Mrs. Onassis: To Define Her Is to Appreciate Her Sense of Style


Start at the beginning. Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding day in September, 1953. The white lace veil, a long mantilla, belonged to her grandmother. The single strand of luminous pearls was perfect for a 24-year-old debutante of the year. But the dress was a zinger: yards of ivory silk faille made subtly daring by an off-the-shoulder neckline.

This was her first day as Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and everything about her said that she could lead a nation with her sense of style.

The next image of her in a veil came on a dreadful day in November, 1963. This time it was black, banded in satin. It covered her shoulders, touched her narrow black suit, gave her the privacy a widow deserves. Yet the nation’s women marveled at the drama of it--and the glamour. Years later, in quick succession, Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy wore similar versions to bury their husbands.


In exquisite as well as excruciating times, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never let her country down. Clothes do not make the woman--certainly not in this case. But an innate sense of style can have the unexpected power to make an event unforgettable. Mrs. Onassis did that countless times, without ever seeming to try.

The snapshot images of the former First Lady through the years click along to create a history of chic. There was a white column dress and opera-length gloves for the inaugural ball in 1960. Her pillbox hat was a trademark, from her first days in the White House until, literally, her last. Her bouffant pageboy was made immortal by Andy Warhol in “Red Jackie,” a larger-than-life silkscreen.

“Her hair started a trend in the ‘60s,” recalled Eleanor Lambert, a New York publicist who issues a “best dressed” list each year. Mrs. Onassis made the list in ‘60, ’61 and ’62. In those years Oleg Cassini was declared the official White House fashion designer. His earlier claim to fame was designing movie costumes for Grace Kelly.

The connection was clear and accurate--the two women the world considered “American royalty” wrapped in the same fashion label. His suits, with their short, boxy jackets and narrow skirts, were the First Lady’s signature look in the ‘60s.

“As Mrs. Kennedy, her greatest influence was in daywear and sportswear,” said Richard Martin, costume curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “After Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower as first ladies, Jackie brought a young, elegant style to the White House. You never had the sense she was uncomfortable in her clothes.”

After her White House years, the remarried Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis went a little wild, letting loose her Francophile passions. She had studied the language as a school girl and the early attraction was revived in a stream of Hubert de Givenchy gowns and Chanel suits. Does Italy’s Valentino count as French, for his Paris address? She seemed to think so.


The American twist to her wardrobe was her loyalty to Halston, who created the pillbox hats she wore as First Lady. She could walk to his shop from her 5th Avenue apartment in New York. His design assistant, Akira, once commented on how she never wore prints, only solids.

In the ‘70s, Mrs. Onassis was a jet-setting mother with two kids in boarding school and a house in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. She trekked to the Acropolis in a Pucci summer shift, trotted horses in her jodhpurs and boots, cruised Greek islands on husband Aristotle Onassis’ yacht in Lili Pulitzer dresses.

She could still create a stir. One evening she dressed in palazzo pants and a long tunic for dinner at Le Pavillon, a top New York restaurant. It turned out the dress code barred women from wearing pants. “She simply excused herself, went into the ladies room and took the pants off,” Lambert recalls. “She came back wearing just the long tunic. She could handle that sort of thing without making a scene.”

All the while, tortoise-shell sunglasses--vast orbs of darkness--spoke of a wish for privacy, yet called attention to her.

Mrs. Onassis’ wardrobe settled down in the ‘80s. She had turned 50, gone to work as an editor and had seen her children, John and Caroline, graduate from college. Then Caroline married. Jackie’s look softened and solidified: long, bouffant pageboy by Kenneth, suits and cocktail dresses by Carolina Herrera of New York.

Ask what Mrs. Onassis taught women about style and hear Diana Vreeland’s voice bellowing in the background: “elegance is refusal.” Mrs. Onassis edited Vreeland’s book on the subject, “Allure.” Obviously, she could have written it.