- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

The exhibition "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years Selections From the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum" leaves a single, overwhelming impression: "Jackie" was one cool cookie.

The traveling show, which marks the late Mrs. Kennedy's 40th anniversary of serving as first lady and her influence on style, opens today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

A consumate image-maker, the wife of President John F. Kennedy created visual impressions that resonated globally.

Mrs. Kennedy used everything at her disposal designer clothes, state dinners, political entertaining with artists such as legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, restoration of the White House and Lafayette Square, redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue to project international prestige for the United States and, especially, the Kennedy administration.

At age 31, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the youngest wife ever of an American president-elect. The Kennedys had two small children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. (called "John John").

Unfortunately, this show, mounted by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, focuses mainly on Mrs. Kennedy's clothes and accessories. It contains more than 80 original and re-created costumes and accessories. These, no doubt, will pull in the crowds as they already have in New York and Boston.

The beauteous ball gowns and sleek suits were, indeed, important political tools, but Mrs. Kennedy's life had more substance. The exhibit displays her many letters about the White House renovation and other cultural projects, but there's little indication her efforts saved the historical identity of Lafayette Square opposite the White House where Dolley Madison and Stephen Decatur once lived in charming Federal row houses.

Mrs. Kennedy also fought to preserve the Old Executive Office Building, which was threatened by demolition, and the court building that is now the Renwick Gallery. She helped plan a national cultural center, now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also personally chose the Temple of Dendur for the Metropolitan Museum as Egypt's gift to the American people for helping to save the temples at Abu Simbel.

Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue, serves as creative consultant for the exhibit. The photomurals, documents, videos and archival materials help considerably in conveying the story the exhibit does tell. For example, Mrs. Kennedy had a favorite black-and-white houndstooth check wool suit for the presidential campaign, designed by Bob Bugnand. She was of French descent, had earned a bachelor's degree in French literature from George Washington University in the District and was partial to French fashion designers. This did not sit well with her husband, who was courting the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and she started turning from French designers such as Hubert de Givenchy to American ones.

French-born Bugnand maintained a salon and workshops in the French capital, but opened a New York branch in 1957. Mrs. Kennedy liked Bugnand's understated aesthetic, heavily influenced by Coco Chanel. His suit had a softly curved elegance, similar to the pink Chanel suit she was wearing the day her husband was assassinated in Dallas (she had always kept clothes by French designers in her personal wardrobe).

The accompanying photomurals and memorabilia show her in the Bugnand suit on the campaign trail, talking to workers and attending coffees.

Mrs. Kennedy ultimately chose Oleg Cassini, a French-born, Russian-turned-American and former Hollywood costumer, as her primary designer. He began creating the "Jackie look" when he designed the elegantly simple greige wool coat, accented with sable muff and collar, for President Kennedy's Inauguration. The "look" included the pillbox hat from Bergdorf Goodman. Mrs. Kennedy hated hats and, attempting to play down the hat's scale and importance, tilted the hat to the back of her head. Inadvertently, she made instantaneous fashion history.

Mrs. Kennedy continued to combine be-gloved elegance, a sense of history and reductive silhouettes when she planned her attire for Inaugural balls with Bergdorf Goodman. Her outfit was fabulous, as the exhibit shows. The material was ivory peau de soie and georgette, with silver thread and crystal-bead embroidery. The elaborate embroidery of the bodice was appropriate to the occasion, but she played it down by blousing the bodice with chiffon.

The outfits for her trips that began with the president's first state visit to Canada in May 1961showcased the Jackie look. She was an enormous hit with the brilliant red and martial cut of a Pierre Cardin suit. Quite by accident, it complemented the uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

She always regarded clothes in her wardrobe as "uniforms" designed for what she called "my role." Mr. Cassini gave her Americanized versions of French designs that were clean-lined and in the bright, solid colors she liked. He added oversize buttons and coat pockets that would stand out. Sometimes, this Jackie look of boxy jackets, overblouse dresses, sleeveless A-line dresses, 3/4 length sleeves, lace mantillas and gloves looks strangely asexual (she wore gloves because she considered her hands unattractive and sleeveless dresses because she felt her shoulders were too wide).

Somewhat later her dresses became sexier, such as the clinging celadon Cassini evening dress of silk jersey she wore at a 1962 dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere.

Mr. Bowles insightfully and humorously reminiscences about the dress in the exhibit catalog: "At the beginning of the year Jacqueline Kennedy had suggested to Mr. Cassini that draped jersey 'would be fun for a change.' Mr. Cassini obliged with an atypical creation in the jersey fabric that Madame Gres had developed in the 1930s for her signature draperies a l'antique. It was entirely appropriate that for this shining hour, which recognized and celebrated excellence in the fields of science, peace, and literature, Jacqueline Kennedy cast herself as the dynamic modern embodiment of an ancient muse."

A similar sense of theater characterized her wardrobe for the Kennedys' overseas goodwill tours. The Cold War was at its height and the Kennedy administration was watching Soviet interest in India and particularly in Latin America. Mrs. Kennedy proved to be an asset on the trip to Venezuela and Colombia in 1961 with her stylish good looks and fluency in Spanish and French.

She also used her wardrobe as a theatrical device for her 1961 goodwill tour of India and Pakistan with her sister, Lee Radziwell. In India she wore a Cassini-design hot-pink outfit in a modified copy of a rajah coat. John Kenneth Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to India, excitedly telegraphed home that she wore "radioactive pink."

The first lady chose the color apricot to dress in for her boat ride on Lake Pichola at Udaipur, India. The occasion was a party at the maharajah of Udaipur's white palace. She wore an elegantly formal dress and coat with a rigid fabric stiff enough to stand up to India's heat. The dazzling color and sheen of the dress were for image projection to crowds on the lake shore. The combination was eminently successful.

Tourists are expected to flock to "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," which is being promoted by the District.The show at the Corcoran is not perfect, but it will have to do until a more complete viewing of the various aspect of Mrs. Kennedy's life is organized. Let's hope that happens soon.


WHAT: "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Special hours for this exhibit are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Through Sept. 30. Affiliated lectures also will be held.

TICKETS: $10 for adults for Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; $8 for seniors and students; free for children younger than 6. Ticket prices rise by $4 Saturdays and Sundays.

PHONE: Call TicketMaster at 202/432-7328

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