Why I Am Thankful: Survival, Fashion, Language and Family
Egyptomania is part of a broader afromania within my cultural imagination, but I will be focusing more on “black Africa” for the book. Nevertheless my recent perusing has revealed a much deeper and richer vein of unexposed and unstudied material that warrants further research and reflection. Unfortunately, there is so much that will be left on the cutting room floor when Afrochic is published. Here, therefore, is another tidbit that I wanted to shine a little light on – one day I may get to explore fin-de-siècle Egyptomania more thoroughly:
While touching upon dress I only mention that we have a little Egyptian figure whose dress is “accordion pleated” from throat to feet; it also wears a little “accordion-pleated ” cape. So the fashions and arts of dress come round.
“Art.” by Mrs. Emily Crawford.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893.. Chicago, ILL: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 87-89.
Since we were talking about black models:
Posted: 11/21/2013 4:04 pm EST | Updated: 11/21/2013 4:37 pm EST
There’s something about old ads that make us long for days gone by — and we’re not just talking about the low retail prices. There was a level of sophistication that we rarely see these days. It seems like women with perfectly coiffed and wearing chic gowns have been replaced with half-naked, photoshopped wannabes .
But thanks to the internet, we’re only a click away from reliving the glory days or advertisements. We did some digging on our favorite Tumblr page, Vintage Black Glamour , and unearthed a few swoon-worthy ads for your view pleasure.
Happy Throwback Thursday (#TBT)!
A 1969 Revlon ‘Colorsilk’ advertisement.
A 1976 advertisement for a fragrance called Noir.
A 1970s Ultra Sheen advertisement.
Whitney Houston in a 1980s Max Factor ad.
Iman in a 1976 Avon advertisement. She is wearing a dress by Giorgio Sant’ Angelo.
Helen Williams in a 1960 Helene Curtis ad.
Beverly Johnson in a 1970s Max Factor advertisement.
A 1965 Ultra Sheen ad.Aren’t you glad these vintage ads don’t look like this...
15 Nov ’13
When you are costuming the biggest franchise release of the year and creating a capsule range to run alongside it for a major online retailer, it is clear a normal approach to the task is not going to work. Ex-stylist and one time assistant for Michael Kaplan, Trish Summerville, one of the fastest rising names in the industry, has purposely sought out what many costume designers shy away from: co-collaborations with new and established fashion designers and, in several cases, pulling clothes directly from the runway. Summerville is smart and savvy with a feel for contemporary trends, though by not designing and making key items for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire personally she may attract the scorn of her peers. But perhaps this is the new way for costume design, the future of the industry? While those around her fight to retain what they consider is the essence of their craft, i.e. direct authorship, Summerville is leading the way for a new era of costume design, that of the costume ‘director’.
The narrative purpose of clothing in Catching Fire is obvious to even the untrained eye. Those in the Capitol parade 1980s inspired, fussy and extravagant fashion, while those in the districts wear practical and functional garments made to last. The difference is rich and poor, privileged and exploited. Yet Catching Fire is a sci-fi story (based on novels by Suzanne Collins) set in a post-apocalyptic future. Even the ordinary we expect to look somewhat unusual. Summerville has been careful to communicate that, although we may relate to the clothing seen in the districts, it is only familiar in so much as it is different. Right from the film’s first scene we can see the contrast. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wears a cowl neck scarf, purposeful with a homemade air, but still a quirk on its contemporary appearance. It is intended to be noticed, as with every costume in Catching Fire, and wowed over.
Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. Banks wears several wild costumes and teetering heels throughout. Her butterfly, pink, and lilac ruffle dresses are actual Alexander McQueen selected from the runway.
