Friday, November 22, 2013

The Pink Suit

Arriving at Love Field, Dallas,
November 22, 1963.
Photo via NY Magazine.
November 22, 2013, marks a very sad 50th anniversary in the history of the United States.  Devoted Readers around my age and older most likely remember the day and where they were when they heard the horrible news of the assassination of the President in Dallas.  Even for those not particularly interested in fashion, an iconic image of that day is 34 year old Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in a pink boucle wool suit.

The Kennedys preparing to begin the
motorcade from the airport.
Photo:  Associated Press.
In 1963, when most people usually saw only black & white images of the fashionable First Lady, it was first reported that the crowds in Dallas were particularly enthusiastic to see Mrs. Kennedy in a custom-made suit of what has been described alternately as raspberry or strawberry pink.  The Chanel-style suit in a classic cardigan double-breasted form was trimmed with navy blue and worn with a navy blouse, shoes and handbag.  The ensemble also included JBK's signature pillbox hat.

Image via Steven L. Brawley
Although Mrs. Kennedy was known to be a Chanel fan, it was felt that the President's wife should wear only American-made clothes.  With a clothing allowance provided by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, and wardrobe supervision by Oleg Cassini, JBK enjoyed specially-made 'knock-offs' of high fashion.  But it was not pirated designs.  According to Steven L. Brawley of the Pink Pillbox site, Mrs. Kennedy's  dresses were made in cooperation with Chanel by Chez Ninon, a small dress-making shop that was popular with the ladies of New York society, owned by Nona McAdoo and Sophie Medrin Shonnard (with silent partner Alisa Mellon Bruce).  Brawley reports that it was common to have fabric, buttons, trims, etc., imported from France along with an actual Chanel garment to be copied for three or four garments.  Average prices ranged from $800 to $1,000 for a suit, which was very expensive at the time, but a fraction of what a suit would cost to be made at Chanel on rue Cambon.  The hat was made by the millinery boutique at Bergdorf Goodman, Marita, presumably by Halston. 

Architect John Carl Warnecke points out some
of the features on a model of Lafayette Square.
Photo:  Google Images.
Although the visit to Texas was an important trip, the kick-off for the re-election campaign, it was not the debut of the pink suit.  Photos show JBK wearing the suit on several previous occasions, including a viewing on September 26, 1962, of the model made as a presentation of the plans to renovate and redevelop Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House;  it was one of the First Lady's many projects to beautify and improve the culture of our nation's capital.

The motorcade slowly traveling through the
streets of Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Image via Daily Mail, MailOnLine.
Since the weather that day in Dallas was predicted to be cool, it has been said that the President recommended that his wife wear the wool suit (which had a matching coat that was left on the plane when it was clear that it would not be needed) with the intent that the bullet-proof bubble roof would be removed from the dark blue Lincoln Continental limousine that had been flown in from Washington for the motorcade. Tragically, one of the last color images published of the pink suit was Mrs. Kennedy as she instinctively scrambled onto the trunk deck to retrieve bits of skull and brain tissue before a Secret Service agent pushed her back into the rear seat and the motorcade sped to Parkland Hospital.

The swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson
aboard Air Force One with
Mrs. Kennedy as a witness.
Photo via Yahoo.
Despite arrangements made for Mrs. Kennedy to change clothes on Air Force One, she reportedly refused so that all would see the evidence of the crime.  The whole contents of the hospital operating room where the President was declared dead are stored in a stable-climate cave at an undisclosed location along with the suit the President was wearing.  The 1961 limousine was leased (for only $500 per year despite the cost estimated to be $200,000) from the Ford Motor Company who retained ownership rights;  it continued in service until 1977 (although some say it was not used by an acting President) and is now on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  The blood-stained pink suit, blouse, stockings, shoes, and handbag were placed in a box by JBK's mother, Janet Auchincloss, before being donated to the National Archives and Records Administration in 1964 and kept in a climate-controlled facility in Maryland.  In the chaos at the hospital, the hat was removed and there is only speculation of its whereabouts today.

