As Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the former First Lady in Jackie gathers Oscar buzz, the film’s costume director tells The Telegraph about recreating that poignant pink suit – and why Mrs Kennedy continues to shape the way we dress today...
Style icon’ is a phrase batted about all too often in today’s celebrity-fuelled news cycle – but the term was practically coined for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. From (oversized, round) buttons to (bug-eyed) sunglasses, (shift) dresses and (tweed) jackets, there is barely an item of fashion paraphernalia in existence which couldn’t have the words ‘Jackie Kennedy’ or ‘Jackie O’ placed before it to conjure a remarkably exact image.
Her impact was immediate when she rose to fame as the wife of John F Kennedy. When he was inaugurated as 35th US President in 1961, the couple brought youth, glamour and dynamism to the White House – and, sure enough, everything Jackie wore became an instant bestseller. But more than this, women didn’t just want what Jackie wore, they wanted to wear it in the same way she did. On the blustery January day that her husband was sworn in, Jackie stepped out of the car and placed her hand on top of her Halston pillbox hat to keep it in place, creating a dimple in the top. Within months, department stores were filled with pre-dimpled hats for ardent fans to buy into Jackie’s look.
Now, more than half a century on, Kennedy’s look and legacy are back on the agenda, thanks to next week’s release of the Oscar-tipped film Jackie – in which Natalie Portman gives a raw and evocative portrait of the First Lady in the days and weeks after her husband’s assassination in November 1963. It is no sugarcoated depiction of the Kennedy family, and – thanks to costumes that are like a character themselves – the film shows that Jackie’s relationship with fashion was more strategised and intelligent than she is often given credit for. ‘She was the ambassador of elegance.
She had to be extraordinary all the time,’ explains the film’s costume designer, Madeline Fontaine, who has already won a Critic’s Choice Award for her work recreating the iconic 1960s looks. It’s certainly true that, as a political consort, Jackie was acutely conscious of the history-making potential of her wardrobe. So much so that she began planning it while recovering from the caesarean birth of her son, John Junior, just days after her husband was elected President. From her hospital bed, she auditioned a line-up of fashion designers for the job of helping her to create a modern look for her new public role.
It was Oleg Cassini who won the commission, impressing Kennedy with his refined, sophisticated vision. ‘He knew that she had very demanding tastes,’ explains Lauren Marino, the author of Jackie and Cassini: A Fashion Love Affair. ‘He talks about looking at her as a geometric figure and as an Egyptian princess. He was on her level – she didn’t have to explain to him what Tintoretto yellow was. He got it.’ Cassini urged Jackie to be bold. ‘He brought in the one-shoulder gown and the empire dress, which were quite daring at the time – particularly for a First Lady,’ says Marino. ‘They had to convince John Kennedy to allow her to wear them. But he knew that she was going to set the standard. She had the figure, the youth and the taste to pull it off.’
While one might struggle to imagine Michelle Obama seeking her husband’s permission to wear anything, it’s proof that image-making was a high stakes business for the most powerful man in the world and his family at the height of the Cold War. ‘The idyllic First Lady look was created to give credit to the government,’ agrees Fontaine. The costumes for Jackie were as meticulously masterminded as the outfits they are based on. Fontaine’s team of 10 set up an atelier to handmake exact replicas of Kennedy’s key looks, such as the red Dior suit she wore for the televised tour of the White House she gave on Valentine’s Day in 1962. And they also had to imagine the sleek off-duty mac and cream sweater she might have sported away from the cameras in the months after JFK’s death.
As Portman is one of Dior’s faces, you might have thought it would have been easier to turn to the fashion brand to create the costumes. But though Dior offered – and did provide one of the black mourning dresses Portman is seen in – Fontaine wanted to keep the costumes as painstakingly accurate as possible. The lengths she went to are illustrated by her recreation of what is no doubt the world’s most famous neatly tailored suit – the bubblegum pink, bouclé-tweed design that Jackie was wearing on the day her husband was shot next to her in an open-top car. ‘Show these Texans what good taste really is,’ the President had told his wife ahead of the visit to the crucial swing state. Jackie took his words to heart.
The suit was made in America to an original Chanel design, a process called line-for-line. It ensured Kennedy kept up with the European trends she’d fallen for while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris as a young woman, but was still viewed as being patriotic with her fashion. ‘In our research, we found the factory where the original material had come from in France and they said they would recreate it with pleasure,’ Fontaine says. ‘But we had a problem with the choice of the cameras and working out the exact shade of pink we would need to make it look right on screen.
In the end, we dyed the fabric different shades of pink and made up five versions of suits. Chanel helped us with the method and they gave us the real buttons and the real chain that would have been sewn inside the jacket to give it a good weight [crucial for ensuring the jacket sits correctly on the body]. They even gave us an authentic Chanel label from the time, in case any shots showed the inside of the jacket.’
The suit has become emblematic of one of the most shocking days in American history – and, as such, is the crux of some of the most poignant moments in the film. ‘Let them see what they’ve done,’ Jackie is said to have remarked when she was asked if she might want to change out of the blood-spattered outfit as Lyndon B. Johnson took his Presidential oath on the flight back to Washington, just hours after the shooting. Jackie wore the suit to follow her husband’s coffin all the way back to the White House – where it was packed up by her maid and hasn’t been seen since.
The American National Archives has kept the pink suit and Jackie’s accessories – including navy shoes, bag and navy blouse – locked up since 1964, when they arrived in a box accompanied by an unsigned note on the stationery of Kennedy’s mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss. (The white gloves and pill-box hat were apparently lost in the mayhem of that day). The suit won’t be seen in public until at least 2103, under stipulations from the Kennedys, who believe it would be too hurtful for the family. The potency of that pink suit – and the public’s ongoing fascination – shows the complex relationship between Jackie and style.
On the set of Jackie, director Pablo Larraín apparently encouraged Portman to say ‘I love beauty’ before every scene, underscoring the Kennedy reputation as ‘the beautiful people’. But the film shows that clothes weren’t just a veneer, they have an intoxicatingly personal significance too. ‘She had this sense of grace,’ explains Marino. ‘She did not let anyone know what was going on behind the scenes. She really put on a good show for everyone and gave the country exactly what it needed.’ Perhaps neatly surmising why Jackie the woman – as well as Jackie the style icon – remains one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. ‘Jackie’ is in cinemas from Friday.