Every close up reveals how much effort Summerville has undertaken adjusting details to establish setting in the districts or draw attention to the frivolity of clothing in the Capitol. An inverted collar here, an off-centre placket there, skewed button placement, fly-fronts… and this is before we have even considered Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). District clothing is basically pure function. Although, take Katniss’ sleeveless siren suit seen at the Reaping. Realistic in a contextual sense, but still tight and interesting enough to be catwalk ready in real life. Summerville had two jobs on Catching Fire: design for the story and design for the high street; the more of Summerville’s original creations that could be adopted for Net-a-Porter the better. Believable and desirable within the story, yet practical for mass production – not an easy task at all.
This is the crux of the costume/fashion debate, that not everything we see in Catching Fire is designed by Trish Summerville, at least not directly. Possibly due to time constraints, possibly due to studio pressure, possibly due to her own ingenuity, Summerville employed the services of those she admired and respected to collaborate with – 150 garments were created by luxury leather brand Cerre alone (they also made Rooney Mara’s biker jacket for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). More than a designer she directed her role on the film, delegated not micro-managed. Ultimately the final picture is her vision funnelled through other creatives. It is a genuine collaboration in every way that Black Swan was not.
Jena Malone as games winner/contestant Johanna Mason. Johanna is from the lumber district so her introductory costume reflects this by having actual pieces of tree bark scanned onto the fabric. Rather hilariously, Johanna actually hates the outfit.
Although Summerville is not the first costume designer in recent years to work in this way, Catherine Martin and Muccia Prada on The Great Gatsby are another example, she seems to be only one to get the balance just right. Catherine Martin was mentioned in articles about Gatsby, but really it was all about Miucca Prada, “What did she design? How many dresses?” Read articles about The Hunger Games, even in publications that do not generally carry costume pieces, and Summerville’s name is right up front. They are just as interested in what she has created herself as what has been ‘farmed out’ to other designers.
Part of this interest stems from The Hunger Games product, which is bigger than any garment or designer, and part of the appeal comes from Trish Summerville. In interviews she is warm and receptive, clued-up and not shy about giving away details. It’s not “I designed Katniss’ wedding dress”, it’s “I asked Indonesian fashion designer Tex Saverio to design Katniss’ wedding dress”. Humility goes a long way, and shows confidence in her own ability to deputise. It does not hurt that Summerville is cool and gorgeous either. That should not have anything to do with it, but in a world based on image or the perception of image, this facet only adds another tick in her box.
The unusual Maria Dora scarf seen on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) during the film’s early scenes. The scarf is ideal in context because although quirky it appears homemade and almost random by design.
We do not know what happened behind the scenes with Catching Fire, just as we do not know what happened with The Great Gatsby, not entirely. Thanks to Amy Westcott’s brave refusal to have someone else take credit for her work, we do know what happened with Black Swan . Catching Fire seems to be a harmonious project. Summerville was really up against it, however, with an entire 146 minute movie to costume, not just principals but extras and crowds too, plus designing the tie-in line with Net-a-Porter. The decision to employ fashion designers makes sense, certainly in regards to the wedding/mockingjay dress and Katniss’ cowl scarf and other knitwear by Maria Dona. But taking McQueen pieces (under Sarah Burton) directly from the catwalk for Effie is a risky choice. Apart from seeing actual garments available now in a futuristic setting, which could potentially take us out of the movie and spoil the illusion, there is the added message that high fashion may well be art but, as with Effie herself, is also vacuous and trivial.
Everything about The Hunger Games has been heightened for Catching Fire. A new director, new costume designer, new cinematographer; it is the same world reinterpreted with a touch more razzmatazz. Continuing Judianna Makovsky’s template, respectfully adhered to by Summerville, the overall colour palette is subdued with only the Capitol – primarily through Effie – providing any flashes of colour. As the setting is now grounded enough in our minds, more detail can be prescribed to specific areas. The districts, although only briefly seen, each have their own look, the textile district being arguably the richest in texture and ambience. What Trish Summerville has achieved with Catching Fire represents possibly a new methodology for costume designers, whether they like it or not. Costume is not fashion, but that line is blurring fast and audiences are becoming ever more receptive to the crossover. The future of fashion and costume design may be more intertwined than we ever envisaged.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is released on 21st November.
