Jacqueline Kennedy: the giddy heights of first lady’s fashion

Jacqueline Kennedy by Jacques Lowe (1960)
Jacqueline Kennedy, 1960
Image: Jacques Lowe

Over the course of her life Jacqueline Kennedy was known for many things. She was a journalist in New York, wife of the 35st president of the United States, the brains behind the iconic restoration of the White House, socialite and twice a widow.

But one thing remained unchanged: her original sense of style, which was representative of the times and combined French elegance with American comfort.

Jaqueline Kennedy (Bouvier) for Vogue magazine (1948)
Jaqueline Kennedy (Bouvier) for Vogue magazine, 1948

Jacqueline pre-Kennedy

While Jacqueline Bouvier’s family could not boast of any aristocratic origins, her education and upbringing made her a refined companion for anyone of noble descent. Jackie was an excellent horse rider, spoke several languages and was a fan of music and the arts. She inherited her maiden name from her French grandfather together with his love of everything French.

When it came to choosing her higher education, it did not take young Jackie long to settle on the French literature department at the Sorbonne University. In Paris she grew fond of European culture and style and made the first steps in her future career as a journalist. Aged only 21, Bouvier wins an essay competition and gets an opportunity to work as a junior editor in the Parisian and US Vogue offices.

But Jackie’s internship did not last a day. The all-female team that was working on this glossy had one key thing missing. It was of no use to Jackie in terms of fulfilling her other goal in life: finding a worthy husband. So, her next career stop is the daily paper Washington Times Herald, which Jacqueline reported for on such events as Queen Elisabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

Jaqueline and John F. Kennedy after wedding ceremony (1953)
Jaqueline and John F. Kennedy after wedding ceremony, 1953

First Lady

The fateful meeting and subsequent wedding of John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier was facilitated by the father of the future president. He was well aware that a family-oriented partner would be the best candidate for this important role, so the charming and well-educated Jackie fit the bill perfectly. The wedding took place in September 1953.

The bride’s gown was created by the well-known New York tailor Ann Lowe. Her ivory-coloured dress had a classic puffy cut with a low neckline, which revealed the shoulders, and a ruffled hem. The look was finished off with a pair of white gloves and a pearl necklace, which soon became part of Jacqueline’s signature style.

Jackie’s image became symbolic of the wedding fashion of the 50s, despite her own mixed feelings about it. She thought it “made her look like a lampshade” and admitted that she would have gone for a more minimalist dress. But it was no easy task arguing with her mother and future husband’s political advisors, who all insisted on a more pompous look.

During her husband’s election campaign, Jackie was always by his side. She used her language skills to encourage voters in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish and led her own newspaper column Campaign Wife. On becoming first lady, Jacqueline undertook a major restoration of the White House and later led a tour of it on US television.

Jacqueline Kennedy (1960)
Jacqueline Kennedy, 1960

Jacqueline Kennedy’s style

Jackie’s fashion choices were of particular interest to the public. She was well-versed in highlighting her good sides and disguising what she thought were her flaws. She was best-known for her A-line shift dresses, which bared her arms and took the attention off her wide shoulders. She typically went for skirts just below the knee to cover her legs, which she was so self-conscious about. She always opted for a comfortable pair of shoes on a low heel, adored pearls and always turned up in her white gloves.

Jacqueline Kennedy hairstyle

1/ Hairstyle

Perhaps the most signature part of Jacqueline’s look was her hairstyle. The creator of this iconic bob was the New York hairdresser Kenneth Battelle. He met Jackie in 1954. Kenneth was a talented newcomer to his industry and she was a senator’s young wife. Although it was not something that Mrs Kennedy cared to mention when they first met, so Kenneth did not hold back on criticising his new client’s hair.

According to him her hair was too short and wavy for someone with such a big head and pronounced cheekbones and suggested more volume using hot rollers. And this was how the famous hairstyle came about and how Kenneth became the first lady’s personal stylist.

