Costumes from Camelot

Jacqueline Kennedy's true style lay in the ways she allied her femininity with her tremendous strength
Associated Press

In America we have a tradition of sending curious and entertaining phenomena—Tutankhamen's treasures, the Ice Capades—on national tours, so that everyone can get a look-see. Currently making the rounds are Jackie Kennedy's clothes. That the tour's venues include some of our nation's most highly regarded art museums (its Washington port of call is not the Smithsonian, which houses a collection of First Ladies' inaugural gowns, but rather the Corcoran Gallery of Art) seems to have created a measure of anxiety in certain of its organizers, who have produced a catalogue full of serious essays intended, one can't help suspecting, to lend substance to the proceedings.

Philippe de Montebello, the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, kicks things off, and he's all business. The collaboration between his institution and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (which owns the clothes) has resulted in "a fruitful sharing of methodologies and interpretations." Caroline Kennedy contributes a characteristically gracious letter, one that perfectly embodies her mother's dictum of giving the press "minimum information ... with maximum politeness," and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reports for duty uncomplainingly, firing up his computer and punching out several thousand words on "Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House." Next up ought to be Letitia Baldrige, but she is curiously absent, perhaps because she recently pawed the same ground in In the Kennedy Style. In her stead we get a not unappealing understudy, Rachel Lambert Mellon, the former First Lady's friend (she redesigned the White House Rose Garden for the Kennedys), who sweetly stamps her foot over the many "made-up, untrue fantasies" that have tarnished her patron's legend. The final hurdle is "Defining Style," by Hamish Bowles (he seems to think that Jackie's greatest adversary was perhaps not Lee Harvey Oswald but rather Mamie Eisenhower, who spent her tenure as First Lady stinking up the White House with her tiki sofas and potted succulents and "department-store furnishings"), and then—at last!—we're on to the clothes. They're disappointing.

Displayed on limbless mannequins, photographed against a gray background under clinical lighting, they have an embalmed quality. Although the word most commonly associated with Jackie Kennedy's sense of style is "timeless," the clothes seem anything but; they suggest several decades' hibernation in the cedar chest of a fashionable granny. A few pieces transcend their unforgiving presentation. A black Chanel suit (lined, in the customary manner, with the same fabric used for its blouse, in this case dot-embroidered ivory silk satin) captured my immediate attention—but not because of the lesson Montebello hopes it might impart on "an aesthetic response to the highly public and ceremonial role of first lady." Rather, because it's smashing, something I'd like to have in my closet for a fancy lunch out. The evening gowns look best, particularly those by Oleg Cassini: long, sleeveless columns of uninterrupted color. But many of the clothes look fusty, even—how can this be?—dowdy. There's a Givenchy dress and overblouse in gray wool jersey that, the catalogue informs us, achieves an "effect of absolute simplicity." Truer words were never written; it looks like something a nun or a prison matron might wear. The tidy suits and coats, constructed of nubby wool, look nice but unremarkable, more like the typical stewardess uniforms of the day than like couture. The hats, floating jauntily in midair like the Invisible Man's telltale fedora, look ridiculous.

Ultimately, the effect of the collection is dispiriting. For all that we have been instructed to regard this exhibit as an opportunity to view "the originality and workmanship of some of the best designers of the day," what we hope these clothes will do is perform a powerful act of evocation, and the person we want them to evoke is not Cassini or Chanel but, of course, Jackie herself. Her clothes manage to suggest less than nothing about her.

No matter, because each of the bloodless specimen photographs is accompanied by pictures of Jackie actually wearing the clothes, and—my God—she looks sensational. Every piece is transformed. The Oleg Cassini suits, whose dimensions (enormous buttons, huge pockets) make them look slightly childish on the mannequins, assume the most sophisticated proportions when set in the context of vast tarmacs and high-ceilinged staterooms. (Cassini was once a Hollywood costume designer, and he brought to his couture a cinematic sensibility that was perfectly in sync with the Kennedy master plan, in which photographs of the beautifully dressed family at work and play had been regularly offered to the public since the days of Joe Jr.'s infancy.) In a photograph of Inauguration Day, Lady Bird Johnson's hat, with its net veil, looks positively geriatric next to Jackie's cream-colored semi-crown. (Clutching her mink, grizzled and glowering, poor Lady Bird looks like a troll beside her pretty young companion—but, of course, her highway beautification campaign would eventually do more to improve the aesthetic dimensions of American lives than all of Jackie's Chippendale highboys and "tastefully designed vitrines" and glittering nights at the White House put together.) Even the prison matron's dress, perfectly accessorized with a large brooch and Richard Nixon, is a knockout.

I will confess that when it comes to looking at pictures of the Kennedys, I fall into a kind of stupor, and everything I know about the bad marriage and the political misdeeds (of the Cuban missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens is said to have remarked that like many people, he would never forget where he was and what he was doing when President Kennedy tried to kill him) flies out of my head, the way the times table used to the moment the test paper was set down on my desk. There's a full-page photograph in the catalogue of the couple and their daughter in pre-White House days. It's early morning; mother and child are dressed for a photo op, father is dressed for the Senate, and they're all standing at the open door of the Georgetown house. The light in the street is intense, the foyer shadowed and inviting. The editors of the catalogue want my attention focused on Jackie's asparagus jersey suit, but my attention is not focused on Jackie's asparagus jersey suit; it's riveted on the way the baby is reaching for her father and her parents' shadows are falling on the gleaming floor. I've read chapter and verse about the President and his women, but show me a picture of Jack and Jackie in a convertible, dressed to the nines, her hair blowing loose in the wind and her husband reaching across to lift a strand of it behind her ear, and I'm sunk. It is impossible for me to look at these pictures and not impose on them the exact sort of narrative that inspired the family to make themselves so available to photographers in the first place.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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