When Jacqueline Kennedy entered the White House in January 1961, she assumed a role as culturally and politically enduring as any her husband played: She became and remained, the 20th century’s First Lady of Fashion.
The pillbox hat, the black-framed sunglasses, the sleeveless suit-dress, the leopard coat, all are indelible symbols of an era, of Camelot’s vigor, freshness and panache. And not only did Onassis influence the style sense of entire globe, but she inaugurated American “style diplomacy” - fashion as a deft, fur-trimmed political tool.
“The Jackie Look, or what I call the A-line look, created a worldwide impression of such dimension that she became the First Lady of the world,” says Oleg Cassini, Onassis’ official designer during the Kennedy administration. “There wasn’t one lady on the planet who didn’t want to dress like her, comb their hair like her, walk and talk like her. And it was the first time an American designer could influence world trends.”
Cassini notes, the young First Lady entered the White House knowing the fashion would be her personal, diplomatic vehicle. “When she arrived, she didn’t have any clothes,” says Cassini. “But then she showed up in that little beige suit, with the little beige hat, and she looked so youthful and pretty. All the ladies in their fur coats looked like bears.”
On presidential journeys, Onassis wielded fashion like an eloquent treaty. On a 1961 trip to France, she wore American designs - all Cassini’s - until she appeared at a triumphal Versailles ball in a Givenchy gown and diamond hair clips: What better way to honor the French than by honoring their fashion? In Spain, she donned mantillas and bolero hats; at the Vatican to meet the Pope, a long vestment-like gown. Her style diplomacy, Cassini says, was a natural extension of “her finesse about doing the right things at the right times.”
The “Jackie Look” literally swept the world. On Inauguration Day, the pillbox hat that Halston had designed for the First Lady threatened to fly off in the win. She shoved it back on her head, denting it, and from then on, pillbox hats were designed with discreet indentations. As or the famous leopard coat-and-hat set she posed in the cover of Life, it was so often copied, said Halston, that “she put that animal on the endangered species list,” where it remains today.
The Lane Bryant chain marketed “First Lady Fashions,” and strapless evening dresses, Pucci pants, jodhpurs and sunglasses were copied and sold on the mass market. Store mannequins appeared in bouffant hairdos, and even the Leningrad fashion magazine, Mody, published ads for Jackie-like clothes.
For Kathleen Moore, a former Women’s Wear Daily editor who is completing a thesis on Jackie Kennedy’s style, the First Lady’s sartorial sense “was one of the main fashion events of the 20th century.” Moore calls Onassis’ famous sleeveless suit “the first power suit.” “It didn’t hide her figure, but it didn’t cling to it. It was a relaxed suit that flew in the face of pinched ’50s clothes.”
And Onassis’ influence continues to this day. Scarves knotted under chins, striped French sailor jersey and jodhpurs have filled fashion pages in recent seasons, and Lamy, the French eyeglass company responsible for her famous shades, recently reintroduced the original “Jackie” design.
Even our collective memory of JFK’s assassination is embossed with her pink Chanel Suit with navy piping.
And after leaving the White House, when official attire was no longer required, Onassis never lost her flair. Moore cites a recent photograph in WWD of Onassis in a Carolina Herrera dress, flanked by Herrera and another woman in the same confection. “She looked so much better than the others, and you know why? If you look closely, you can see she had changed the buttons, the shoulders, even move the neckline.”
As Oleg Cassini reverently puts it, “she will always be the great lady of fashion.”
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