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The Apricot Coat Formula

A new exhibit shows how First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used style and fashion to create an image and power all her own.

April 23, 2001|ANNE BRATSKEIR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — During an official trip to India in 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore an Oleg Cassini dress and coat of apricot silk for a daytime boat ride on Lake Pichola. "This ensemble brilliantly served Mrs. Kennedy's needs: The fabric was rigid enough to keep its composure in the heat of India, and its dazzling color and sheen were calculated to ensure that she would be instantly identifiable to the crowds on the distant shore," writes Hamish Bowles in the catalog for the new, highly anticipated "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years" exhibition, which he curated.

With great clarity, the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute here reveals that, even at 31, when she became first lady, she was a masterful manipulator of her own image. "Jackie knew how, in the most subtle way, to use style and fashion to represent her husband's administration on the world stage. And she knew how potent clothing can be," says the 37-year-old guest curator during an interview. He is on leave from his position as European editor-at-large for American Vogue.

She didn't work alone. She assembled a first-rate cadre of experts from all fronts--fashion designers, decorators, historians, horticulturists, chefs--to create the image and the reality of the Kennedy White House. "She had an ability to collaborate with the best possible people, but she never relinquished control over the situation," says Bowles, whose lifelong fascination with fashion history--he owns roomfuls of 20th century couture--equipped him to piece together the puzzle that was Jackie.

Two generations after the Kennedy White House, there is some disagreement about who actually originated Jackie's style. Oleg Cassini, 88, who still maintains an office in New York, produced more than 300 outfits during the thousand days of the Kennedy administration and has been credited by some as the creator of the "Jackie look." The designer strongly disagrees with Bowles' contention that Jackie played a major role in designing her own clothes.

But Bowles, in the exhibit's 208-page catalog, consistently illustrates how the first lady used French couture and her own sense of style to model her individualistic wardrobe. Bowles says, "The biggest revelation for me was the level of control Jackie had . . . She was very hands-on and specific and fastidious about the details."

Her former social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, 75, who lives in Washington, D.C., says it most concisely. "She knew how things should look." The exhibition, which previews to the press today with a rare public appearance by her daughter, Carolyn Kennedy Schlossberg, supports this.

The Collection Fills 10 Rooms

The 80-piece collection, borrowed from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, includes such items as Jackie's detailed personal notes and hand-painted dressing-room doors. The 10 rooms that the collection fills take the visitor through the 1960 presidential campaign, the Kennedy inauguration, the White House days and the first lady's travels. Bowles recalls that when he opened the first box of Kennedy's clothes, he was dazzled by her brilliant colors.

To heighten the effect of her use of color, he uses his own bold strokes throughout the exhibit. One wall is electric blue, another the color of paprika and still another is ruby. "So much received information was in black-and-white images, news images and photographs," says Bowles. "There wasn't a sense of how carefully she thought about using color as a statement. I wanted to capture that Dorothy-ending-up-in-Oz feeling. She was absolutely thinking about being a pin dot of color wherever she went." The apricot outfit she wore on the Indian trip served that purpose.

At a White House dinner honoring President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman, Jackie shunned color--choosing an almost severe Cassini gown in ivory duchesse silk--to create a contrast between the old guard and modernity. The effect in a 1961 photo is startling and, says Bowles, was carefully calculated. "She was very much the physical embodiment of what her husband's presidency was about--internationalism and a celebration of art and literature and culture."

Her affect and its effect were profound. "Jackie's style was upper-class East Coast style," says Valerie Steele, acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Back in 1960, most Americans had 'Mamie Eisenhower style,' and they weren't aware of what upper-class people were wearing. She [Kennedy] was the popularizer of the European, minimalist look, and it hit us like a thunderbolt."

Bowles, too, recognizes the impact. "Her phenomenon was the extent and breadth of influence she had on contemporary girls," he says. "I can only compare it to someone like Britney Spears today, but girls then were wearing abstractions of Paris couture."

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