52 Years Later, People Are Still Obsessed with Jackie O's Pink Chanel Suit

Like most aspects of JFK's assassination, the iconic garment remains the subject of endless conspiracies and controversy.

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Nov 24 2015, 2:00am

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In November 1963, two days before his blood and brains were splattered across its thick tweed, John F. Kennedy hand-selected the rose-pink Chanel suit he wanted his wife Jacqueline to wear for a luncheon they would attend together in Dallas, Texas—a state he needed to win if he wanted to be reelected the following year.

"Be simple—show these Texans what good taste really is," he instructed his wife, according to William Manchester's 2013 book on the JFK assassination, The Death of a President: November 20—November 25, 1963.

His insistence on the knee-length suit and matching jacket—reportedly his favorite ensemble, and one that she wore often despite owning an enormous wardrobe—might explain why Jackie Kennedy refused to take it off long after it became stained with the gruesome evidence of her husband's public assassination during their convertible ride through Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. She was still wearing the blood-stained suit when JFK's vice president Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.

"It's a very powerful thing that she was doing, wearing the psychological insides of the slain charismatic leader on her suit until the suit became part of his body, and it was like she was wearing his insides," said Rhonda Garelick, author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.

Now, 52 years later, the rose-colored suit remains hidden away in a custom-made, humidity-controlled box at the National Archives in Maryland, where it's taken on an almost mythic quality. It won't be made viewable to the public for nearly a century to come, as mandated in a 2003 deed signed by Caroline Kennedy, JFK's only surviving heir, —which means that as America's most famous political couple fades into history, the suit will live on perfectly preserved. And like most aspects of the Kennedy assassination, the suit has become ripe for conspiracy theories, including questions about the missing pill box hat and the suit's authenticity as real Chanel.

"Like a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat." — Lady Bird Johnson

The suit itself—double-breasted, with three gold buttons and navy trim, and a matching pillbox hat—fit Jackie Kennedy's trademark style. It was simple, yet elegant; structured, yet feminine. The fact that it was Chanel only added to its glamour. In the years since the assassination, though, there's been considerable interest in—and contention about—whether or not the suit was a knockoff.

In her 2011 book Chanel, Her Life, Justine Picardie describes the suit as an "authorized Chanel copy." The materials came from Coco Chanel in Paris, Picardie wrote, but the suit was assembled and tailored to Jackie Kennedy's frame by a team of high-end tailors in a New York fashion house called Chez Ninon.

Graham Wetzbarger, a Chanel authenticator who studies every detail of every stitch on items that pass through the online luxury consignment shop The Real Real, also believes that the suit was a "line by line" copy of Chanel, made with licensed materials.

"It was known that Jackie Kennedy had an account with Chez Ninon for a couple of years before the inauguration," said Wetzbarger, describing the suit as a design from Chanel's 1961 fall/winter collection. "These imitation or licensed pieces are so immaculately well made," he said, adding that the suit likely cost around $800 at the time—"by no means cheap."

In 2012, Chanel's head designer Karl Lagerfeld caused an uproar when he suggested to Vogue that Kennedy's famous suit and jacket were instead made by Oleg Cassini, her official wardrobe designer, who had created the wool coat and matching pillbox hat she wore to Kennedy's inauguration. "It was a fake, a line-by-line copy by Cassini," Lagerfeld said of the pink suit.

Nicole Mary Kelby, an author and historian, said there's "plenty of paper trail" to suggest that the suit was a knockoff. As part of the research for The Pink Suit, a work of historical fiction based on the iconic outfit, Kelby interviewed some of the tailors and seamstresses who claim to have made Kennedy's now-iconic suit and jacket at a tailor shop in New York. The team included Jankiel Horowicz, a former tailor for the Polish army who survived a concentration camp, immigrated to New York, and joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in the early 1950s, according to his son Michael's account in The Daily Beast in 2013.

"Can you imagine the pain of that? All the hard work and pride that went into making something of such outrageous beauty, only to have it forever linked with a national tragedy?" Kelby wrote in an email. Kelby believes that Kennedy's opting for the American-made Chanel copy was her own savvy attempt to repair she and her husband's political image. She'd cut back on her spending and made a concerted effort to support American designers like Cassini after Women's Wear Daily accused her of spending $30,000 on a shopping spree in Paris during the 1960 presidential campaign.

"Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics," Jackie Kennedy told historian Arthur Schlesinger in taped interviews that were sealed until 2011. But Cassini reversed that stuffy perception, Kelby said, dressing the First Lady in comfortable-yet-chic clothing that catapulted her into a fashion icon American women wanted to emulate, rather than sneer at. The cylindrical Halston-designed pill box hat that Kennedy frequently pinned to the back of her short brown bob, for example, quickly became a fashion staple for many American women who sought to imitate her effortless glamour.

The pink pill box hat Kennedy wore on November 22, 1963 went missing in the frenzy of the assassination. It was last seen with Mary Gallagher, her personal secretary, who allegedly refuses to discuss its whereabouts. The white gloves she was wearing that day are missing as well.

In The Death of a President, Manchester writes that the hat may have made its way back to DC in a paper sack, where a White House policeman gave it to secret service agent Robert Foster, who reportedly took the bag to the Map Room and opened it. Whether he gave it to Caroline or John F. Kennedy, Jr. remains unknown.

"There are pictures of her going into Parkland Hospital with it on, and then when she leaves, it's gone," said Wetzbarger. "It might never turn up. Maybe it's in somebody's dress-up box from the 1970s and got destroyed, but who knows? It's one of those things, it's going to be lost to the annals of time." (The hat has never been found.)

The last time Jackie Kennedy wore the pink suit, it had been deliberately chosen in an attempt to save President Kennedy's political career. "Jackie's pink suit was his secret weapon," said Kelby. "When she passed by in that open car, those who lined the streets saw her as one of their own. She became the woman who played golf in the foursome just ahead of them on the greens, the mother who held her children close."

And then, in a matter of seconds, bullets punctured that illusion. Her attempts to endear herself to the American public made her grief all the more resonant. She was no longer the snob from Newport— she was the traumatized American woman who watched her husband's brains spill into her lap.

In her diary, Lady Bird Johnson, who had been trailing the Kennedy's limousine along with her husband, then vice president Johnson, described the First Lady draped over her husband "like a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat."

When Caroline Kennedy donated her mother's jacket, skirt, stockings, and matching blue blouse, shoes, and Chanel purse to the National Archives in 2003, she specified that the items not be displayed until 2103, even to researchers or historians, or shown in any other way that would "dishonor the memory of Mrs. Kennedy or President Kennedy, or cause any grief or suffering to members of their family." When the deed expires, the institution's archivist will decide how to handle the materials in a way that best honors the family's wishes.

National Archives spokesperson Miriam Kleiman confirmed that the institution received the materials more than 40 years ago, but the exact date of delivery is unknown, as are the whereabouts of Kennedy's matching pink pill box hat. Because the items were delivered in a package with a one-digit zip code, Kleiman believes they arrived at the National Archives prior to July 1964, when the post office switched to a multi-digit system.

If and when the garments do become available for display, Wetzbarger believes they could cause mass hysteria, even decades after the woman who wore them passed away herself. But for others, the suit's concealment only contributes to its sense of mystery, furthering public fascination with the former First Lady. Because we can't touch it or even get close to it, the suit "grabs an even more talismanic significance like a precious relic in a cathedral," Garelick said. "It has a ghostly power now."

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