Further reading: Interview with Trish Summerville at The New York Times
© 2013, Christopher Laverty . All rights reserved.
“Who needs cashmere?”
So said the legendary Halston on June 7, 1983, as he made his way through the racks of pieces he had designed for Halston III, his lower-price line for J.C. Penney. Looking back, the pact made Halston a pioneer in the world of high-low fashion , but it was ruinous for him personally. At the time, though, he sounded quite optimistic.
Though his dresses had appeared on Studio 54 regulars such as Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, Halston now had his eye on the Everywoman. “When I think of these clothes, I think of my family,” the Iowa-born designer said. “I have a sister in Little Rock [Ark.] and a sister-in-law in Gainesville, Fla., and they’re dying for these clothes to come out.”
Prices ranged from $24 for a casual shirt to $200 for a coat, and included splashy items such as an ostrich-trimmed velvet jacket. In keeping with the venture’s populist spirit, Halston made appearances on “Phil Donahue” and “Good Morning America.” White- and chrome-fixtured Halston departments were built in the individual stores to house the line. “The idea is to display the merchandise to its best advantage, without things like Dynel wigs taking away from them,” the designer quipped.
But would selling at J.C. Penney hurt his cred with the Beautiful People? “I haven’t had that much flack from the stores,” Halston insisted. “I have a big public, which has been conditioned to buy my things for the past 30 years.”
In a separate story that day, several top retailers shared their reaction to Halston III. According to Bloomingdale’s Kal Ruttenstein, the line “is so much lower-priced [that it] will not hit the same customer.” Phillip Miller, then president of Neiman Marcus, agreed: “I don’t think this will have any adverse effect on Halston’s top line.…It’s a totally different market.”
In fact, the effect was disastrous. Bergdorf Goodman dropped Halston’s main line immediately, and a year later, he would lose the rights to his company and name. Still, in his vision of high-end design for the mass market, Halston anticipated the trend that Target, Kohl’s and other big-box retailers would mine two decades later.
Hoping to tap into the burgeoning consumer market of the postwar era, Siegel launched the company’s first brand, H.I.S (a play on his father’s initials [Henry I. Siegel]), in 1956. The company’s line of branded casual wear targeted teen and college-aged baby boomers with denim jackets, corduroy pants, shorts, sportcoats, and suits. By the mid-1960s, Siegel ranked among the nation’s top manufacturers of sportswear for young men. Sales multiplied from $18.5 million in 1956 to $42.1 million in 1964, with the H.I.S brand contributing three-fourths of revenues by the latter year. Though the creation of a national brand allowed the company to command higher profit margins than it had generated with private-label goods, Siegel continued to concentrate on making clothes for middle-market customers. See http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/chic-by-h-i-s-inc-history/
By Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D
University of Missouri, Kansas City
What can Barbie—the quintessential blond bimbo—tell us about postwar American culture? Inscribed on Barbie are the traditional notions as well as the changing values of a culture that was in the process of dramatic social, cultural, and political transformation. As an artifact of postwar cultural ambiguity, Barbie characterized not only conservatism and conformity but also, as revisionist historians have argued, contradiction, conflict, and contestation. “Reading” the Barbie doll as a historical text sheds light on the continuities and changes in teen culture, gender roles, sexuality, and consumer culture.When the teenage Barbie doll debuted in 1959 she was a rebel among her contemporaries. Baby dolls had socialized “baby boomers” to assume maternal and domestic roles consistent with the dominant postwar gender ideology, devised as a buttress against unsettling change. But unlike the bent-limbed baby dolls, Barbie, who had disproportionately long chorus girl legs, would help girls imagine themselves as autonomous adolescents.
