When Jacqueline Kennedy came to the White House in 1960, she brought with her a presence and sensibility that would indelibly effect the way every Americans thought of the First Lady (including the pertinence of that term itself). Jacqueline Kennedy had a proactive agenda that complimented what was by all accounts a compelling personality--a combination that endeared her to a nation in the grip of novelty, youth, and vigor. Jackie's diplomacy, fashion sense, and works within the White House built the lasting legacy of the first lady as a custodian of national concerns and wielder of real influence--not simply a domestic appendage of the President. The sections that follow detail Jackie's influence on American institutions throughout her roughly 1000 day tenure as First Lady.
Bred as an avid socialite, Jackie Kennedy wrote a syndicated column The Campaign Wife while pregnant during the 1960 election and increasingly worked publicly with her concern for the preservation of Washington D.C. and international landmarks. In her family life however, she cherished privacy, especially for her children. In the White House, she asked to be Called Mrs. Kennedy and not the First Lady. She had rhododendrons planted around her daughter Caroline’s play area on the grounds.
Jackie, as she was the wife of the president, was certainly required to uphold specific political obligations of any First Lady. She embarked on international tours through Europe, Central and South America and India and Pakistan in 1961 and 1962, but these tours, however highlighted the propriety and pleasurable company of the “American Queen” instead of serving to further her husband’s political and military exploits. She was the first First Lady to travel to India where during her conversation with its ousted royal family, “Nehru [a royal]…‘scrupulously avoided politics’ with Jackie, and did not lobby her about pressing Territorial disputes in Goa, Kashmir and Pakistan.” She served not as a diplomatic ambassador, but a social symbol of the goodwill and effectiveness of American Life. Jackie was especially lauded in Paris, an admirable feat, for her poise, glamour, style and mastery of many languages.
Clark Clifford, one of JFK’s advisors, sums Jackie’s global impact in a thank you note to her: “Once in a great while, an individual will capture the imagination of people all over the world. You have done this; and what is more important, through your graciousness and tact, you have transformed this rare accomplishment into an incredibly important asset to this nation.”
Educated in Art History at Vassar and at the Sorbonne in France, Jackie Kennedy brought a heightened aesthetic awareness to the White House, as well as a graceful but stylishly modern sense of fashion. The text excerpts below illustrate many changes marked by Jackie’s arrival at the White House. Some of these include Jackie’s elevation of the profile of the First Lady to something almost royal in stature, as well as her redesign of internal White House affairs such as state dinners. Most notable, however, is her influence on fashion of the day (and its influence on her), illustrated in period journalism.
following text excerpts are taken from a website titled
Jacqueline Kennedy: The
White House Years
Selections from the John
F. Kennedy Library and Museum
A passionate advocate of history, Jacqueline Kennedy "liked to know how things began and how they evolved, and her glamorous modernity was based on an intense curiosity about the past," Mr. Schlesinger observed. From the earliest days of the campaign trail, the Inquiring Camera Girl was aware of the Kennedy Administration's place in history, and, finding herself at the other end of the camera's scrutinizing gaze - the cameras loved photogenic, chic, Jackie - she played the media game to the hilt, much as Princess Diana did.
While at the famous dinner at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, June 3, 1961, hosted by the Austrian president, Jackie dazzled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an exquisite shell-pink, Oleg Cassini silk-georgette chiffon evening dress embroidered with sequins. It is clear that Khrushchev was beguiled by her radiant appearance. He declared her dress "beautiful" and when photographers asked him to shake hands with President Kennedy after a day of unresolved negotiations and tensions between the leaders of the two superpowers he replied, "I'd like to shake her hand first."
Jackie understood the power of clothing and image and used it to reflect the internationalism of the Kennedy Administration and the promise of the 1960s. She was good for the Presidency in her own right, prompting her husband to remark wittily at a press luncheon in Paris in June 1961: "I do not think it entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it." For the dinner at the Palace at Versailles hosted by President and Mrs. De Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy presented herself in an exquisitely elegant ivory silk ziberline evening dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy, embroidered by Hurel with silk floss, silk ribbon and seed pearls, shown below.
Jacqueline Kennedy was criticized for her "Francophile" fashion tendencies (Chanel, Givenchy, Christian Dior) by Women's Wear Daily, the fashion newspaper, and pounced on by Pat Nixon who appeared everywhere in American clothes. With unflinching political "savvy" Jackie immediately switched her allegiance to the American designer, Oleg Cassini, for her "official" wardrobe, silencing the fashion mavens who now raved about her Cassini designed outfits in the fashion gossip columns. In her own nationally syndicated "Campaign Wife" column, she remarked: "All this talk over what I wear and how I fix my hair has amused and puzzled me. What does my hairdo have to do with my husband's ability to be President?" What she was also saying was there was more to her than her hairdo.
