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Dressing for Camelot

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Son of Russian and Italian parents, Paris-born fashion designer Oleg Cassini was already acclaimed for his international flair and eclectic taste when he got a call from Jacqueline Kennedy’s secretary in December 1960. It was only 10 days after the birth of her son John Jr., and the wife of the President-elect was inviting Cassini to her bedside at Georgetown University Hospital. “Mrs. Kennedy would like to see some of your ideas for spring,” he was told. Soon Cassini found himself creating most of Jackie’s Inaugural wardrobe as well as many of the outfits she wore as First Lady.

Now Cassini, 74, has written his autobiography, In My Own Fashion, in which he describes his ascendance in the world of couture. Befitting that lofty role, the urbane and handsome designer became the favorite of celebrities everywhere. He married actress Gene Tierney in 1941 and after his divorce 11 years later courted Grace Kelly, to whom he was unofficially engaged before she decided to marry Prince Rainier.

Cassini’s relationship with Jackie Kennedy was that of virtually full-time designer. In this excerpt from his book, Cassini gives an extraordinarily candid and intimate glimpse of the Kennedy family and particularly of the demanding, sometimes haughty young woman who was determined to leave her mark on fashion, the White House and America. I had first met Jacqueline Bouvier at the New York nightclub El Morocco several weeks before she married Senator Kennedy on Sept. 12, 1953. I was very curious about this girl. Obviously she was somebody—a real presence in the room. She was quite attractive and charming, well-schooled, the classic debutante, but something more too. All eyes seemed to gravitate toward her; she had real star quality, even then.

Jackie had a great wit combined with an intellectual intensity. She would listen carefully to what you were saying; I always felt the need to be at my cleverest in her presence. She demanded excellence from her friends and acquaintances; in return she had the ability—well before she arrived at the White House—to make everyone around her feel part of a small, privileged circle. This quiet, private force of personality was quite in contrast with the rather shy public presence, the tiny, whispery public voice. But then, Jackie was famous for her elusiveness, her shifting moods. She might be very warm one day, and freeze you out the next; she did this to everyone, even her closest friends. She could charm the birds out of the trees at times; and then there were almost hermetic periods when she refused to leave her room, reading, corresponding. She perplexed the Kennedys; she seemed quite a challenge to me. You never really knew where you stood with Jackie.

We went dancing a couple of times in Palm Beach after she was married. Palm Beach seemed an American Riviera in those days; all the social people were there. The Kennedy house had a comfortable, informal feeling—the furnishings were of a sort that could survive the marauding swarms of children who wrought havoc there.

I remember sitting on the porch with Joe Kennedy one evening when he turned philosophical. “Look, Oleg,” he said abruptly, “I know you don’t have any ideas about Jackie. But suppose you did? The matter would become reality versus perception. The worst thing would be to have the perception but not the reality—that would be silly, a real donkey’s game. You understand?”

In any event, designing for Jackie posed an invigorating challenge. Her taste was so demanding, I was certain she would not settle for a wardrobe that was anything less than my very best work.

On Dec. 7 I arrived at the Georgetown Hospital armed with a portfolio of sketches. Immediately I was surprised and disappointed when I entered her room. There were sketches all around her by the very best American designers. I wasn’t daunted by the quality of their work; indeed, it seemed to me they hadn’t put enough thought into it. The sketches were the best of their collections—very pretty dresses. But I was proposing something much more elaborate—an entire new look, my interpretation of how Jacqueline Kennedy might want to play the role of First Lady. None of my designs were from my collection; I had invented them specifically for her. I was confident she would understand my intention, but I was concerned that she would use all of these designers. Jackie was at her most charming that day and greeted me as an old friend, not a potential employee auditioning to do her bidding.

I opened the big portfolio. The first sketch was of a long, simple, white satin full-length evening dress that I thought would be right for the Inaugural Ball. I watched her carefully for a reaction, and it was immediate, visceral.

“Absolutely right!” she said.

I described the dress in more detail: The most emphatic thing about it would be the fabric, an opulent Swiss double satin; the lines were unusually modest—there was a cleanliness to it, but the quantity of the fabric and the luxury of the satin made it regal and altogether memorable. I told her how it would set a tone for the administration; I talked about history, the message her clothes could send—simple, youthful but magisterial elegance—and how she would reinforce the message of her husband’s administration through her appearance.

“You have an opportunity here,” I said, “for an American Versailles.”