Barbie was the exemplar “teenager” (a term first coined during the war years) who represented a “teen culture” that rapidly proliferated in the postwar years due to rising prosperity, spreading suburbs, and expanding leisure time. As a representation of a middle-class suburban teen empowered with new purchasing power, Barbie’s mini magazines, records, clothing, and accessories were versions of those that fueled the new teen market. Like real girls, “Babysitter Barbie” would have shopped with money earned as a babysitter, one of the only jobs available to suburban adolescent girls in the postwar economy.
Though dressed in her foundational bathing suit, Barbie’s extensive wardrobe exemplified the ethos of an expanding consumer culture where spending replaced saving. While thrift and frugality had prevailed among Depression and war-time generations these were no longer valued; Americans were encouraged to find fulfillment in goods and gadgets. Stimulating consumer desire among America’s youngest shoppers, Barbie TV ads encouraged little girls to “Come feast your eyes on Barbie and Midge. . .” (Doc. 1). And they did! Giddy with excitement over the doll, dream house, and the “extra clothing and accessories” her friends had, one Nicaraguan student recalled that she and her sister incessantly begged their single mother for Barbie dolls their family could probably ill afford. (Doc. 2)
Barbie’s glamorous outfits were like those designed by Christian Dior who had inaugurated a transformation of women’s bodies shortly after WWII. Barbie’s body had been shaped, in part, by the introduction of Dior’s haute couture that contributed to the gradual sexualization of women (mothers included) in the 1950s. The “New Look” replaced the former wartime cultural ideal of broad-shouldered females (like Rosie the Riveter) that spoke to the 20 million women war workers. By the late 1940s, however, a masculinized silhouette had been replaced by the feminine hour-glass. To accentuate female sexual characteristics shoulder pads yielded to padded bras. Sensible “flats” were replaced with high heels that further exaggerated sexual difference: they forced the bust forward and the backside outward. Like June Cleaver who vacuumed the house while wearing pumps in the new TV sit-coms of the period, Barbie had tiny, tippy-toed feet that also kept her immobilized, dependent, and contained within the household domain where women were safely idealized for their maternal devotion. Yet, mothers and other women had steadily and silently continued to increase their presence in the work force. Though Barbie could not stand on her own two feet, like other women she had one foot in the modern era. The teenage model simultaneously represented independent young women “on the go” who were not only accepted but also celebrated in Sex and the Single Girl (1962).
Barbie’s body had been shaped as well by her ancestor, Lilli, a coquettish-looking German doll that male bachelors brought to bars and dangled from their rear-view mirrors. Just like Lilli whom she closely resembled, Barbie donned a striped strapless jersey bathing suit that accented her cinched waist and accentuated her voluptuous figure. (Stripes only provide protective camouflage from predators to zebras in herds.) The stripes on Barbie’s suit underscored her full breasts which looked a lot like the ample bumpers that embellished (and protected) 50s’ progesterone infused automobiles. The new technology of constrictive undergarments reshaped the feminine form, such that breasts like Barbie’s became symbols of postwar abundance, motherhood, and sexual appeal. Despite Mattel’s claims that parents thanked them for the doll’s “educational value,” critics objected to Barbie’s sexually provocative “look” (Doc. 3). To many, Barbie’s eroticized body-sideways glancing eyes (heavily outlined in black eyeliner), pursed red lips, and scarlet finger nails-were markers of sexual desire. But as Ruth Handler, the originator of Barbie and the founder of Mattel, explained: “The doll has clean hair and a clean face. . .wears gloves and [has] shoes to match” (Doc 3). As the sanitized version of Lilli, Barbie simultaneously neutralized the eras cultural dissonance. Barbie embodied both the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and the innocence of Debbie Reynolds.
