Power dressing, from Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit on

A new historical novel taps into our enduring fascination with what women in the public eye wear


Hours before his assassination, US president John F Kennedy joked that “nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear”. He could not have been more right, as a new historical novel gives further grist to our fascination with first-lady dressing.

The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby is about the making of the Chanel pink suit and matching pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to the parade in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. It was a favourite suit of Jackie’s, which, stained in her husband’s blood, became a symbol of innocence destroyed. The US vice-president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, remembered it as “a bundle of pink, like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat”.

Kelby discovered that two of the dressmakers at Chez Ninon, the Park Avenue atelier that made the suit, were Irish. Kate Sheridan, an emigrant from Co Mayo, did the finish work among the other “mice of the backrooms”. While little else is known about Sheridan’s life, Kelby’s sharp detailing of her toil over the raspberry-pink bouclé fabric gives a certain nobility to that more frivolous side of politics: what presidents and first ladies wear.

Conflicting truths
Kelby (a former CNN reporter whose French mother worked for Chanel during the war) felt that the novel was the only way to understand the conflicting truths about Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe. The Pink Suit notes that during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, a newspaper claimed that Jackie and her mother-in-law jointly spent $30,000 on luxury labels in Paris. Jackie was closely involved in the making of her wardrobe, providing her own sketches for her dresses and millinery. In one letter ordering “a million hats”, she joked: “They will pauperize me!”

This promiscuous couture-buying may have been demanded of her. At the start of the campaign, Life magazine made a cover of the “appealing wife of a front runner”, and focused on her prettiness. Her official designer was a Hollywood figure, Oleg Cassini. He said that, in Jackie, he wanted to “create a persona”.

For Kelby, Jackie’s fashion nous was powerful beyond her iconic suited poise. “Jackie had the opportunity to give Americans a fresh vision of how they saw themselves. Everything was co-ordinated to the events so that she would look clean, she would look bright, she would stand out. The trends of all other major leaders’ wives changed. They wanted to be modern. To get away from the 1950s and crinoline poodle skirts. The look that Jackie personified harkened back to the wartime, when women were all business.”

The White House used Chez Ninon after pressure came on Jackie to buy American, as Chez Ninon made Chanel from samples sent from Paris. We have since come to expect first ladies and prominent women in politics to be fashion ambassadors. Kelby argues that, rather, “they should be style and taste ambassadors. She should represent me – as long as she represents me in a way that I want to be represented. Clean and elegant and fresh.

“This is, of course, an impossible thing to ask of a first lady. America is such a vast place – the first lady couldn’t possibly represent us all.”

Kelby is “digging Hillary Clinton’s pant suits” and Michelle Obama’s realism in switching between shorts for Hawaii and lavish couture for a recent state dinner. “I don’t care what she’s wearing, because what she’s doing becomes more important,” says Kelby, who this year is based at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh and will be lecturing at UCC.

Mary Robinson’s challenge
Mary Robinson has written about the “challenge of overhauling my image” during her presidential campaign in 1989. Louise Kennedy, who designed the magenta moiré silk coat she wore to her inauguration, recalls: “We didn’t want her to get lost in a sea of grey. We knew she was going to be surrounded by the judiciary. Colour is always key when one considers a public or state occasion. She gave great resonance in the official portrait, surrounded by men in grey and black. It’s one of my favourite images and extremely powerful.”

Paul Costelloe worked with Princess Diana and later with Cherie Blair and Zara Phillips. “You can only say so much, if you’ve had the privilege of dressing a first lady,” he says. “I was probably too discreet when I was dressing Diana. In those days it was considered not correct to promote a brand. Now of course, it’s become a little bit over-celebritised.”

Deborah Veale designed four of the five outfits then president Mary McAleese wore during Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011, including the electric-blue coat and gown worn to the State dinner. Veale had about six weeks to make them. “You have no idea what the queen is going to wear, so you’re working in the blind,” she says.

Veale chose silk organza so McAleese could move with ease. “What was very important for her was to go out and do the job – that she could wear clothes she could forget about.” Doubtless, President Michael D and Sabina Higgins have the same concerns this week at Windsor Castle.

The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby is published by Virago tomorrow

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