AS First Lady of the United States between 1961 and 1963, Jackie Kennedy was instrumental in defining and portraying an emerging American style, writes Jane Mulvagh. Oleg Cassini, her official designer, put her in strict, box-cut, neat suits, typically in boucle wool or flat gabardine, while Halston, her milliner, crowned her with a pillbox hat, characteristically worn on the back of her head, like a sugar- pink tweed halo. It did not interfere with her coiffure and yet she was correctly hatted. Jackie's pillbox was hers and hers alone.
Reflecting her French background, Mrs Kennedy's 'American' look was in fact a pastiche of the very French, band-box smart tailoring of Balenciaga and Chanel. She had originally patronised French fashion houses, but was chastised by her public for such cultural perfidy and was expected to wear the flag. Her answer was to get Cassini to reinterpret the Gallic look and her people assumed it was a home-grown one.
The glamour that this beauty, still in her early thirties, brought to the Camelot presidency cannot be underestimated. It glittered. Mrs Kennedy had a keen interest in, and knowledge of, the workings of aesthetics. Her cosmopolitan upbringing and international education, partly in France, made her familiar with the European world of high fashion. At Vassar she designed costumes for the Dramatic Club and as an 18-year-old she had won the Vogue talent contest with an essay about the three people in history she would most like to have met. Her choice - Diaghilev, Baudelaire and one other - revealed her keen aesthetic tastes.
Mrs Kennedy also stood for pin- neat grooming. For the ordinary woman, unable to afford couture suits, her greatest influence was to get them to aspire to being a well- groomed woman, before it became a dirty word. When she got off a plane, or was seen playing on a beach with her children, she always looked smart, neat and totally in control.
The Jackie look was about, in that up-front American expression, 'class'. She made no mistakes; her designers served her and not vice versa. She understood innately what suited her and it changed very little over her life; and so, like Audrey Hepburn, she remained a sartorial icon. Her look was low-key, tailored, classic and boldly coloured rather than patterned, with the addition of that pillbox, those headscarves and owl's-eye sunglasses. She understood what most women forget; allure depends on mystery, privacy and understatement. .
Unlike her mumsy predecessors, Mrs Franklin D. Roosevelt and Maimie Eisenhower, she embodied youthful elegance. Her reign coincided with the dawning of the mass television era; every night on their screens millions of Americans could admire what they believed was a quintessentially American style. No longer cast as the Old World's poor cousin in high fashion, American fashion got a fillip from Mrs Kennedy that allowed home- grown designers such as Calvin Klein, Halston and Ralph Lauren to flourish.
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