How Jackie Kennedy used fashion to tell a story

Springtime, particularly around Easter and Passover, often brings out the fashion bugs in many families. Fashion can be a way to tell a story. Perhaps no one has done that better than Jacqueline Kennedy.

When Hollywood costume designer Oleg Cassini became Jacqueline’s primary designer, he learned that creating clothes for the first lady was different from designing costumes for the dozens of movies he had made. She had her own distinct story.

“I was trained to dress the individual,” he told Women’s Wear Daily in 1964. “I learned that the story dictates the fashion. The Kennedy story was an extremely elegant one, and you could not experiment.”

Cassini started Jacqueline’s fashion story by making suggestions for her Inaugural wardrobe. She chose one of his gray-beige suits for the swearing-in ceremony. This understated suit set her apart from the other women and men on stage. Their jeweled-tone suits looked dark on the black-and-white television sets of the 1960s. Jackie’s light beige suit with two oversized buttons made her stand out among the crowd. She “popped” on television.

Jackie’s wardrobe continued to tell her story.

She chose fabrics and colors that were appropriate for the occasion. Her clothes spoke loudly and served as a perfect foil to her whispery voice and private personality.

Jackie talked with her wardrobe, showing she valued herself and others by what she wore.

The first lady’s story took her all over the world.

President Kennedy suspected the Soviets were making under-the-table deals with India, and he needed to send a message that the United States was also interested in India. He sent Jackie on a “cultural tour.”

Her wardrobe spoke what she couldn’t say.

While taking a boat ride on Lake Pichola to the palace in Udaipur, India, Jackie wore an apricot suit with a matching coat. The material was silk zibeline, a sturdy but shiny fabric that could withstand the heat while reflecting the sun. The color and texture of her dress made her instantly identifiable to the Indian onlookers that crowded the distant shore.

No one missed the point: an important American had come to visit them.

Jackie took America’s story to the border. When she greeted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada, she flattered them by wearing a red wool twill suit by Pierre Cardin. Her ensemble created a picture perfect moment because it matched the mounted police, famous for their vibrant red uniforms and gold buttons. The images showed up well in color photographs, and the editors of Life chose to showcase the event on the magazine’s cover.

Through her wardrobe, Jackie Kennedy made her presence, and America’s interest known. People everywhere got the message: America cares about its relationship with your country.

Now that’s a story worth telling.

This commentary is excerpted from "The Faith of America’s First Ladies," by Jane Hampton Cook, author of What Does the President Look Like? and several other books. She is currently writing “What Does the First Lady Wear?” for girls with co-author Jacqueline Nims Phelan. For more, visit her website: