Jackie Kennedy “was that magic that you cannot explain,” designer Manolo Blahnik told People. The New York native became a household name as John F. Kennedy’s first lady, but it became very clear early on in his presidency that Jackie could hold her own in the spotlight. It seemed JFK knew this too, as he indicated during his 1961 speech at the Palais de Chaillot: “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
Among her countless qualities, it seemed no one could capture the style Jackie so easily embodied, and her fashion choices soon became a topic of global interest. In fact, the first lady’s fashion power became so influential that her husband and his family worried about her decisions to utilize foreign fashion houses over American ones. Her wardrobe even became a weapon for the Kennedy family’s political adversaries.
Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe wielded political power
According to NPR, John Fairchild, who ran Women’s Wear Daily in the 1960s, vocalized his contempt over Jackie Kennedy’s imported wardrobe, particularly her preference for French couture. Fairchild reportedly “made a great song and dance about this and criticized [the Kennedy women] for not supporting American fashion … other newspapers started to pick it up, and then the Republicans realized they were on to something too.”
As newspapers spread a divisive undercurrent about the anti-Americanism of Jackie Kennedy’s clothing choices, the family took action. According to NPR, the first lady’s father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, jumped in to help by connecting her with couturier Oleg Cassini, “a loyal supporter and a loyal friend to the Kennedy clan.” Jackie also reached out to the head fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar at that time, Diana Vreeland. With their help, she was able to create a wardrobe that channeled the aesthetic of European fashion while still being made in the U.S.A.
Jackie was reportedly wearing just such a piece when her husband was assassinated as they toured Dallas in a presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963. To this day, much of the horror of what happened that day is encapsulated in the iconic pink suit the first lady was wearing when JFK was shot.
The secret stitched into Jackie Kennedy's pink suit
In much of the initial reporting about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy’s outfit is described as a pink “Chanel suit.” Newspapers knew of her penchant for French fashion, and since the suit looked like Chanel, apparently no one stopped to question it. Even official documents from the National Archives and Records Administration list Jackie’s outfit as “a Pink Chanel Suit.”
However, that suit was actually American-made. According to People, it looked exactly like the one seen in Coco Chanel’s 1961 fall/winter collection, but Jackie had a New York shop called Chez Ninon remake the design in a line-for-line copy. That shade of pink, which is sometimes called “watermelon” pink or “strawberry” pink, was combined with a “pink pillbox hat, white gloves, a navy collar and gold buttons.” Her copycat look was even approved by Chanel.
Through ingenuity and creativity, Jackie had captured the style of Europe in an American-made suit that is now so iconic that it’s literally under lock and key at the National Archives and Records Administration’s facility in College Park, Md.
Jackie Kennedy's pink suit is hidden away until 2103
Just as her clothing had been used politically when JFK was alive, Jackie Kennedy used her wardrobe to send a powerful message following her husband’s assassination.
According to People, “Mrs. Kennedy staunchly wore the blood-soaked suit from the time her husband was shot at 12:30 pm CT on Nov. 22, 1963 until the early hours of the next morning. She had the suit on during the swearing in of President Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One on the way back to Washington D.C., about two hours after her husband was assassinated. Though she was urged multiple times to change out of the suit, which was covered in President Kennedy’s blood, Mrs. Kennedy insisted, ‘Let them see what they’ve done.'”
In 2003, Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline B. Kennedy, donated the suit to the National Archives, along with several other items belonging to her famous parents. According to the National Archives, the suit is kept in a “secure area, under climate-controlled conditions, and stored flat in special containers for preservation purposes.” Per Caroline’s request, “access to the clothing and personal effects of Mrs. Kennedy are restricted for one hundred (100) years from the date of execution of the deed of gift.”
Though the first lady’s famous suit was not created by a world-renowned designer, it has certainly become an iconic symbol of this tragic moment in American history.
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