French designer Madeleine Fontaine knew she had little leeway stylizing the costumes for “Jackie,” a film exploring the fragmented emotions of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) during the tumultuous days following the president’s assassination in November 1963. Her role in those events and — as a world fashion icon — what she wore is frozen in cultural memory.
“Our task wasn’t so much to make highly creative designs but was in how we followed the well-known clothes,” says Fontaine. “We had to make the clothes everyone knows so well work on film. Natalie had to be Jackie from the moment we see her, and for us, that meant re-creating them just as it was. You can’t improve on Jackie.”
What was the major challenge costuming such an iconic character as Jackie Kennedy?
How can I say it, “fidelity” — is that a word — to be true? To not betray people; their memory was my first order. She was someone so known for so long in so many memories, and the challenge was to make it true to life. We needed to present Natalie as Jackie from the first moment she’s on screen. Of course, there was help too, because that moment in Dallas is so frozen in memory and time with that pink suit. Not many items of clothing could just be shown as a piece of clothing and the entire event and person appear. But when you see that suit you just know who the person wearing it is.
She was never, ever in a situation where she could be surprised and not be looking acceptable...”
And then as long as we accept that she is Jackie, then we have to be very precise on everything. I mean, she was never, ever in a situation where she could be surprised and not be looking acceptable, and, for me, that was the very important characteristic of her charismatic aura.
In the 1960s did women and celebrities of her stature have stylists as they do today? Or did they organize their own wardrobes?
I know she knew a great deal about European fashion, and she had [designer] Oleg Cassini as the sort of translator of designers such as Balenciaga, Dior, etc., but for political reasons they had to be made here in the U.S. I’m not sure if she had a hired stylist, but Cassini was close to her and in contact with all the influencers of the European fashion world, and he probably helped a great deal. She had to translate everything she liked in Europe and have it made in a U.S. style. And then she gave to the United States that Jackie style.
Tell us about making the famed pink Chanel suit.
We had to make it exactly the same and we needed two: a clean one and one for the car which would be bloodied. It’s exactly the proportions of Natalie as she has a smaller head, so we had to alter the proportions to make the same effect to the one Jackie really wears. It’s also a very specific pink and navy blue, and we couldn’t get the right pink color, so we got some woolen woven fabric and did some different tests of the color, then dyed it to make it. It was a long process, but we wanted to have the same pink tone. Chanel gave us the buttons, and Chanel actually wanted to make the costume, but it wasn’t possible in the time we had. Since we had to test the color it would have been too rushed and we would have lost control of the process, so we had to make it in the shop.
What about the lipstick-red suit she wore for the White House TV tour, did you dye that as well?
Yes, and we had to make multiples of that too. The suit, we made it gray for the black-and-white film for the original filmed footage and then we made a red one, which was the real color. We didn’t get the right gray, so we had to make a pink one for the black-and-white interview, which worked well.
The lush green gown she wore in the Pablo Casals concert scene was certainly beautiful. Was it a copy or stylized?
It’s my favorite costume. Her real dress for that event was a different tone, a more bright lime color with some yellow and had a lot of embroidery or a kind of frill on top; it wasn’t as purely sleek as the one she wore for the Inauguration Day. And so we wanted to translate that and combine them together.
Her grieving black funeral attire, was that an exact match?
Yes, as much as we could make them. Even for the men, and the little blue short coats for the children. Again, there were lots of photos, and we had to match the fabrics and colors of all the officials coming from around the world. And for the people behind the scenes where we didn’t have photos, we had to decide ourselves what they might have worn. It was a lot of work, a big job. Still, I learned a lot, as you do on each film.
I particularly liked the relaxed pant outfit she wore at Hyannis Port. The black and cream top and pants set. Was this from a photograph?
It was inspired by what images I saw of her in her private life and what she wore at places when she was home, far away from the official eyes. It was simple yet chic. That was her amazing Jackie style; very iconic in public but also iconic in private. Few people have both.