"Working with her favored American designer Oleg Cassini, and his team, along with other favored sources, her hairdresser, Kenneth Batelle, and Halston, and the millinery department of Bergdorf Goodman, she created an image that blended his informed tastes in fashion with...her new role. ...Her clothes were informed with an understated modern elegance, characterized by cleanliness, solid colors, and ease of movement....In the years following World War II, socially prominent women of real personal style, such as Babe Paley, Gloria Guiness, and C. Z. Guest, had the subtle nuances of their tastes in fashion, decorating, and entertaining scrutinized in elitist magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Town & Country, yet their influence remained limited to their own sequestered worlds. Instead, the potent appeal of movies, television, and popular music guided the way woman wanted to look and behave. Jacqueline Kennedy transformed this dynamic. She succeeded in "redeeming fashion from the puritan ethic of sin," wrote Marilyn Bender of the New York Times (in The Beautiful People, 1967).
…the designer Oleg Cassini, a Kennedy family friend, proposed himself as a candidate to work with the first lady, apparently at the suggestion of his brother Igor, the influential Hearst gossip columnist who had once named Jacqueline Bouvier "debutante of the year." Before the November 8 electon Oleg Cassini wrote to Mrs. Kennedy with the asssurance that '"naturally, the dresses you get here will be specifically made for you, with your counsel and direction and in keeping with your marvelous sense of personal fashion. In reply Jacqueline Kennedy asked Cassini to "get started designing me something, then send me some sketches, and, if I like them, I can give you credit to doing most of my Spring wardrobe....The urbane Cassini, born in Paris to Russian citizens and raised in Florence, became an American citizen in 1942. He had known Joseph P. Kennedy since the war. As Cassini remembers, it was Ambassador Kennedy who encouraged him to leave the Hollywood studio system (where he gained a reputation at Paramount with dramatic costumes for his wife Gene Tierney's starring vehicles in The Razor's Edge and Shanghai Gesture) and to establish his own Seventh Avenue fashion house, which he did in 1950.
For the Inaugural Gala, Cassini designed an evening gown, shown above, in ivory doubled-faced silk satin twill. "This majestic dress, so suggestive of a bride or a debutante, was a masterstroke of image making," the catalogue noted, "establishing Jacqueline Kennedy in the national consciousness as a woman of commanding personal style, with an unerring sense of history and of her place in it....Otherwise stripped of embellishment, the dress has a single telling detail in the cockade that hovers at the waist. It as an element that pointed to Jacqueline Kennedy's pride in her French Bouvier ancestry, her profound love of history, and her particuarly affinity with the eighteenth century. A formalized rosette of fabric, the cockade had its roots in the field of battle, where it was worn as a badge of loyality, different colors indicating particular allegiances. ...An early press sketch from the Cassini studios reveals that the designer had originally considered placing this element high on the chest - a medal of honor, perhaps, or a winner's rosette. During fittings it slipped to the waist, where it focused atention instead on the break of the skirt."
Formal State dinners were re-invented and exuded imagination and style. Convivial round tables seating 8 or 10 replaced the formidable, conversation-stopping "E" shaped tables of the past. The First Lady's choice of fashions, food, flowers and music were carefully orchestrated to protect and reinforce the Kennedy image of vital intelligence, high culture and youthful sophistication. "Her style was not vanity but a way of living, not simply adorning herself but expressing her vision of beauty in the world," wrote Richard Martin, the late Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, maintaining that she inspired millions of Americans to embrace the arts and historic preservation as important parts of national policy.
Perhaps what Jacqueline Kennedy is known best for was her initiative to restore the White House and preserve other historical landmarks during the Kennedy administration. In order to achieve her goal of transforming the White House, Jackie set up a White House Fine Arts Committee to fund and oversee the project. The project consisted of obtaining over $1 million worth of antiques and furniture, refurbishing old rooms and transforming the previously gloomy White House into a museum quality building that accurately reflected the lives of previous presidential families. Upon completion of the project, a tour of the newly refurbished White House hosted by Jackie was televised to over 28 million American homes. In addition to winning an Emmy for the televised tour, Jackie went on to write a book, The White House: An Historic Guide, which sold more than 350,000 copies in its first six months of publication.
Jackie revolutionized the historical preservation movement, which would be expanded on by future first ladies. Lady Bird Johnson, not only continued the White House renovations that Jackie had started, but also started a movement for the preservation and beautification of the environment and other historical sites. Rosalyn Carter started the White House Preservation Fund, which provided an endowment for future White House acquisitions and renovations. Most recently, first lady Laura Bush started a White House initiative called Preserve America, devoted to protecting and restoring U.S. historical and cultural sites. Jackie’s appreciation for the preservation of culture and arts shaped the role of future first ladies and their commitment to preserving the nation’s historical treasures.