She understood completely what I was trying to communicate; she began to talk excitedly about the need to create an entirely new atmosphere at the White House. She wanted it to become the social and intellectual capital of the nation. She would bring the great writers, artists and musicians there. The food and wine and service would be impeccable. The house itself would be redecorated. Everything would be swept aside: The styleless furniture would go, replaced by antiques. “The house looks like a Statler hotel,” she said. I showed Mrs. Kennedy the rest of my sketches, and the reaction continued very strong. The second one, I believe, was of a simple cloth coat with a pillbox hat that I proposed she wear to the Inauguration itself: “You see,” I told her, “all the other women there will be wearing furs. This coat will set you apart, emphasize your youth—and the President’s too. It will set the tone for the whole administration.”

I believed what I was saying, but I was still astounded when the very thing came true on January 20. The fawn-beige wool coat, with a small sable collar and muff—and accompanied by the first of Jackie’s famous pillbox hats—was an immediate sensation. It was the beginning of what came to be known as the “Jackie Look.” There was a run on pillbox hats in the stores; within a matter of hours, it seemed, copies of my coat had sprouted on every rack. And there was an explosion of media interest in Jacqueline Kennedy.

But this was all difficult to foresee as I stood beside the hospital bed and Jackie appraised my sketches, saying, “Yes, yes, yes and yes.” And finally, “Well, I’m convinced. You’re the one.”

“But I’ll only do it if I’m the only one,” I said.

“Can you do it by yourself though?” she asked. “I’m going to need an awful lot of clothes.”

“Sure I can,” I said, only then beginning to realize what an enormous undertaking this would be. I would have to create a separate operation, devoted entirely to making the First Lady’s clothes; it would be expensive, although the honor and the challenge would make it all worthwhile. (I should add that Joe Kennedy had told me, “Don’t bother them at all about the money, just send me an accounting at the end of the year. I’ll take care of it.” He asked me to be discreet about the cost, as it might be used politically against the President. And I have been.)

After I left the hospital the car took me to the Kennedy home in Georgetown. “Well Oleg,” the President-elect said, “how did things go with Jackie?”

“Very well, Mr. President,” I said. “She asked me to design all her clothes.”

He smiled and said, “And you’re sure that’s what you want? You wouldn’t rather be Commissioner of Indian Affairs?”

“No, Mr. President,” I said. “The Indians will have to wait…although you shouldn’t neglect them either.”

Several days later, Jackie sent Cassini an extraordinary letter. It consisted, in Jackie’s words, of “a series of incoherent thoughts” demonstrating, despite its rambling nature, the precise personality of a woman who clearly knew that she was about to enter the realm that would later be dubbed Camelot.

Despite its hurried style, the letter was hardly “incoherent.” It amounted to an excruciatingly detailed laundry list of instructions. Jackie informed Cassini that she had asked Bergdorf’s, the elegant Manhattan fashion emporium, to forward her measurements to him, so that he could begin designing her clothes. She wanted Cassini to send color swatches of his materials to a shoemaker in New York for footwear in satin or faille—” ribbed fabric-‘Tell him to hurry.” Swatches were also to go to her favorite handbag manufacturer, who would turn out simple evening bags (“Envelopes or squares”), and to Marita, a Bergdorf hat-maker, for hats and gloves. She wanted to see sketches of a cape or coat that would be worn with the white dress that Cassini was designing for the Inauguration Gala; the cape or coat “must be just as pure and regal as the dress.” For public appearances she would require dresses “that I would wear if Jack were President of FRANCE—très Princesse de Réthy [wife of Belgium’s former King Leopold], mais jeune [but youthful].”

Jackie said that she was depending on Cassini to be “a superb Wardrobe Mistress.” There were so many details, she insisted, that she couldn’t possibly deal with them herself without neglecting her children or husband. She wanted all his work delivered on time, even if he had to hire extra help, the cost of which would be settled later. Since publicity about her wardrobe had gotten “so vulgarly out of hand,” she was happy to have Cassini take control of this matter and delighted that he would benefit from having dressed the wife of the President. She was convinced that of all First Ladies, her tastes in fashion would be the most remarkable, so she wanted to avoid any taint of a sensational kind; not for her the notion that she might be seen as the “Marie Antoinette or Joséphine of the 1960s.” She added that she would “never become stuffy—but there is a dignity to the office which suddenly hits one.” She wanted Cassini to consult with her concerning the release of information about her wardrobe. “I don’t want to seem to be buying too much—There just may be a few things we won’t tell them about I. But if I look impeccable the next four years, everyone will know it is you.”

