Stephanie Smith: She knew how to create impact with elegance

SNOW had fallen heavily on the eve of John F Kennedy’s inauguration as 35th President of the United States of America, and the day itself, January 20, 1961, dawned bitterly cold.

The men JFK led out for the parade from the White House to the Capitol wore heavy, dark, shapeless coats over their morning suits, as did the President himself. But at his side was his 32-year-old wife, Jacqueline, whose neat, fitted coat in creamy-beige wool stood out in simple relief against this backdrop of president’s men in black and grey. Photographs suggest that, as the sun began to shine, the coat and matching pillbox hat seemed to glow.

From the beginning of her 22-month incumbency as First Lady, Jackie Kennedy knew how to create impact with elegance, dismissing the full skirts, tight waists and solid high hair-dos of the 1950s in favour of sleek shift dresses, neat suits and a less-is-more approach to hair and make-up. In doing so, she inspired her own generation, and those that followed.

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She instinctively knew how to dress for crowds and cameras. It’s said she looked to Britain’s Royal dressmakers for tips, choosing clothes with simple shapes and strong, solid colour, very little pattern. It was a look that made her stand out in a line-up, but did not detract from the trail-blazing figure of her husband, and Michelle Obama appears to have taken careful notes, also favouring defined silhouettes in blocks of colour, selecting brands such as J Crew, which adhere to the American dream-teaming of clean lines and vivid hue in quality fabric.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Jackie Kennedy demonstrated the political value of style. Marrying French elegance with an American breezy insouciance, she was a visual metaphor for the new, sophisticated, youthful presidency – a cultured administration that looked outwards from the lawns of the White House, across to Europe and the wider world. And she was popular with the wider world, well received in France and a hit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who declared he would like to shake the First Lady’s hand before that of the President.

Her Francophile style was instinctive. Born Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in 1929 in Southampton, New York, she had French, Irish, Scottish and English roots. Her early years were spent in New York and East Hampton, until her parents’ divorce in 1940, after which she and sister Lee divided their time between their various homes, including her father’s in New York, off Park Avenue. She went to France for a year aged 20, studying at the Sorbonne, before returning to George Washington University, graduating in 1951 with a degree in French Literature. She worked briefly as a newspaper photographer and was engaged for three months to a stockbroker. Then, in May 1952, she was introduced to John Kennedy at a society dinner party. They married on September 12, 1953, in Newport, Rhode Island.

She had a passion for French designers, Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy. She was impulsive; if she found a cashmere cardigan she liked, she would buy two in every colour. A keen horsewoman, there was a disciplined and sporty edge to her casual dressing, teaming capri pants and fine-knit tops, always elegant and modern. There was criticism of Jackie Kennedy’s style, both then and now. If she looked a million dollars, some say, it was because she spent that on clothes. She was slim, but a heavy smoker – up to three packets a day, stopping only when diagnosed with the cancer that was to kill her.

After her marriage in 1968 to Aristotle Onassis, her style became more jet set – the expensively pared-down, international luxe looks she inspired are still referred to as “very Jackie O”, symbolised by the bug-eyed sunglasses it was said she wore to combat paparazzi flashes. After Onassis’s death in 1975, she spent her last 19 years working as a book editor in New York, and again impressed with her elegant but practical wardrobe. She was diagnosed in January 1994 with non Hodgkin lymphoma and died in May that year, aged 64.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s most famous outfit remains the pink boucle suit she was wearing in Dallas when John F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. An exact copy of a Chanel catwalk design, it was made up and fitted for her at a Park Avenue salon, to avoid criticism she was not buying American, although the fabric, buttons and trim all came from the Parisian couture house. She had worn the suit at least five times, including on a 1962 visit to London.

During the fatal shooting in the motorcade, the suit was stained in her husband’s blood, but she refused to take it off, wearing it as Vice President Lyndon B Johnson was sworn in as President later that day and telling his wife Lady Bird: “I want them to see what they have done.”

Arguably the most important garment in American history, since 1964 the pink suit has been locked away from public view in the National Archives in Maryland. According to the few who have seen it, it still looks new, except for the blood stains.