Like these blond-headed, white-skinned pop culture icons, Barbie emerged in a period of intense cultural negotiation over racial difference. One-half of all the teenage college students who participated in the Freedom Rides that tested the desegregation of buses in the South were young women. But Barbie, who had her own sports car, was unlikely to have used public transportation. Nor was she likely to have counted African Americans among her friends, despite the huge migration of people of color and Latinas/os to American cities in the postwar period. What are the chances that Barbie would have left the segregated suburbs for the city’s slums where most resided? One Latina recalled that while “We did not look like Barbie, [and] nor did we aspire to” (Doc. 2), Barbie’s blond hair, blue eyes, and pink skin nevertheless epitomized an American race, gender, and class ideal that prevailed in postwar popular culture. Nor was this lost on ethnic or African-American girls. “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs-all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured. ‘Here’, they said, ‘this is beautiful’. . . ” (Doc 4) Toni Morrison realized that as an African American girl she could never “look like” Barbie. Unlike the desires of others, hers was “to dismember it.” Clearly, the social uses of Barbie by little girls could also have embryonic political meanings. Later on as teenagers themselves, many former Barbie players were drawn to sixties’ youth culture and movements for civil rights and feminism.
The gangster genre’s central protagonist (antagonist?) is conspicuous in his journey from street kid to street king by coveting the finest fabrics and tailoring that money can buy. He becomes a vain, petty man destroyed by inability to reconcile his old simpler world with the politics of his new one. It is no accident that most of the principal characters in gangster films are minorities, symbolising a detachment from society and upending of the American dream. He/she can be as rich and powerful as he/she wants, but for those born on the wrong side of the tracks (i.e. minorities, if conforming to the genre model), the only way to fulfil this dream is through crime.
Many blaxploitation films take this same storyline as positive reinforcement of the late 1960s Black Power movement. These low-budget movies were made, for the most part, by African American males for African American males. In hindsight this could either be considered racist stereotyping or the first pivotal movement in black cinema. While Black Caesar (1973, no credited costume designer) conforms to the overt blaxploitation model by starring a black lead actor, Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs (the part was originally written for Sammy Davis Jr.), and featuring a predominantly black cast, it was produced, written and directed by a white filmmaker, Larry Cohen. Perhaps in this respect it cannot truly be a blaxploitation movie as it cashes in on the genre rather than strengthens it? It’s an open question.
Omer Jeffrey as young Tommy Gibbs. Like all wannabe godfathers of the street, Tommy grew up in hand-me-downs. This formulated his goal in life – the acquisition of money and possessions, especially clothes.
Now financed by organised crime, adult Tommy (Fred Williamson) is able to wear expensive pinstripe suits. Tommy always sports details that make him stand out, such as a patch chest pocket and western style hip pockets (above), both indicative of 1970s trends. He checks his suit constantly.
Black Caesar is actually a remake of Little Caesar (1931) starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a Romanian immigrant seeking his fortune in Chicago. He rises to power through organised crime, draped in the flamboyance of success – camel coat, bowler hat, double breasted waistcoats, lush pinstripe suits – and then crashes spectacularly. As with all gangster movies from the thirties, the chief villain is eradicated and a crime-does-not-pay world view stabilised. Tommy Gibbs’ life follows a similar pattern in Black Caesar, although presumably because he is aware of the film Little Caesar his own path is based on adherence to codes established by Rico. Underpinning this point is the moment when mortally wounded Tommy stumbles past a cinema showing The Godfather (Black Caesar is titled The Godfather of Harlem in the U.S.). Tommy would not have seen many movies growing up, but Little Caesar would likely be one of them.
As a shoeshine boy in ripped jeans and t-shirt, Tommy is beaten by racist beat cop McKinney (Art Lund) and hobbled for life. After several years incarcerated he arrives back in New York ready to forge his own criminal empire backed only by gumption, a gun and some funktastic James Brown tunes. Intentionally ingratiating himself with the Italian mafia by murdering one of their enemies, Tommy is given his own part of the city to run on their behalf – Harlem. A montage demonstrates the violence Tommy uses to get a grip on the streets, but not before he becomes distracted gazing in a hat store window. Rico’s codes are being assembled, prematurely perhaps, as Tommy is more concerned with dressing the part than actually doing the work. Tommy does not seem to enjoy violence as much as acting the boss. His goal is less orientated toward crime, which is a means to an end, and instead focused on becoming part a rich, white society that will continue to reject him no matter how much money he makes.