Happier times.
Photo via Image Zone.
Recently, daughter Caroline Kennedy, currently in Japan serving as ambassador,  confirmed her 2003 stipulation that the suit would be kept from public view until 2103.  At that time, Jacqueline Kennedy's heirs can decide if the clothes can be displayed without causing the hysteria that is felt would ensue with exhibition today.

For a previous post of The Devoted Classicist presenting Jacqueline Kennedy's efforts to furnish the Green Room at the White House, click here.  For the post on the creation of the upstairs President's Dining Room, click here.  The post on the Aaron Shikler portraits may be read here.  And the post on the island of Scorpios (or Skorpios) may be read here.


  1. A pink suit seems trivial, but your tribute shows its interconnection, on occasions both happy and tragic, with American history via the special personality that was Jackie Kennedy's.

  2. Chez Ninon worked with Chanel in an agreement known as "Line for Line" it was Chanel's true pattern, Chanel fabric and trim- actually from Rue Cambon- so It was as Chanel as one could get without going to Paris- Balenciaga did something similar with his Eisa line sold in Spain

  3. I saw and remember all the events of 1963, before and after the murder. And normally I would think that thinking about JBK's clothing was a bit trivial, but this is fascinating.

    I had always assumed the clothes were designed by and made up by Chanel, since that look was so boxy, smart and typical. So I am not surprised when you say the president's wife wore outfits that were made _in cooperation_ with Chanel by a small dress-making shop in New York.

    I hope the clothes will be displayed, with a similar pillbox hat if possible. For those of us who were adults or adolescents in 1963, the clothing will be very evocative, as will the car, speeches and everything else they can display.

  4. I was just listening to Anderson Cooper on his program tell the story of the pink suit and its whereabouts, though not as in depth as you have just done.

    Everybody assumed that the suit was a Chanel. Frankly I just learned from you about the Chez Ninon Chanel connection. Most of her clothes were said to be designed by Oleg Cassini here in the US, except when she put her foot down and insisted on wearing French couture. I wonder what the deal with Joe K was. Something like for every ten American clothes I wear, I get to wear one Givenchy?!

    In those days we, the public, devoured all the news about the clothes she wore. If you looked at photos of my generation, we all looked like Jackie Kennedy wannabees. The A line shifts, the gloves, handbags and Ferragamo shoes, the hair. I even have a copy of her three strand pearls, a good one of course. We were all fashion victims in those days, much more than today. She was the last first lady that I felt really represented us well all over the world.. The two of them were megastars.

    I was a senor in boarding school at the time of his death. I remember exactly where I stood and who I was with. It was really a generation's 9/11 and I would say the first terrorist act of out age. Since that day I have had a very soft place in my heart for JFK Jr. Used to see him in NYC often. What a nice young man. When he died I felt like someone in my family had died.

    Sorry to ramble on. Tend to do that often these days...

    Great post, as usual.

    1. J., although I have never met Caroline, I had met Mrs. Onassis and John, Jr., both the ultimate in graciousness; I felt a great loss at each death, so I know what you mean. Thank you for commenting.

  5. Fascinating, thank you. It seems morbid to preserve the clothing worn on such a tragic day, but history will be the greater for it. I can't quite imagine the same preservation for the clothes of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Happily, as with JFK, time has allowed a bit of healing from two horrible events.

  6. John, a tragic event still so vivid in my mind. I did enjoy hearing about the history and collaboration with Chanel for Mrs. Kennedy's suits. She has always been one of my style icons!

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    The Arts by Karena


Your interest in this blog is appreciated. Other commitments might prevent an immediate response to your comments or questions. That does not lessen the value of the blog reader's input, however. Only comments relating to the current post are eligible for publication; non-relevant comments and promotional references will be deleted. Contact me at regarding other questions. Anonymous comments cannot be accepted.