"When in history has there been a first lady so beautifully dressed and so wonderful to look at and so young?" enthuses Letitia Baldridge. "I mean, everything was there to make her the real star of this century."
Jacqueline Kennedy is certainly the star of the Met exhibit, which includes a collection of 80 of the outfits she wore, beginning in 1960 with her husbands campaign for president and continuing throughout the years she lived in the White House. These include the jacket and the pillbox hat she wore when her husband was sworn in, and the Inaugural Ball gown that was her favorite.
Hamish Bowles took time off from his job as European editor at Vogue Magazine to help put the exhibit together.
What was the Jackie Look?
Says he, "I think its essentially extreme simplicity. You know, shes taken a lot of Parisian influences, but really simplified them in a breezy American way."
|Entrance to the Met exhibit|
"Really, every piece we have here has some kind of story to it, which makes it doubly sort of exciting," Bowles says.
For instance, on display is a simple red two-piece suit, worn by the first lady in May 1961 during a state visit to Canada.
"She decided to wear it in Ottawa to visit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," Bowles recounts, "and, of course, it was an incredible photo opportunity, because there she is in this fabulous red suit, and all the Mounties are in their red uniforms."
Not even the president himself was prepared for the reaction.
"He took Jackie along with him, and she was such a extraordinary success that I think he was kind of blown away by it," Bowles explains.
With her fashion sense, Jackie (who spoke fluent French) made an even stronger impression in Paris. Baldridge, her social secretary, remembers it well: "Oh, she knew what she was doing She would dress the part. She would know how to go up to them in a low voice. Every head of state was flattered. She was a tremendous flirt."
It was on that trip that Jacqueline Kennedy fully recognized the power she had and, from then on, says Bowles, she used clothing the way an actress uses costumes and props.
Most notable was her trip to Vienna that same year, when the president was meeting with a difficult Nikita Krushchev.
Recalls Baldridge, "Jackie decided, 'I might as well sparkle plenty.' And she did. She had a glittering dress, and Premier Khrushchev could not take his eyes off her."
In some parts of the exhibit, Bowles indicates that Jackie Kennedy's clothing actually would defuse tense situations. Did she really think about that?
"I think she thought very carefully about everything," Bowles replies. "Really, having spent a year reading Jackies memos, reading her letters and everything, I dont think much was left to chance."
The worlds love affair with the first lady wasnt always as harmonious. Early on in the administration, according to former Time Magazine correspondent Hugh Sidey, Jackie Kennedy was portrayed as perhaps a woman who loved fashion a bit too much.
Recalls Sidey, "There was still a lot of poverty It came out then that she spent more than $15,000 a month on clothes. They had to hold her down This was time when the average American worker made less than $5,000 a year There was some simmering resentment. But her smashing good looks and grace and manner, I think, sort of overcame that."
Recalls Cassini, "And she said, 'Would you like to do something with me?' And I said, 'Frankly, no.'"
He turned her down?
"Yeah. I turned her down," the designer confirms.
As it turns out, Cassini was only playing hard to get.
"I still believe that this was like playing poker," he explains. "This was a moment in history for me where, again, a psychological situation where by saying no, I was really saying yes."
Cassini went on to design more than 300 outfits for Jackie Kennedy, many of which are on display at the Met.
Always a gentlemen, Cassinis apearance at a gala preview of the exhibit masked what he really thinks about it -- which is not much.
"This should be a Cassini exhibit. Thats what it should be," he says. "If Jackie had been alive, this would have been only Cassini."
Cassini also says the exhibit unfairly implies he copied from better known French designers. But even more upsetting to Cassini is Bowles assertion that the designer mainly followed the dictates of a determined first lady.
Says Bowles, "I think really Jackie created Jackie."
But Cassini counters, "I dont like any woman to tell me what to do. Im not allowing anybody to tell me what to do. I will reconsider if you beg me."
But even the first lady?
"Even the first lady," says the designer. "Shes just a woman."
When confronted with that statement, Bowles simply says, "I drew my own conclusions from my research."
Whoever ultimately created the Jackie Look, even Bowles will admit it wasnt always a hit. The first lady came under fire for wearing a sundress (designed by Herbert Sondheim, Stephen's dad) with no stockings, flat sandals, and a headscarf to a Good Friday Mass in Palm Beach.
"Everyone thought," says Bowles, "it wasnt a respectful way to go to church, and it was a little too free-thinking and beatnik."
What isnt in the collection is the outfit that perhaps most Americans remember best: the pink suit that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to Dallas.
But, then, this exhibit isnt about reality. It is about the image the First Lady carefully cultivated, an image of perfect elegance and timelessness that still surrounds and protects her to this day.
Says Baldridge, "To somebody who cares about real class and beauty as seen through the centuries, Jacqueline Kennedy certainly epitomized it. And there arent many women who do."
For more information about the exhibit, visit the the Web site for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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