One of the first shots in Tommy’s ‘rise to power’ montage shows him strutting through the street playing big shot then immediately distracted by a hat shop. That hat is an essential dress code of the 1930s gangster.
Tommy pays cash for an apartment in upscale New York, including all the previous owner’s possessions which he flings off the balcony. This is a metaphor for his assimilation then rejection of so-called polite (read upper-class, read white) society.
Tommy’s new world fears him. He enjoys this, but mistakenly believes that wealth and respect on the street constitute his acceptance. He forcibly buys an apartment in an exclusive complex in Manhattan including all of the previous owner’s clothes that he then drops off the balcony as a rejection their bourgeois ideology. Posse
ssions are so powerful to Tommy that even after raping his girlfriend he gives her a present from department store Bergdorf Goodman and expects that she be grateful. “Nobody appreciates anything I give them” he mutters as she tosses the gift aside. The notion of acquiring possessions in a world that would only allow him hand-me-downs as a boy is what brings about Tommy’s downfall. He forgets who he is and betrays his roots. His best friend even calls him a “white nigger”. Tommy becomes lost in a place that he does not know or understand.
Even though Tommy is inspired by sartorial gangster codes in thirties cinema, his clothes are relatively subdued for a blaxploitation movie, quite unlike the larger-than-life pimp styles of Superfly (1972) or even Shaft (1971). The story is set during 1953-72, but everything Tommy wears appears to be dated from when the film was shot (in ’72). His typical look is a light brown, grey or blue single or double breasted pinstripe suit with wide lapels, homburg or fedora hat, plain pointed collar shirt, Windsor knot necktie and brogues – sometimes two-tone. Trouser flare is kept to a minimum, although all his suits are embellished with fussy touches such as visible seams, a half-belt, bowed lapels and denim-like patch pockets. This helps him stand out against the plain black suit, white shirt and black tie uniform of the mafia, which by this point had become something of a parody. The sequence where Tommy’s crew massacre a mafia family in California is basically cool cats vs. squares; Tommy’s crew wear colourful street fashions while most of the mafia are dressed for a wake (quite appropriate really).
The mafia hit is carried out by Tommy’s gang in full street wear. Note the guy in the vibrant white suit (he does most of the shooting) and that two of the gang are wearing berets, which in context are heavily symbolic of the Black Panther political movement..
Tommy in full thirties gangster mode wearing two-tone brogues and wide pinstripe suit. After raping his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry), Tommy buys her a present from high-class department store Berdorf Goodman. This is what he does; tries to control people with possessions. Fittingly Tommy is fatally shot while holding a box of jewellery from Tiffany & Co.
When megalomania takes hold of Tommy he lets his guard down. He presumes the white world he bought into is now resigned to his presence. Except he destabilises this world, he frightens it. While they were happy to play his game for a time, Tommy was only ever renting space, he never really belonged. He becomes trapped in a kind of no-man’s land between the old life world he has rejected and the new world that rejects him. It is appropriate that Tommy takes that fatal bullet after shopping at Tiffany & Co., spending more money and buying more things. His final confrontation with McKinney is emblematic of the fear Tommy strikes in white society. McKinney fights on his hands and knees dripping in blood while Tommy paints his face with shoe polish, in essence making him black. His fear is loss of identity through assimilation of the ‘other’; McKinney is terrified not of Tommy, but what he represents – change.
Tommy heads back to the ghetto in a last ditch attempt to reclaim his roots. The apartment blocks where he grew up are now derelict, practically rubble. There is no solace in home. Stumbling around in his blood-soaked tailored suit the gangster dress code is complete. Tommy’s end is met in expensive attire worth no more to him now than the rags he grew up in. The possessions he yearned for are then yanked from his body by a teenage gang perpetrating an endless cycle of crime. Tommy Gibbs is the deconstructed gangster mask, no different now than the 1930s-40’s. In this genre clothes do not create or define identity, they only eradicate it.