Exclusivity, of course, was very much on Jackie’s mind. She admonished Cassini to protect his work from manufacturers who might try to turn out cheap copies. She alone wanted his originals-she certainly didn’t want any “fat little women hopping around in the same dress—I really don’t care what happens later as long as when I wear it first it is new & the only one in the room.”

Jackie closed with an invitation to Cassini to have dinner with the new First Family whenever he brought his designs to Washington. He would “amuse the poor President & his wife in that dreary Maison Blanche—& be discreet about us-though I don’t have to tell you that-you have too much taste to be any other way.”

It seems remarkable now how well she understood the problems we would face—and the successes that would be possible to achieve. So much in that letter predicted the next three years: the many evenings I spent in Washington, the fashion stories of a “sensational “nature.

The first crisis I faced was organization. In a matter of days I had to hire a [fore lady], an assistant to research fabrics and colors, a draper, a cutter, eight sample hands [to sew sample garments]. My assistant, Kay McGowan, would supervise the fittings in Washington and act as liaison between Mrs. Kennedy and me. I had someone scouring France and Italy for the finest fabrics—the operation was incredible.

I called those first two or three weeks “the frantic period.” There were constant letters and phone calls: “Hurry, hurry, I don’t have any clothes.” There was great pressure to provide clothes quickly. I don’t think we ever really caught up. We did more than 100 dresses that first year, perhaps 300 during the course of the administration, an amazing number. We always were rushing—rush get 10 dresses onto Air Force One for the trip to France and to Vienna for the summit with Khrushchev; rushing myself, with 12 large boxes filled with the First Lady’s clothes, from Washington’s Union Station to the White House in a taxi during a snowstorm.

Our business relationship worked in this way: Jackie would send me a list of things she needed (for example, “Three daytime linen or shantung—one with a jacket, one with nothing, one with a coat? or maybe two with jackets?” or “Three dressier afternoon dresses—2-piece shantung with straw hat, white with black polka dots”). We might discuss these ideas further by telephone; often, too, we would talk theoretically, about fashion concepts, the message we thought her wardrobe should convey.

After her initial requests and our phone conversations, I would send sketches with swatches of fabric. She might order 10 at a time, which would be created in my New York design room and fitted on a model; then Kay McGowan would take a group of them to Washington for a final fitting…and that is where we sometimes had problems. A sketch is a sketch, and a dress can turn out to look like something else entirely. A small percentage of the dresses we made were rejected outright; others were sent back for revisions because the color or fabric was wrong.

Our working relationship became easier over time as the team became more efficient. By March 1962, when she went to India and Pakistan, we were doing quite well together. On March 26 Mrs. Kennedy sent me a congratulatory note from Pakistan that read in part: “This is just to tell you that all your clothes were an absolute dream and I was delighted with them. The white coat is ESPECIALLY lovely and really looks outstanding. They are all now in a rather pathetic condition after 3 weeks of 1 night stands, and well worn. I only wish I’d gotten more, but next time I’ll know better.”

There were some things on which Jacqueline Kennedy and I never agreed: Paris was one. She had a certain reverence for the French houses of couture, especially Balenciaga and Givenchy. She once asked me to go to Paris, to give myself a panoramic view of what the others were doing. “You owe it to yourself,” she said. “Besides, you have all your friends there.”

In any case I went to Paris and visited the collections. I was well-received there, invited without charge to all the shows (normally, guests are required to buy two dresses or pay the equivalent as a fee; this is strictly enforced to guard against those who come merely to steal ideas). In deference to Mrs. Kennedy’s admiration for Balenciaga’s work, I bought her two dresses from his collection. I thought they were quite charming; she didn’t. “You purposely picked the two worst,” she said.

As my position with the Kennedys grew more secure, I was, at times, able to convince the President to allow his wife to break new ground. In one instance I designed a one-shouldered evening gown that the First Lady loved, but was convinced she wouldn’t be able to wear. “You’re going to have to talk to the President about it,” she told me. “I don’t think he’ll allow me to be photographed showing one shoulder. It’s too advanced.”

