My Job was to Dress Jacqueline Kennedy for the Leading Role

Barely a month before John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as 35th President of the United States, the New York designer Oleg Cassini was offered the most coveted fashion assignment of the century.

In effect, I was handed a script, Cassini said during an interview in the exquisitely appointed townhouse he maintains near Gramercy Park in New York City. When not in Manhattan, the legendary designer is usually at his summer house in Oyster Bay. I saw this as a play on Broadway, only here my job was to dress Jacqueline Kennedy for the leading role.

The role in question, of course, was that of First Lady, and the political equivalent of opening night came 35 years ago next month during President Kennedy’s inauguration. It was an extraordinary opportunity; Jackie was going to be seen by the entire world, Cassini said. I realized this was my chance to establish the ‘look’ at the very beginning.

What Cassini calls the look a luminous, almost ineffable, statement of grace, elegance and savoir-faire—was unveiled on January. 20, 1961, during swearing-in ceremonies on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It was a smashing success, so much so that Jackie Kennedy’s distinctive style endures to this day, with continued attempts by a multitude of pretenders to replicate it.

I tried in my mind to see the inauguration as a scene in a movie, Cassini recalled between appreciative puffs from a hand-rolled Havana cigar. I said to myself, ‘Well, all these other ladies are going to wear fur coats, and they will look like big grizzly bears, every one of them. I am going to have Jackie look like a young, beautiful, simple thing, so fresh, so pretty, so unpretentious.

The ensemble Cassini chose-a fawn-colored wool coat with sable trim at the collar and a matching pillbox hat that became something of a trademark was completed with a sable muff that the First Lady added as her own finishing touch.

Over the next thirty-four months, Cassini would create some three hundred outfits for Mrs. Kennedy, about one every three-and-a-half days, each carefully conceived and crafted as part of an over-all concept.

Cassini recalls this uncommon professional and personal experience in A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House (Rizzoli, $40), a beautiful book that includes 260 illustrations and excerpts from dozens of pertinent letters.

Cassini said he decided to write the book after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s death two years ago. A lot of people in the fashion industry resented my appointment, and did not want to acknowledge my contributions, he said, pointing out that until now he has been unable to document the extent of his influence on the official wardrobe.

When Jackie was alive, she was always there to defend me. She was very loyal. But now, I felt I should offer my own perspective on these thousand days of magic. This book had to be written, because it’s part of history. This was a lady who single-handedly created Camelot.

Cassini tells how he was summoned from a Nassau holiday to meet with the 31-year-old First Lady-to-be a few weeks after the 1960 election, and offered an opportunity to work with other famous designers. Cassini said that he balked at the idea, and urged her to pick a single fashion adviser, whoever it might be. “You need to stick with one person, someone who can create a look just for you,” he recalls telling her. “I want you to be the most elegant woman in the world. I think that you should start from scratch with a look, a look that will set trends and not follow them.” He said he would approach the task as if she were a movie star, an idea that proved irresistible.

Before making his name on Seventh Avenue in New York, Cassini worked in Hollywood as a costume designer. Married for a brief time to the actress Gene Tierney, and later engaged to Grace Kelly, he had dressed some of the world’s most exquisite women in the world before getting the call to submit some sketches to Mrs. Kennedy.

Cassini’s own noble lineage undoubtedly strengthened his appeal. The son of a pre-revolutionary Russian count, and grandson of a Russian ambassador to the United States, he was born in Paris in 1913. He did his earliest fashion designs in Italy, and moved to the United States in 1936. A skilled equestrian, he was an officer in the U.S. Cavalry Corps during World War II.

Of critical importance to Cassini’s selection as Mrs. Kennedy’s designer, however, was his intention to create a total concept. Different outfits were necessary for different events, be they an audience with the pope, lunch with the Queen of England, tea with Indira Gandhi, or a state dinner with Charles de Gaulle.

“I didn’t want to crate dresses for the sake of creating dresses, and the first two or three outfits that appeared were saluted by everybody,” he said. “Even the French recognized that a new look had been born. I was very lucky, because if I had not done the job in the first two weeks, believe me, I was a goner. The woman demanded nothing but the best.”

Although Mrs. Kennedy is legendary as a perfectionist, she gave people the freedom they needed to do their jobs. It was the same with me as with the French chef she brought in, Cassini said. She said to the cook, prepare me a menu, and just do it. Once I presented the sketches, and she liked them and 99 percent of the time she liked them she said do it. Just do it. That was the essence of our relationship. And it worked beautifully.

Regarding last month’s extraordinary sale at Sotheby’s of personal items formerly owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Cassini has chosen to make no comment about the decision of her estsate to dispose of the property.

I will say that most of the important designs I did for Jackie were given during her lifetime to many museums, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Kennedy Library in Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he noted.

As for the prices that were paid? Only a few hundred very wealthy people were there bidding, and it seems to me they were willing to spend as much as necessary to get a small piece of this woman’s celebrity. It is a most unusual social phenomenon.