Initially, it was the rarity of Jackie Kennedy’s youth during her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign and election which drove media coverage about her beyond that usual level given spouses of presidential candidates. Her sleek clothes propelled it through the 1961 Inauguration and few ceremonial appearances in the presidency’s first one-hundred days. The point of no return came as the real person was analyzed by the foreign press into abstraction and forged into a Persona during her June 1961 state visit with JFK to Paris, Vienna and London and continued tour alone of Greece (see the series of four On Tour With Jackie Kennedy stories from June, July and August 2011, here on www.carlanthonyonline.com).
From then on, with each new screening of her public Persona, be it in color or black-and-white, still or moving pictures, film or video, voiceless or speaking, Jackie began seeping into the collective consciousness of even the remotest corners of the world. As those screenings were repeatedly seen, over and over again, her face drifted deep into imagination’s stratosphere to crystallize her into an Icon. Efforts in the United States early on to somehow express appreciation not so much for who she was as what she was seemed to grasp at this intangible without much success, like the declaration of “Jackie Week” which proved to be sprucing up the landscapes in Pacific Park. There seemed to be a demand for something more tactile the public could hold yet which also specifically referenced her.
The deeper her Icon was scrutinized and the less she said, the more metaphoric were the media parables idealizing her as the perfect American wife and mother, the unerring, upper-class model to follow in fashion and décor, and the adventurous jet-setter pursing culture and leisure.
As a person of sensory acuteness more likely to artfully transmit her feelings by physical cue rather than verbal explicitness, nothing Jackie uttered during her 1961 European tour was broadcasted on radio or television.
This silent yet visible Persona let millions project their interpretation of what her shy smiles, gentle gestures and glowing eyes in Paris, Vienna, London and Greece meant, filtering facts through their own lens to find elements in her with which they could identify. After her European tour, the majority of those who seemingly began to worship her were women of all ages and citizenship.
If these legions saw their real lives being relegated to the conventional narratives of middle-brow, middle-aged leaders’ wives like America’s Mamie Eisenhower, France’s Yvonne DeGaulle, Britain’s Dorothy Macmillan and the Soviet Union’s Nina Khrushchev, they fantasized and aspired to the one of upper-class, young Jackie Kennedy. Nor were men immune, whether harboring secret crushes for her, or encouraging women in their lives to, as Miss America of 1961 vowed to the nation, “be more like Jackie.”
An Icon can’t be sustained by the mortal mind alone. It must eventually assume some brick-and-mortar form. The Mid-Century Modern conspicuous consumer wanted to possess their own sacred hardware for a home shrine in the china cabinet or on the book shelves. With cheeky appreciation for the uniquely American concept of “discretionary income,” enterprising foreigners made hay while the sun shone. In the wake of Jackie’s trans-Atlantic return to the States was a variety of household and novelty items that was rushed into mass-manufactured imports with Jackie’s image used on a cigar band (Spain), liquor bottle-stopper (Germany), bobbing head doll (Japan) and tie stickpin (Holland), to name just those that sold best in the U.S.
Unlike the mugs, pennants, plates and other souvenirs created to commemorate specific events like royal weddings or presidential inaugurations, once native ingenuity assumed management of this burgeoning cottage industry, it crafted memorabilia less for common household use than for honorific display, like a diamond-shaped ceramic wall hanging of Jackie’s profile and what was the purest idol of devotion, a gold-painted plaster bust of the First Lady. If even her icon was man-handled, U.S. printers ensured a touch of dignity for its own girl, reserving her the honor of Queen of Hearts in decks of cards.
While tangible items gave admirers a sense of owning a piece of Jackie, a more primal satisfaction was tapped for women who just had to be her. A few Seventh Avenue geniuses wisely made the gamble in the weeks preceding the Inauguration after spotting new Danish-made mannequins with familiar brunette features being delivered to Macy’s. Assembly-line sewing machines whirred with near-patriot fervor so that tens of thousands of pillbox hats and big-button coats hit department stores at the sounding bell of fall fashion season. Nor were housewives on budgets left looking like Mamie Eisenhower, not with a Singer sewing machine and “The Jackie Look” dress patterns offered by the famous “Simplicity” company.