So I went to see the President and talked to him about the role of fashion throughout history: “From the dawn of antiquity the queen or high priestess has always set the style,” I said. “That is her role in the society, to be a little advanced and thus admired by her people. You know how valuable Mrs. Kennedy has been to you in that regard—In this particular case I am proposing nothing outrageous or undignifed; indeed, the look is more than 3,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians would have considered this dress rather conservative!”

The President laughed and shook his head: “Okay Oleg, you win.” Eventually the First Lady arid I were able to convince him to go even further and allow her to appear with both shoulders bare: a pink and white straw lace dress with a matching cape that she much admired and wore in France at the Elysée Palace.

President Kennedy and I often had long conversations about a great many subjects. My relationship with him was more relaxed. He liked to make comments about my clothes—and I would always find some way to give him reason for comment, perhaps wearing red socks with dark velvet evening slippers, along with white flannel trousers, a blue blazer, silk shirt and red tie. I would encourage him to dress more enterprisingly, and he was quite receptive.

“Mr. President, there’s been only one truly elegant man in this century, the Duke of Windsor,” I told him. “You could be the second. I could make you as important in the world of fashion as Jackie.”

He was interested and perhaps a bit intrigued. Had he lived, there might have been some important developments in this area, as I was beginning to make some headway. At one point I bought him several ties, and Jackie wrote to me, “Jack ADORES his ties.”

One person who tried to impress John Kennedy with his seriousness, and whom the President enjoyed teasing in return, was Adlai Stevenson [then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations]. I saw him do this one day in Newport, R.I., where he and Jackie were spending a summer holiday. The skies were particularly dark and threatening that day; the President said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to get Adlai to fly out here today.”

“Mr. President,” I said, “Look at the skies.”

“Good,” he said, “he’ll be airsick.”

We received word that Stevenson had landed at an air base and was proceeding to Newport by helicopter. I remember seeing that helicopter, which seemed to stand still in the sky, fighting the winds and rain, gradually growing larger until it plopped down on the lawn and Stevenson emerged, wiping his brow, a little green at the gills.

“Adlai,” the President said, with a charming smile, “how good to see you. Let’s go and talk.”

“Wonderful, Mr. President. There are a lot of things I want to talk to you about.”

“We’ll go out for a sail on my boat.”

“The boat?” Stevenson said, and I could see the horror in his eyes.

The seas were treacherous that day. The wind was up, it was drizzling and threatening to pour, lightning flashed in the distance. Secret Service men in Coast Guard cutters bobbed all around us. The President, who, of course, was quite a good sailor, insisted Adlai sit out back with him in one of the two captain’s chairs; I went below. I could see the President sitting there with no coat on. Stevenson, who wasn’t going to wear a coat if the President wasn’t, was attempting—unsuccessfully—not to shiver in the wind and rain. Finally the President said, “Well, it’s a little rough out today. Let’s go back in.”

And as soon as we returned, the President said, “Well Adlai, there’s your helicopter waiting.”

We watched as the helicopter, struggling against the storm, edged off from the house. “Mr. President,” I said, “that is truly cruel and unusual punishment.”

“He could use it,” the President said. “It’s good for his health.”

The last time I saw the President was November 1963 at a dinner at [his brother-in-law] Stephen Smith’s apartment in New York. Adlai Stevenson was there, advising Kennedy not to go on his political trip to Texas. As I left the party that night, I said to the President, “Why do you go? Your own people are saying you should not.”

He shrugged and smiled. We shook hands. I thought nothing of it; I was always asking him why he did this and didn’t do that.

A week later I was having lunch in a little restaurant near my showroom on Seventh Avenue when I heard that the President had been shot in Dallas. I did not react; I don’t know why—perhaps it was just too enormous. The President was dead. I went to my office, closed the door and just sat there; the feeling was much the same as when my mother died—an overpowering numbness. Eventually there would be moments when the sadness would overtake me, when I would realize how irrevocably gone the era was…but it was hard to believe then, and remained so. Every time I attended a Kennedy family gathering since, I felt it was, on some level, an attempt to regain the magic of that time.

Today Cassini is no longer Jackie’s exclusive couturier, though his admiration for her has not abated. “I’m a great believer,” he says, “that some people who handle themselves well age so slowly that it’s almost impossible to discern a difference. I see Jackie in the same way as before; she’s most attractive and elegant, as she’s always been. She had such innate class that the transition from her private life to the White House was imperceptible. The charm of her is that she never changed. She certainly belongs to the pantheon of the goddesses.”