- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Did the woman wear the clothes or did the clothes wear the woman? That was the question being pondered by many of the guests at an exclusive preview of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's blockbuster exhibit on "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."
An extravagant reception by any terms (swelling violins, top-notch champagne, a lavish buffet), Tuesday evening's invitation-only event sponsored by cosmetics giant L'Oreal USA was as much a walk down memory lane as it was an eye-popping display of the former first lady's glamorous wardrobe and sense of style. Backdrop photographs, videos and mementos of the role Mrs. Kennedy played during her husband's presidency added a touch of reality, however formalized, to the central feature a worshipful account of fashion's impact on the public mind.
Mrs. Kennedy clearly knew how to get attention and hold an audience by visual means alone. Her apparel, especially her "state" wardrobe, seemed chosen for maximum comfort and effect. In an era the early 1960s when color television came into its own, she was more than ready. Pastels and bright colors predominate.
On a 1962 visit to India, for example, she matched the vibrant shadings of that multicultural land with pink and yellow and apricot.
Marie Ridder, who covered the trip for Glamour magazine, recalled that the first lady's fame and fashion elan preceded her wherever she went. "Jackie drew even greater crowds than the queen," she said after an admiring look at the pale yellow silk dress by designer Gustave Tassell the first lady wore in Jaipur for her famous elephant ride a far cry from the dowdy safari suit Queen Elizabeth II wore for her royal progress atop the same beast the previous year.
Classic couture doesn't rely much on patterns. Its strength is in the careful fittings and craftsmanship, often hidden from view. Mrs. Kennedy, fashion cognescenti present observed, had an unparalleled sense about what suited her best. She knew all about angles, cut and facility of design. Among telling details were girlish bows and buttons covered in the same fabric as the garment and three-quarter length sleeves perfect for dining without the chance of a sleeve touching the food. The latter also helped show off the elbow-length gloves often worn in that period.
She possessed undeniable elegance and style, but those who knew her well insisted she was much more than a classic "clotheshorse."
"Her dresses are beautiful, but she was the magic that made them special," said writer Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who knew Mrs. Kennedy during the last 15 years of her life (when she was Mrs. Aristotle Onassis).
Mrs. Hitchcock also fondly remembered her friend and mentor's wonderful sense of humor: "Once when I was staying with her in Martha's Vineyard, I showed up to go bike riding wearing yellow shorts and a black and white top. She took one look at me and said in her famously breathy voice, 'Why Janie, you look just like a little yellow jacket.'"
Few of the former first lady's relatives were present to reminisce, mainly because Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and other family members previewed the exhibit last Saturday at a $3,000-per-person fund-raiser for the John F. Kennedy Library. Those who came Tuesday included Mrs. Kennedy's nephew, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and her stepsister, Nina Auchincloss Straight.
Mrs. Straight was convinced her famous sibling would have approved curators' efforts to enshrine her in fashion history: "She'd be in absolute bliss. She loved clothes and being photographed. It's a wonderful tribute."
Jean-Paul Agon, president and chief executive officer of L'Oreal USA, said that his company's sponsorship of the exhibit was a "perfect fit." He predicted it would be just as much of a hit when it travels to France next year.
"The French loved her when she came to Paris, he noted. "She was so charming and elegant."
After guests toured the exhibit, there was ample opportunity to sample the culinary heritage of the Kennedy era as well. In the Atrium, buffet stations were covered with filet de boeuf Montfermeil, galantine de faisan, tiny French finger rolls, macaroon souffles and other dishes on the menu for a small supper in 1961 on the night Spanish cellist Pablo Casals played at the White House and at a 1962 private dinner dance for the Stephen Smiths, President Kennedy's sister and brother-in-law. Both Jack and Jackie made headlines for dancing the twist at the latter until 4:30 in the morning.
William McCormick Blair Jr. and Susan Mary Alsop were among the former first couples' friends sighted in the 800-strong crowd, which included Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, Sens. John Warner (also a Kennedy pal), Joseph Biden, James Jeffords, Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchison and at least 50 other members of the Senate and House. (Political VIPs had their own separate check-in desk.)
Also on the guest list: Tipper Gore, Linda Daschle, Solicitor General Ted Olson, Lucky Roosevelt, Ina Ginsberg (wearing a "60s-inspired Courreges A-line dress), Bill and Dorothy McSweeny, Roger Mudd, Debbie Dingell, French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang and wife Anne, Ken Duberstein and Kathleen Matthews.

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