“The Jackie Look” wasn’t official unless topped by a bubble coiffure. An exacting “First Lady ‘Dos” handbook of engineering blueprints critical to reproducing Jackie’s hairdos was guaranteed to make women look “just like Jackie,” based on expert reconnaissance gathered from enlarged photos of the back of her head.
The wheels of Icon Industry were soon churning out other sub-genres, from three “Jackie Look” cut-out doll sets to two “Jackie Look” rock-and-roll singles – one of which is played in the video below, set against the pop culture items she inspired as well as footage clips of her as First Lady.
Beside conventional weekly news magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post, Jackie was increasingly the cover girl who sold issues of Hollywood star gossip magazines, including Photoplay and Modern Screen. As Photoplay justified the widespread use of her image, “Stardom transcends professions…Mrs. Kennedy is in every sense a beautiful, glamorous, exciting star.” When NBC aired a special called “The World of Jacqueline Kennedy” she also found herself the first First Lady on the cover of TV Guide. Women living under rocks were quickly inculcated in it all by simply watching how Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie character looked on The Dick Van Dyke Show television sitcom.
Jackie lookalike models were in high demand, with national marketing campaigns using the Jackie Icon ranging from the Rambler American station wagon, House of Lords whiskey, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and even a Florida marine shop’s waterskiis. Advertising agencies, discovered a secret early on: as public figures whose transportation, housing, and protection – to name but the obvious perks were paid for by the public’s taxes, images of Presidents and their wives are public domain and, however tasteless their commercial use might be, it could not be legally prosecuted.
Imitation wasn’t the highest form of flattery for the real Jackie. As Pamela Keogh reports in her book Jackie Style, the First Lady downright freaked-out while opening a friend’s exquisitely-wrapped gag gift and saw in it a garish trivet with her face composed in tiles.
As far as clothes, she told her dressmaker, she wore what she thought looked good on her and felt people should do so for themselves as well, not copy her. In some hand-corrected notations she made on my First Ladies manuscript, she added that her unintended influence on fashion was “much to her annoyance.” When a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily, the U.S. garment industry’s trade paper, managed to corner her and ask if she ever read the publication, a frost crept into her polite brush-off, “I try not to.”
Whether it was a tasteful silver spoon with her head on the handle tip or a synthetic leopard-skin pillbox from Orbach’s, all roads inevitably led Jackie’s Icon into the Pop Culture circus where, as the autumn of 1961 progressed towards the holidays, she was caricatured into a literal cartoon character.
Little boys saw Jackie (with Jack) encounter Supergirl in Marvel comic books. Little girls wanted both the vinyl wig box and the valise from Pony, with a stenciled Jackie drawing globetrotting to romantic foreign places on each. Even the worst sad-sack teen could look “just like Jackie” that Halloween by wearing a plastic mask of her, complete with its own built-in First Lady ‘Do.
The crowning moment, however, was collectively viewed by children and adults on the night of November 17, 1961 in that week’s episode titled “Social Climbers” of the hit cartoon series The Flintstones. As Stone Age suburban housewives Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble wander the women’s section of their local Bedrock, U.S.A. department store they gasp in delight at the sudden sight of a pillbox hat and dress.
“Look,” says Wilma, “It’s the Jackie Kennelrock Look!”
Unlike “cameo” appearances on The Flintstones of movie stars like Rock Hudson and Gina Lollabrigita, it was not First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who was depicted in cartoon form, but merely a fabricated mannequin to display clothes like her’s, the sole purpose of which was to lure housewives and prompt the battle-cry of those like Wilma and Betty to “Charge…it!,” and have them walk out thinking they’d now look like Jackie.
To most of the adult viewers chuckling at The Flintstones sight gag of the decorative but ultimately symbolic point of the Jackie Kennelrock cartoon mannequin, there was a significant symbiosis with what they still perceived to be the only real purpose to that pampered, privileged Persona in the White House: looking good for America.
And then, finally, the Person spoke.
Next: Jackie Kennedy as Icon, Caracas to Karachi to Bedrock, USA: Her Deafening Translation, Part Three
- Ari and Jackie Onassis: The U.S. First Lady as Greek Wife & Paris Resident (Part 4) (carlanthonyonline.com)