“No, I’m going to leave these clothes on. I want them to see what they have done.” And with said tactical refusal, a simple double-breasted suit was immortalized as the most iconic article of clothing in American History. It was fifty years ago that Jacqueline Kennedy wore the fetching rosy ensemble to the fateful motorcade in Dallas. In the nation’s darkest hour, the bright pink suit poignantly symbolized the glamour and vibrancy of the youthful administration, the promise of a new era shattered in the face of senseless violence. The remnants of the nightmarish day were on view for the world to see – a solemn faced Mrs. Kennedy looked on as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was haphazard inaugurated in the crowded aisle of Air Force One.
Jacqueline Kennedy proved to be an astute First Lady, ever mindful of the effect her public persona lent to the Kennedy mystique. The trip to Dallas had been planned with the upcoming reelection bid in mind; the President was hoping to win support and raise funds from the squabbling Southern Democrats of Texas. Mrs. Kennedy, a fiercely private woman who had been quite overwhelmed by the stress of the first campaign, was in good spirits leading up to the trip. Her wardrobe, beige and white dresses and blue and yellow suits, was selected at her husband’s request, “There are going to be all these rich, Republican women at that lunch … wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets… Be simple – show these Texans what good taste really is.” She saved his favorite of all for Dallas (a city the Kennedy-Johnson ticket had lost in 1960), a brilliant strawberry pink boucle wool suit featuring navy trim and gold buttons and a matching pillbox hat. She added a navy blouse, purse and pumps. Jackie Kennedy was a prolific dresser, always playing to her strengths. Her husband was so taken by her handsome attire that morning that he remarked to the crowd, “Two years ago, I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I am getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas. Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.” Pink complimented her bronzed complexion and dark features, and she chose the shade often for official events, a strapless Christian Dior for a state dinner in honor of French Prime minister of Culture Andre Malraux in 1962 and a sleeveless silk shantung Oleg Cassini suit for the presidential visit to Mexico in June of the same year. That warm November day in Texas, she radiated against the dark interior of the Presidential limousine.
The origins of the suit remain a bit dubious. Commonly attributed to Coco Chanel, it is technically “in the style” of the house, an American-made copy by Park Avenue shop Chez Ninon based on the Chanel A/W 1961 collection. Justine Picardie’s 2010 authorized biography of Coco Chanel states that the fabric, button and trim for the jacket came from Chanel in Paris, and was fitted for Mrs. Kennedy in New York. The “line-by-line” system was used as a front so the First Lady could boast a patriotic wardrobe for the American electorate.
When the First Lady did finally disrobe on her return to Washington, the suit was stored out of sight by her personal maid, Providencia Paredes. It reappeared a year later at the National Archives, in a non-descript box with a simple note, “Jackie’s suite and bag – worn November 22, 1963”. It was conserved, mindful of the unique provenance of the blood and residue, and stored away. In 2003, Caroline Kennedy bequeathed to suit to the American people, along with a provision that it will not be viewed for 100 years, and even then only with the consent of the Kennedy family. Today, it remains stored at the National Archive building in Maryland, in an acid-free container, in a windowless vault set at 65-68 degrees. Only one mystery remains; the pillbox hat has disappeared into the annals of history.