Jackie complained to a friend that "it looks like it's been furnished by discount stores.") To see Jackie, at 31, take command of the White House was like watching an X-15 blow a sonic boom through your grandmother's credenza.

Jackie Kennedy had longtime ambitions to be a style setter. At age 20, she wrote that her goal in life was to be "a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century." If that isn't the place she achieved, it is true all the same that no midcentury woman in the English-speaking world influenced taste the way she did in the 1960s. Audrey Hepburn was cuter, the Duchess of Windsor had more spending power; but Jackie crystallized an emerging notion of modernity for both the elites she moved among: the newly prosperous middle classes and those still striving to move up. In the cultural politics of the cold war world, her elegance also made an irrefutable argument for the U.S. (One look at Nikita Khrushchev's wife Nina and you understood why the Russians have a word like babushka.) Thin as an icicle, as up-to-the-minute as a nose cone, wherever Jackie was, there was the New Frontier.

This is one reason the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is devoting its big show this year to "Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House Years." A less scholarly reason is that anything with Jackie's name attached is guaranteed to bring crowds through the doors. What the crowds will find when the show opens on May 1 is an exhibit lavishly guest curated by Hamish Bowles, 37, a Vogue fashion editor who may now know Jackie's wardrobe better than she did. Costume shows at the Met are ordinarily confined to cramped basement rooms. Bowles has mounted this one in the spacious upstairs galleries, some of them redesigned to resemble the White House state rooms as Jackie refurbished them.

But this is a show about more than Jackie's trademarks: the boxy jackets and pillbox hats, the three-quarter-length sleeves, the lace mantillas, the overblouse dresses and the sleeveless A-lines. It's also the story of a consummate act of imagemaking. As a Bouvier, she was born with a taste for all things French. By her 20s, that meant anything by Hubert de Givenchy, the French disciple of Balenciaga. Givenchy had dressed Audrey Hepburn in sleek, clean lines that were the last word in mid-'50s modern, a style Jackie adopted as her own. But by 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for President. It would not do for him to have a wife who gave the impression that the French flag was her notion of the red, white and blue--or one who could spend more on clothes than most families made in a year. Both problems came together early in J.F.K.'s campaign, when Women's Wear Daily reported that Jackie and Rose Kennedy together spent the then phenomenal sum of $30,000 a year on clothing, mostly from Paris designers.

Jackie answered with the famous comeback that to spend that much, "I would have to wear sable underwear." Yet in no time, Pat Nixon was telling reporters how she bought American designers and that she got them straight off the rack. Jack Kennedy was also courting the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, whose powerful president, David Dubinsky, was cautioning J.F.K. that his wife had to buy American. Jackie could see what the press would make her into. She wrote in despair to a friend: "I refuse to be the Marie-Antoinette...of the 1960s."

Eventually she found her way to Oleg Cassini, a French-born Russian turned naturalized American and a onetime Hollywood costume designer. Cassini gave her Americanized versions of French designs, clean lined, in the bright, solid colors she preferred, but with oversize buttons and coat pockets that his Hollywood experience told him would stand out in photographs. She also patronized American clothiers who made licensed copies of French fashions. The red wool dress she wore for her television tour of the White House in 1962 was a line-for-line replica of a Marc Bohan dress for Dior. All the while, she continued to buy the occasional real thing from France. Even the pink suit she wore on the final day in Dallas, which is not in the show, was by Chanel.

Cassini, now 88, has complained that the Met show makes it appear that he slavishly copied French originals or took explicit directions from his famous client. But Jackie was plainly nobody's mannequin. She knew what she wanted, and she didn't hesitate to tell Cassini. In collaboration with dressmakers at Bergdorf Goodman, the New York City department store, she even designed her Inaugural ball gown. She had her snarky side too. "I imagine you will want to put some of my dresses in your collection," she once wrote to Cassini. "But I want all mine to be originals and no fat little women hopping around in the same dress." Her strict attention to what she wore doesn't really accord with her occasional insistence that she had "no desire to influence fashions--that is at the bottom of any list." Jackie got a good deal of what she wanted in life. But her wish to be irrelevant in the matter of style? It never happened. She never meant it to.


Cover Date: April 30, 2001



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