If you would like to read more about blaxploitation movies may we suggest the excellent ‘Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide’ by Josiah Howard.
You can watch Fred Williamson in Black Caesar at LOVEFiLM.com .
© 2013, Christopher Laverty .
This article brings up a host of issues surrounding the exhibition of fashion that supplement those treated by Valerie Steele in “Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition,” Fashion Theory, Volume 12, Issue 1 (2008).
By CATHY HORYN in The New York Times, November 14, 2013
On the plane back to Washington, in her pink Chanel suit, caked with her husband’s blood, Jackie Kennedy resisted all suggestions from aides that she clean herself up. Instead, she just said, “Let them see what they’ve done.”
But for the half century since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the most famous artifact from that day, one of the most recognizable articles of clothing ever worn, has been seen by almost no one. Now preserved by the National Archives in a climate-controlled vault outside of Washington, it is subject to Kennedy family restrictions that it not be seen for almost a century more.
If there is a single item that captures both the shame and the violence that erupted that day, and the glamour and artifice that preceded it, it is Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink suit, a tantalizing window on fame and fashion, her allure and her steely resolve, the things we know about her and the things we never quite will.
That Mrs. Kennedy is so closely linked to an item of clothing is fitting. In nearly three years as first lady, she had gained universal celebrity for her youthful style. Politically, it meant huge crowds whenever she accompanied the president. But for Mrs. Kennedy, who felt vulnerable, fashion gave her a sense of separation from the public’s gaze. It was armor.
So even on that day, before the horror of what ensued, to look at Mrs. Kennedy was to be drawn inevitably to the pink suit, a line-for-line copy of a classic cardigan-style Chanel with navy lapels. The suit came from Chez Ninon, a Park Avenue salon that created many of her clothes, following her taste for simple lines. She wore it at least six other times, including on a 1962 visit to London and that same year to greet the prime minister of Algeria.
Fifty years ago, at noon in Dallas, Clint Hill, who was the Secret Service agent assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, thought the pink suit looked fluorescent against the dark blue of the car carrying the president and the first lady.
“She stood out so much in the car because of the color of that suit,” said Mr. Hill, who has released a new account of the killing, “Five Days in November,” in time for the anniversary. “It was like the sun just illuminated it.”
Now preserved in its vault, the pink suit and its accessories, still stained, the stockings blood-powdered and folded in a white towel, remain essentially unchanged from the day of the assassination. Only the outfit’s matching pillbox hat and white kid gloves are missing, lost in the chaos of that day.
Although the National Archives has kept the suit and accessories, including navy shoes, bag and navy blouse, since 1964, when they arrived in a dress box, the items legally belonged after her death to Caroline Kennedy as her mother’s surviving heir. So a deed of gift was made in 2003 with the provision that the suit would not be seen by the public until 2103. Through her office, Ms. Kennedy declined to comment.
Over the years, the Kennedy family has sought to avoid the sensational treatment of assassination artifacts, and that is the explicit intent of the 100-year restriction. Nonetheless, Martha Murphy, chief of special access at the archives, said Mrs. Kennedy’s clothes are the only items in the assassination collection with this specific restriction.
By comparison, scholars and researchers who meet special criteria of the archives may view President Kennedy’s clothing and the rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, access to Mrs. Kennedy’s suit for research purposes has never been granted.
After Mrs. Kennedy returned to the White House, early on Nov. 23, her clothing was put in a bag, presumably by her personal maid, Providencia Paredes, and soon after placed in a dress box. Records show that it arrived at the archives sometime before July 1964, accompanied by an unsigned note on the stationery of Mrs. Kennedy’s mother, Janet Auchincloss.