Jacqueline Kennedy style: pillbox hats

2/ Pillbox hats

Jackie Kennedy’s style us firmly associated with pillbox hats, which were a part of her everyday look. Jacqueline was generally not a fan of hats but wearing one was a requirement for a first lady. Wide brim hats were hard to pair with her voluminous hairstyle which is why a petite pillbox hat placed on the back of her head was the only solution.

All of Jackie’s hats were made by Roy Halston. There was a rumour that his head was the same size as that of his famous client, which meant that he could easily create new models without even having Jackie to try them on.

Jacqueline Kennedy style: "Style secretary"

3/ "Style secretary"

Living in Paris made Jackie get a taste for European fashion. She adored Chanel, Balenciaga and Givenchy but could not afford to wear their creations too often. As the first lady her role was to support and popularise local American talent. It was not long until John Kennedy introduced his wife to Oleg Cassini, a designer of Russian-Italian descent known as a long-term costume designer for Hollywood stars.

Cassini and Jackie were immediately on the same wavelength. He became her personal couturier, the so-called “style secretary” and the creator of her iconic looks as the president’s wife. Over the course of many years, Oleg created around 300 dresses for Jackie: from two-piece suits with large buttons for daytime occasions to gala gowns with bare shoulders designed for evening events.

Jacqueline Kennedy style: monochrome

4/ Monochrome

The one prominent feature of Jackie’s style was the use of a single colour. More often than not, her dress or suit, consisting of a jacket and a skirt, were in the same pastel colour, which matched her hair piece and shoes. Dressed in her red suit made of bouclé fabric, she introduced the new interior of the presidential residence.

During her first visit to Paris as first lady she made a public appearance in a light-yellow outfit. Sky-blue combinations had a special place in her wardrobe and are imitated by first ladies of other countries to this day.

Jacqueline Kennedy style: not by Chanel

5/ Not by Chanel

One of Jacqueline’s favourite outfits, which she wore as first lady when accompanying her husband to Texas in 1963, became famous for the wrong reasons. John is reported to have told Jacqueline beforehand that the lunch will be packed full of “rich Republican women” who would be “wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets […] be simple – show these Texans up”. They ended up settling on a pink bouclé fabric suit with navy blue lapels and golden buttons. The look was completed with a pink pillbox hat and blue low-heeled shoes.

It was this very outfit that was soon to be stained with blood: JFK was shot dead during this very trip as the presidential couple made their way around in an open top convertible. In shock, Jacqueline refused to change out of this dress until her return to Washington: “I want them to see what they have done.”

Many people assume that Jackie’s costume was made by Chanel but that is not the case. It was not often that Jacqueline was allowed to wear clothes by European designers, especially during work trips. Some of her outfits were therefore designed in a New York atelier Chez Ninon. Its owners Nona and Sophie purchased many samples in Paris and reproduced them in New York. It was also the case for this famous pink outfit, which had elements and fittings from a Parisian Chanel boutique.

Jackie O style

Jackie O

Following her husband’s untimely death and her departure from the White House, Jackie spent a year mourning and made very few public appearances. She believed in the Kennedy curse and was concerned for the lives of her children. She could not wait to leave the country and feel safe again, which led her to marrying the Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. The American public saw it as a betrayal and nicknamed her Jackie O. She never found the peace she was after. Becoming a widow for the second time, Kennedy-Onassis returned to New York and decided to continue her career where she left off as an editor.

Her style underwent substantial changes. No longer subject to the rigid protocols and rules of presidential fashion, she starts to dress more freely. The much-hated hats were the first to go, as did the white gloves, which had become simply outdated. Her skirts became shorter and looser. Pastel colours were pushed out by brighter prints with floral and oriental patterns. She even started wearing flared trousers and spacious bags.

She became particularly fond of this trapeze shaped model by Gucci, which she often wore over her shoulder. The bag became later known as the Jackie Bag. Scarves and oversized sunglasses became an inseparable part of her new style. Both helped her stay anonymous.

“Just make sure no one has exactly the same dress I do ... I want all of mine to be original,” she would say to Oleg Cassini. While Jacqueline’s style evolved along with the drastic changes in her life, her uniqueness was always there.

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