By Michelle Tauber
Updated May 07, 2001 12:00 PM

A first sight the colors seem shocking. Passionfruit fuchsia. Corn-on-the-cob yellow. Pink so delectably rich it looks sliced from a hot rhubarb pie. After decades of seeing her in black-and-white newsreel coverage, feasting one’s eyes on the clothes that Jacqueline Kennedy wore during her three years as First Lady feels a bit like Dorothy stepping into Oz. “She favored those gorgeous yellows and greens and reds,” notes Pamela Clarke Keogh, author of the new book Jackie Style. “She knew she was the center of attention.”

Yet even she hardly could have imagined for how long. Nearly four decades after her White House reign, Camelot’s queen is once again front and center, with “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” opening May 1 at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The most comprehensive collection of Jackie fashion ever assembled for public display, the exhibit features more than 80 garments she wore from 1959 to 1963. Viewed together, the garments—which Jackie kept in storage for years before donating them to Boston’s JFK Library in the mid-’80s—establish the 31st First Lady’s preeminence as a fashion icon of the 20th century. “She had a global influence on style,” declares designer Carolina Herrera, 62, a close friend until Jackie’s death in 1994. “Millions of women copied her.” Her less-is-more élan inspired legions of designers as well, including Givenchy and Gucci’s Tom Ford.

Jackie also had a potent influence on the White House itself, infusing it with her peerless good taste and appreciation for history and the arts. She did all this, says her daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 43, “in a way that captured the imagination of the world, and still does.”

Visitors to the new exhibit, which runs through July 29 before moving to the JFK Library in September, would likely agree. “I think people will be dazzled,” declares Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, who curated the show. So far, even those who saw Jackie wear the clothes the first time around have been awestruck upon viewing them again. Lee Radziwill, who often served as a trusted, unofficial fashion scout for her older sister during Jackie’s years as First Lady, visited the show twice before its opening and says Jackie would have approved. “I think she’d find it beautifully done,” says Radziwill, 68, whose new memoir, Happy Times, recounts their globe-trotting adventures together. “She had enormous style with great simplicity. That’s the way I remember her.”

Of course, that much-heralded simplicity was the product not of indifference but of painstaking consideration. Whether scouring the pages of French fashion magazines for ideas, sketching designs of her own or consulting with leading stylemakers such as legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, Jackie put an enormous amount of work into appearing effortlessly elegant. “We look at her and think, ‘How simple!’ ” says famed couturier Hubert de Givenchy, a favorite of Jackie’s. “But it was deliberate. She was very conscious of her style, her body, her face.”

Exquisitely aware of what worked best on her 5’7″ frame, she sent designers “extraordinarily specific” letters outlining her wishes, says Bowles. She wore empire-waisted gowns, for example, to lengthen her legs and boatneck tops to accentuate her collarbone. Always she put forth a prep-school modesty about her own stylish instincts. In 1951, at age 21, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier wrote, “I flatter myself on being able at times to walk out of the house looking like a poor man’s Paris copy.”

More like an American original. By the time she and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, her husband of seven years, reached the White House in January 1961, Jackie had formulated the foundation of her style: classic chic underscored with modern minimalism. Whether in public or private, Jackie “always looked comfortable,” recalls Joan Kennedy, 64, who was then married to JFK’s brother Ted. During downtime with the rest of the extended family, “she always wore sporty-looking slacks and a light jacket and little boots,” adds Joan. “She just had it.”

Indeed, in an era when women largely regarded formalwear as an excuse to don heavy jewelry and ponderous ballgowns, Jackie blew onto the scene with the airy cool of a Hyannisport breeze. “She presented herself very clean and polished,” says Narciso Rodriguez, the designer who created the famously understated slip dress that Carolyn Bessette wore when she married John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996. The unadorned look, he says, displayed “a great sense of personal strength.”

It was a strength Jackie wielded with considerable skill. Here was a First Lady who looked equally at ease baring her shoulders in strapless gowns as she did stepping out in jaunty A-line sheaths and sandals. A model of perfect posture (thanks partly to her years as an equestrian), Jackie chose clothes that played to both her athletic sensibility and her Vassar-educated, Francophile refinement—a marriage of “Parisian couture with all-American spirit,” notes Bowles.

Yet her fondness for French fashion sometimes got her in trouble. During the 1960 presidential campaign, she and her mother-in-law, Rose, were criticized for spending an estimated $30,000 a year on clothes, a figure Jackie disputed, famously protesting, “I couldn’t spend that much even if I wore sable underwear.” And having enjoyed considerable support from the garment and millinery workers’ unions during his campaign, John Kennedy, once in office, was under pressure to ensure that his wife wore American-made clothes. His father, Joseph, recommended Oleg Cassini, a former costume designer for Paramount Pictures who shared her streamlined instincts. During the next three years, the New York City-based Cassini produced about 300 original ensembles for her, some of which were similar to the French couture designs she favored. (Cassini strongly denies ever imitating a rival’s designs. “I have never copied a French dress,” he declares.) A longtime friend of the Kennedy family, Cassini charged $500 per couture outfit—just about 35 percent above his cost—and Joseph picked up the tab.

But even her father-in-law’s fortune couldn’t bankroll the project closest to Jackie’s heart: refurbishing the White House. Prior to her time as First Lady, White House occupants were permitted to take anything they desired from the residence. As a result, the presidential mansion resembled a kind of picked-over yard sale, with odds and ends left from various administrations. “It was exceedingly dreary,” recalls Letitia Baldrige, Jackie’s social secretary and lifelong friend. Jackie started working to get the house registered as a museum and began raising funds across party lines—some $2 million—to decorate it with historically relevant artwork and period furnishings. “Jackie wanted to create a salon,” recalls Cassini, “with beautiful furniture and art—the American replica of Versailles.”

It is this legacy that Jackie would have likely enjoyed most. Though others held her up as a fashion icon, “she’d be annoyed,” says author Keogh. “Jackie didn’t want to be known as a clothes-horse.” Yet she was loath to squander her influence. She recognized the underlying power of her style and used it to reflect the Kennedy administration’s youthful exuberance, “that sense of cosmopolitan ease on the world stage,” says Bowles. The world, as ever, continues to call for an encore.

Michelle Tauber

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City and Cathy Nolan in Paris