The note simply said: “Jackie’s suite and bag — worn November 22, 1963.” It is unknown whether Mrs. Auchincloss made the decision to send the clothes to the archives or, as many believe, was following her daughter’s wishes. Ms. Paredes, in an interview, said the suit was at first sent to Mrs. Auchincloss’s home in Georgetown, but she is confident Mrs. Kennedy would have made the decision on where to send it. “Nobody would have made that decision for her,” she said.
The Kennedy family never advised the archives about cleaning the suit, Ms. Murphy said, although leaving blood and other residue on garments is a standard conservation practice. “It’s part of the history of the object,” said Phyllis Magidson, curator of costume and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York. Ms. Murphy, who has seen the suit, said it essentially looks brand-new.
For all Mrs. Kennedy’s visibility, it seems fitting that her pink suit should be hidden from view.
“She certainly understood invisibility and disappearance very deeply, as well as staged appearance,” said the cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, author of “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon.” “So the unseen suit is a very poignant and accurate emblem of her contradiction.”
And noting that Mrs. Kennedy’s interest in historic preservation adds another facet to the suit’s status, Ms. Magidson said, “It has everything encapsulated within it.”
Curators cannot think of another historical garment imbued with more meaning, and also deemed too sensitive to be shown. Among items of apparel with similar resonance are garments worn in concentration camps and the tatters that remained after the atomic blasts in Japan. But these objects, while deeply affecting, are displayed in museums. Other examples mentioned by curators include Napoleon’s death coat, a shoe dropped by Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine and the suit and cloak Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated. Mrs. Lincoln gave these items to a family friend. That man’s family kept them until the 1950s, when the American Trucking Association raised money to buy and donate them to the government. Since the ‘60s, they have been on display at Ford’s Theater, though the cloak was put away because of wear.
But when Lincoln was alive, relatively few Americans knew what he looked like. Besides, his image, even if it had been familiar, would hardly have compared to Mrs. Kennedy’s riveting beauty and pop culture celebrity. She was, as Norman Mailer said in a 1962 essay critical of her televised tour of the White House, “an institution being put together before our eyes.”
For that reason, combined with the fixation on President Kennedy’s assassination and a charged media culture, most experts believe that displaying her suit would be problematic. “It would produce hysteria if it were placed on view,” Ms. Magidson said.
Those who knew her say it is almost certain that Mrs. Kennedy played a role in nearly every step of the suit’s journey from Manhattan dress shop to Dallas, and eventually to the vault.
She was a woman of meticulous organizational skills, who dictated to her White House secretary, Mary Barelli Gallagher, from her bed, and who dogged people with her morning memos. (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once likened them to Churchill’s “Action This Day”memos during World War II.)
Ms. Gallagher’s 1969 memoir, “My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy” makes a good companion to “The Death of a President,” by William Manchester, the one book on the assassination commissioned by the Kennedys. Loaded with details about Mrs. Kennedy’s work and personal habits, Ms. Gallagher’s memoir is sort of a backstairs view of the noble purposes that Mr. Manchester ascribes to her.
For instance, he referred to Mrs. Kennedy as a “retiring” socialite who was transformed by loss, “a new Jackie.” But he did not consider that maybe the skills and determination that she used to hunt down clothes and furniture were the same qualities she magisterially deployed after the assassination.
And what about her stony refusal to change her clothes? Though describing White House duties, Ms. Gallagher offered many instances where Mrs. Kennedy had no compunction about saying no. She wrote, “If she didn’t want to participate in some activity, nothing could drive her to it.”
The Manchester book described President Kennedy taking an unusual interest in what his wife planned to wear on the Texas trip, something he had never done in their marriage. He said to her, Mr. Manchester reported, “Be simple — show these Texans what good taste really is.”
Ms. Paredes, though not disputing the account, gives less significance to it: “Maybe the president told her to wear the suit. I don’t think she gave it a thought. It was a practical suit to travel in.”
She added, “I did pack a lot of clothes for her, because you never know about the weather. The president called me on the phone. It was the last time I spoke to him. He said, ‘You know, it’s going to be hot in Texas.’ ”