Fashion in the White House

November 8, 2008 • Magazine

Fashion in the White House

Fashion in the White House

Sat, 2008-11-08 12:00

Bonnie J Brown

Let’s just for a second play six degrees of separation with soon to be First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. It’s easy enough and, as you may be able to guess, it will lead to a much loved topic of mine, fashion.

Degree 1: Michelle Obama wore a stunning red and black Narciso Rodriguez dress during last Tuesday night’s election rally.

Degree 2: Narciso Rodriguez designed Caroline Bessette-Kennedy‘s wedding dress in 1996.

Degree 3: Caroline Bessette-Kennedy was married to John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Degree 4: John F. Kennedy, Jr. is the son of former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy.

So I fibbed a bit, it was four degrees not six, but who’s counting when you have two first ladies who are connected through fashion? While it is entirely too early and completely debatable whether or not Michelle Obama is in the running to be a future fashion icon or not, it is not to soon to look at Jackie Kennedy and see how her clothing choices brought fashion into the White House.

It may be hard to imagine, but fashion today is not what it was in 1960’s America. American women, while concerned with how they looked, had many more concerns then which designer labels to wear and which not. One reason for this was most fashion houses and designers were still in Europe and hardly any here in the U.S., putting designer fashion far from one’s mind. Jackie Kennedy was very influenced by French culture. Not only did she receive her bachleors degree in French Literature, her favorite designers were French, which is all well and good, but not when it’s 1961 and you’re the First Lady of the United States; that is, in fact, a big no-no. So as to not create a great big ruckus for herself or the president, Jackie gave up her much beloved Hubert de Givenchy gowns (for most of the time, at least) and hired French-American designer, Oleg Cassini to create her wardrobe as first lady.

With the hiring of Cassini as her designer of choice, it is not hard to see how Jackie became the celebrity that she did, for Cassini, before striking out as a ready-to-wear designer, actually worked in Hollywood under costume designer Edith Head and later as lead costume designer at Paramount Pictures. During the time Cassini designed for Jackie he was also designing for his actress wife, Gene Tierney, and the roles she played in her movies. It is noted that Cassini designed more than 300 outfits for Jackie, among them was the satin gown she wore for the inaugural ball in 1961. (As an aside and a fun fact, Jackie Kennedy’s clothing bill in 1961 was more than the salary John F. Kennedy made as President that year. Her clothing was paid for courtesy of JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.)

To say that Cassini designed the First Lady’s wardrobe is said only in the loosest of forms, for while he did design the clothing, her simple A-line skirts and oft-times boxy dresses made of heavy silks and satins were designs originally made popular by Hubert de Givenchy. At the time there was a saying that Jackie Kennedy wore Givenchy dresses with a Cassini label sewn in on the inside. But this fact didn’t stop women across the U.S. to fall in love with the look and scramble to find similar dresses and pair them with Jackie’s famous pillbox hat. So, it is true that these fashions made Jackie Kennedy a fashion icon, but it’s also true that they made Cassini popular as well and he went on to link his name with just about everything imaginable, including car interiors, perfumes and even creating a line of wedding dresses with David’s Bridal in the early 1990’s.

I’ve read that Michelle Obama is great at mixing high and low fashion; finding off-the-rack J.Crew items and wearing them with designer pieces and looking fabulous. This trend very well could have been started by Jackie Kennedy, for although she is photographed mostly in evening gowns and day dresses, she was most comfortable (aren’t we all) in a casual sweater and cotton slacks. When it was normal for women to dress with excess, Jackie would more often then not dress simply. The fact that she was still able to look elegant and pulled together in even her most relaxing garments is what truly made Jackie Kennedy a fashion icon. For she was able to show women that looking good does not necessarily come from wearing the most expensive garments, but wearing what makes you comfortable and wearing the right thing for the occasion. And women are still trying to do this today.

1. Oleg Cassini Apricot Silk Ziberline Dress worn by Jacqueline Kennedy during a daytime boat ride on Lake Pichola, Udaipur, India, March 17, 1962.
2. Jacqueline Kennedy in the Oleg Cassini Apricot Dress
3. Oleg Cassini Ivory Double-faced Silk Satin twill by Abraham worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to the Inaugural Gala, National Guard Armory, Washington, D.C., January 19, 1961
4. Oleg Cassini Azure Blue Silk Crepe Giselle by Asher worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to a Foreign Ministry reception, Mexico City, June 29, 1962
5. Jackie Kennedy in a Sweater and Cotton Slacks
6. Oleg Cassini Shell Pink Silk-georgette Chiffon Embroidered with Sequins worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to dinner at the Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, where she met Soviet premier Khrushchev, June 3, 1961
7. Michelle Obama in a Narciso Rodriguez Spring 2009 Dress

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