In November 1960, Jackie Kennedy created the Jackie Look from her hospital bed, with a little help from friends and a lot of help from Oleg Cassini.
She was weak and bedridden, having just given birth to her son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., by Caesarian section. She didn’t have many clothes, and she needed a new wardrobe for the White House in just a few weeks.
Harper’s Bazaar fashion columnist Diana Vreeland helped out by sending over sketches from a variety of American designers – and they had to be American, of course. So when Oleg Cassini answered an urgent call from the president-elect to visit the First Lady-To-Be in the hospital, he found her in bed surrounded by those sketches.
Cassini was a naturalized Russian aristocrat and international playboy. He and his brother Igor, who wrote a society column, had a long friendship with the Kennedy clan. Oleg played golf with the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, and he had gotten friendly with Jackie during the early years of her marriage. He played a key role in creating the fresh, youthful Jackie Look that followed the frumpy wardrobes of the elderly Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman. The designer even taught her how to dance The Twist.
The Jackie Look
“She only had a few dresses,” reflected Cassini. “She knew that to have a decent wardrobe when she entered the White House, she had to think of it. And thus the new Jackie was an image in a way created by her and me.” Joseph Kennedy, the old movie producer, understood the power of image and told Cassini to spend whatever he needed.
Jackie also relied on Marita O’Connor at Bergdorf-Goodman as her personal shopper. Before entering the hospital, she decided to buy nearly all of her clothes and accessories at the Fifth Avenue department store. Letters to O’Connor show Jackie Kennedy knew what she needed to create the Jackie Look.
She liked spare, simple dresses that Audrey Hepburn wore so well. She aimed for a look that mixed sportiness with sophistication, informality with elegance. And she hated wearing hats but knew she couldn’t avoid them. In a letter to O’Connor, she wrote,
Oh dear it was so pleasant when I didn’t have to wear hats! They will pauperize me + I still feel absurd in them.
Bergdorf’s head milliner, Roy Halston Frowick, worked overtime to make sure her pillbox hats looked right. Later known as Halston, he described how her wardrobe malfunction created a new style. The wind gusted during her husband’s inauguration, and she put her hand on her hat, denting it. So designers who copied her pillbox hat put a dent in it.
More than anything, she wanted to be unique. “I want all mine to be original & no fat little women hopping around in the same dress,” she wrote in a waspish letter to Cassini. Jackie deliberately wore a fawn wool suit at the inauguration to look different from dignitaries’ wives in fur coat.
But she didn’t get her wish to look different. Millions of American women emulated her style, the simple lines of her dresses, her pillbox hats, her bright colors and her bouffant hairstyle.
Jackie was no dope, and she knew she’d have to take care about her image. She urged discretion on Cassini in a letter written on Dec. 13, 1960: “I refuse to have Jack’s administration plagued by fashion stories of a sensational nature & to be the Marie Antoinette of the 1960s.” Earlier that year, the New York Times had reported she spent $30,000 a year on clothing. She put an end to the story by responding, “I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.”
Actually, she could. She spent about $40,000 a year during her time in the White House. Biographers note she never wore the same outfit twice.
By the eve of the presidential inauguration, her new wardrobe was ready. It was a smash.
Film costume designer Edith Head called ‘The Jackie Look’ “the single biggest fashion influence in history.”
She kicked off The Jackie Look with a stunning white satin Cassini gown at the pre-inaugural concert and gala. Frank Sinatra and presidential brother-in-law Peter Lawford orchestrated the event. A blizzard had struck Washington, D.C., and biographer Randy Taraborelli described the snowstorm as “a magical backdrop for a modern-day snow queen.”
The president-elect’s limousine slowed to 10 mph as it crept through the streets of Washington from the concert to the gala. Hundreds lined the streets to see the glamorous couple. President-elect Kennedy said, “turn on the lights so they can see Jackie.”
This story about the Jackie Look was updated in 2022. All images courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.