Very few articles of clothing are perhaps more famous than it. In just one still image, the sight of it carries a myriad of messages about so many aspects of not only American Culture
It is a crystallization of an historical turning point and lost hope, a media metaphor for a naiver time often misleadingly described as “innocent.” It has even served as a topic for artists to interpret and college kids to now wear as a ghoulish Halloween costume.
Visualization of the iconic pink suit being worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at the moment she was seated beside her husband, President John F. Kennedy in an open car during his motorcade ride through Dallas, Texas when he was assassinated, needs no caption for even those born long after that event.
The multitude of projections about the suit has become such a powerful symbol that it has entirely eclipsed what most people fail to realize was its original intent. Politics.
Only in the last few years, certainly with intensity in the last week, has the story of the pink Kennedy suit comes under closer scrutiny, some suggesting it was a random or unthinking decision to wear it.
In fact, it was no less than a presidential decision and one made with the pride of a husband in his attractive wife – who was also as genius as both she and his father in understanding the power of the visual in terms of political capital.
With the rapid technological advancements in the color film development of Kodachrome, bright cheerful monochromatic colors provided a new opportunity to attract attention over the subdued greys, browns and cream colors often donned by political wives, suggesting they were part of the background rather than figures for the foreground.
Appearing in distinct colors makes a distinct impression. Jackie Kennedy also knew that stark black or white did the same. As president-elect, John F. Kennedy was not known to have played any role, or even offered his opinion on the off-white coat and hat his wife decided to wear to his Inauguration, making herself distinct from the other women in colors on the stand, facing the press.
And it was Jackie Kennedy alone who had decided to wear winter white at the Inaugural ball.
Like only a very few Presidents including a disparate number including Richard Nixon and Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy paid close attention to what his wife wore, conscious of whether it conveyed an image of wealth that would turn off voters, or one of classic taste that offered a timeless type of attraction.
While he was never known to purchase clothes for his wife which he saw and thought would suit her well (as Coolidge did with hats for his wife), he regularly remarked on clothes he liked her in – and those he did not.
While Jackie Kennedy personally preferred bright green, light blue, black and shades of beige, feeling they looked best on her, when it came to posing for the dozens of color magazine cover photos with her husband, Jack Kennedy would first pass judgment on what she decided to wear.
And, coincidentally or not, when she was wearing pink, it was a shade not of pale, salmon or Mamie pink but a bright, bold pink.
There’s no known remark or comment President Kennedy made about his favorite color for his wife’s clothes, but he did make a quip which suggested that he liked her to stand out in the crowd.
Famously, he told her to prepare an especially outstanding wardrobe for their Texas trip, where many wealthy women in “mink coats and diamond bracelets” would be scrutinizing her.
“And you’ve got to look as marvelous as any of them. Be simple — show these Texans what good taste really is.”
He even offered such an observation when it came to sparkling jewelry. As they posed on the White House North Portico with the Shah of Iran and his wife before a state dinner, the President looked over the Shah’s wife and how luminous her sparkling array of colorful rubies and emeralds made her appear as photographers snapped away at the two couples. “She’s really outdone you,” he scolded, half-seriously.
On several occasions during his presidency, when both the President and Mrs. Kennedy were making a public appearance together, JFK often made jocular reference not only to the popularity of his wife but the clothes she was wearing.
And, just after asking her to wear the pink suit, when they were in their hotel suite in Fort Worth, he cracked at the breakfast for which she was running late, before they headed to Dallas, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
That same morning, outside their hotel, when crowds yelled, “Where’s Jackie?” he made a second reference to what they would be soon be seeing: “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer. But of course she looks better than we do after she does it.”
When he said that, of course, he knew that his wife would soon be gliding into the packed ballroom – and what she would look like. As he imagined, the crowd spotted her instantly by the bright color she appeared in. And they responded with wild enthusiasm.
In 1990, by which time she was a professional book editor, the former First Lady inadvertently confirmed that it was President Kennedy’s decision that she wear the pink suit that day in Dallas.
It was the result of editor Jackie Onassis making a minor grammatical correction in a brief manuscript passage about First Lady Jackie Kennedy for what would be the second volume of my book First Ladies (1991), in the chapter entitled “November 22.”
While researching the book I interviewed many individuals, some permitting direct quotes, others not. It was her friend, artist Bill Walton who stated that Jackie had told him that the President had chosen the suit, and in the manuscript I quoted him directly.
What I wrote was: “…Bill Walton recalled that he “picked out that suit she had on.’ It was pink with a matching hat.”
What Mrs. Onassis did was make the slightest adjustment, not toying with any word of Walton’s direct quote but rather scratching out the word “he” and substituting it with the two words “Jack had” in her own handwriting, first by pencil, then tracing it in pen (as she did with all of her corrections, erasing some of her initial changes).
This was no great momentous matter of history, of course. It wasn’t any sentimental insistence. It was simply the grammatical correction of a good editor who realized that the way I had written it was suggesting that Walton had picked out the suit.
In making that simple correction, however, she absolutely confirmed the fact that her husband made the decision.
That is further indicated by the fact that had Walton remembered incorrectly, Jackie Onassis would have had no compunction to cross out the statement.
All through the manuscript she had felt free to not only correct grammar and even rephrase my writing to provide a subtle difference in the suggestion of my words – but to also cross out entirely passages of information she knew to be incorrect.
And when she did this, it was not without justification. In the margins next to these excisions, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis scribbled the word “untrue” and her own explanation of why the information was incorrect:
Finally, it was made clear that I was under no obligation to accept whatever changes or corrections she made.
Even medical experts can only merely speculate whether President Kennedy was able to perceive that he had been struck and if so, how much time he had to realize what was happening to him.
By Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s tacit confirmation, four years before her own death, however, it is ironically certain that he had unwittingly chosen what would become the very icon which has come to so indelibly symbolize the dramatic turning point in history that his assassination represents.
- Jackie Kennedy’s Surprise Party for Her Confidential Friend of a Lifetime (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Kennedy Family’s Last Weekend Together in Home Movies (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Kennedy Family’s Last Public Appearance Together (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Ari & Jackie Onassis: X-Rated Movie, Nude Photos, the Kennedys & Paradise Lost (Part 5) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Jackie’s Pink Suit: Off Limits Until 2103 (newser.com)
- The Long, Mysterious Story of Jackie Kennedy’s Famous Pink Suit (nymag.com)