Jackie's Camelot Couture

Jackie Kennedy fashion exhibit
A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is proving that Jacqueline Kennedy, the woman who dazzled the world with her style and grace 40 years ago, is still a star.

"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 husband’s 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 it’s essentially extreme simplicity. You know, she’s taken a lot of Parisian influences, but really simplified them in a breezy American way."

Entrance to the Met exhibit

But Bowles also feels that it is not really about the clothes at all, but the part clothing played in the new young White House.

"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.

Hamish Bowles

"It’s a thoughtful process, you know," he explains. "She really thought about what’s going to work, what’s going to make a photo opportunity. What’s going to be a compliment to her host, you know, flattering to the people she’s visiting."

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 Jackie’s memos, reading her letters and everything, I don’t think much was left to chance."

The world’s love affair with the first lady wasn’t 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."

Oleg Cassini

To avoid using foreign designers, Jacqueline Kennedy turned to Hollywood and Oleg Cassini, an American by way of Russia and Rome.

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, Cassini’s 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. That’s 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 don’t like any woman to tell me what to do. I’m 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. "She’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t a respectful way to go to church, and it was a little too free-thinking and beatnik."

What isn’t 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 isn’t 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 aren’t 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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