Setting the precedents
The youngest leader of the free world was also a major trend-setter but even he couldn’t compete with the first lady’s style or her impact on modern fashion trends
The Kennedys with President Charles de Gaulle of France in Paris in 1961
Jackie Kennedy in India. Photograph: Getty Images
President Kennedy and his wife Jackie with friends at the America's Cup in Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph: Getty Images
Jackie Kennedy on her wedding day.
They were the most famous power couple in the world, young, beautiful, rich, their faces on the cover of endless magazines, their every move photographed and recorded for an insatiable, besotted public. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest ever US president, and his wife Jacqueline Bouvier, from powerful and privileged backgrounds – the Branjelinas of their day – shaped American style and became symbols of a changing society and attitudes that were modern, open and progressive. The characters of Dan and Betty Draper in Mad Men, for instance, that so fascinate a new generation, were drawn directly from the Kennedys and that postwar period in America.
Carefree and confident, the Kennedys had an immediate effect on US taste. JFK popularised the dark two-button suit, the polo shirt, the casual blazer and chinos, a preppy president with an Ivy League air, an aspirational look still copied today by companies like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Button-down shirts and hats went straight out of fashion because JFK eschewed them and many attribute his cool to his athletic physique, thick shock of hair and broad smile.
“He has the glamour of a matinee idol and his appeal to women is undisputed,” wrote The Irish Times during his presidential campaign. “His good looks, careless elegance and flashing smile could turn out to be his strongest assets.”
His “heiress” wife Jacqueline, playing the part of the compliant and beautiful wife in a developing televisual age, was an even more powerful asset, a major weapon in his already well-stocked armoury. The couple brought culture and glamour to the White House where Jackie put her mark immediately on its social life and interiors. The results, televised in 1962, were viewed by 56 million Americans. The clean-lined simplicity of what she wore, which still resonates today, was not only due to her Gallic taste for impeccable tailoring and fit, but also to good posture and a supple, slim figure toned from years of horsemanship, swimming and disciplined dietary control. It made anything she wore look effortlessly elegant. As first lady, she favoured bright pastel colours and rarely wore black as she was to do years later.
Early pictures of her as a beautiful young debutante already display that sense of languid opulence and well-bred sophistication that remained throughout her life. Everybody wanted to look like Jackie and what she wore could change the fortune of any company, one estimate being that it could rack it up by as much as $14 million. There was little that she didn’t know about fashion and her little pillbox hats, neat skirt suits and A-line dresses worn with unassuming accessories as first lady chimed with her role. She was later to describe such attire as “duty uniform” and “state clothing”.