I’ve always been fascinated by moments when fashion collides with history. In my opinion the most memorable and iconic example of this in American history is Jackie Kennedy’s pink bouclé suit. Had it not been for the shocking events of Nov. 22, 1963, this suit probably would have just been another forgettable piece from the first ladies closet. However, stained in blood, this pink and navy suit is now emblazoned into our minds and history books for eternity as one of the most famous outfits ever worn.
The story of this suit dates back much further than that fated day in Dallas. During JFK’S Presidential campaign, Jackie had spent over $30,000 in Paris and was slammed with bad press. To avoid further negative stories, she began to make sure all of her clothes were bought in America or made by American designers. Arnold Scaasi recalled that Jackie had once picked out dozens outfits from his collection. When he told her staffer that he would only charge for the cost of materials the young woman said “Oh Mr. Scaasi, I don’t know what we’ll do about that. To the best of my knowledge the first lady does not pay for her clothes.” Scaasi never heard from the White House again and said it was probably the dumbest decision of his life.
In contrast, Oleg Cassini agreed to dress the first lady for free and designed some of her most famous looks. He quickly became her personal designer and was known as her “secretary of style”. Jackie credited Cassini for the majority of her looks, making him one of the most famous designers in the world, and he cemented her place in history as a fashion icon. One of Cassini’s jobs was to make Jackie look like she was wearing couture foreign designs with outfits made in America. This pink suit was no exception. One of her go to alterer’s in NYC to help produce these designs was called Chez Nina. Chez was run by two women who adored couture fashion and specialized in constructing perfect, authorized copies of couture designs from Paris. They attended all of the shows every season, selected their favorites and paid for the rights to produce these designs under license. This scheme killed two birds with one stone. It was the perfect way for Jackie to get designer items for 75% less than the real thing cost, and give the appearance that she was buying American made clothing. Jackie’s iconic pink suit first debuted in the Chanel Autumn/Winter 1961 collection. It was recreated for her by Chez Ninon using the “line for line” system. It was made using fabric, buttons and trim purchased from Chanel. Karl Lagerfeld confirmed this adding “She did have real Chanels, but her sister ordered them. We have all the proof.” The actual Chanel design Jackie’s suit was based on varied only slightly from the one she wore in that it had a black silk collar and trim.
Jackie’s pink suit was made from a light weight raspberry wool in a nubby weave known as bouclé. The jacket was double breasted and featured a notched and quilted navy blue silk collar and silk lining. Detailing included six gold floral buttons with navy blue piping, four piped patch pockets, and a two button closure at each wrist. Navy silk piping trimmed the jacket and a tiny gold chain was sewn at the inside edge so it would hang straight. The pencil skirt featured a zipper, hook and eye closure at the back. She paired this with a matching navy silk shell blouse and scarf, a pink navy edged pillbox hat, white leather kid gloves and gold and navy pumps.
Prior to visiting Dallas, Jackie Kennedy created detailed lists of her outfits and accessories to be packed for each day. JFK had told her, “There are going to be all these rich, Republican women at that lunch … wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets. And you’ve got to look as marvelous as any of them. Be simple — show these Texans what good taste really is.” After bringing several dress options in and out of his room, the pink outfit was one of those chosen. Jackie noted that it was one of her husband’s particular favorites. Jackie had worn the suit for six other public appearances both in Washington and London. It was also one of her personal favorites.
On November 22, 1963 a member of the secret service recalled that Jackie’s pink suit seemed to glow under the sunlight and against the blue car she and JFK were riding in, making her extremely visible. Earlier in the day JFK had told her she looked “smashing” in the outfit. After the shocking shooting took place, Jackie ripped off her pink hat and threw it on the limousine floor in such a furry that a chunk of her hair was reportedly still attached to the comb. When they arrived at the hospital, secret service agent Paul Landis noticed the hat and took it into the hospital. It was placed in a patient belongings bag which eventually made it’s way to Mary Gallagher, Jackie’s secretary.
At the hospital, several people offered Jackie assistance to change out of her her blood soaked suit. She refused, stating “Oh, no…I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”
The suit remained on throughout the swearing in ceremony of Vice President Johnson aboard Air Force one. Lady Bird Johnson recalled “Her hair was falling in her face but she was very composed … I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood — her husband’s blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights — that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.” Jackie never regretted this decision and later said she only regretted having washed the blood from her face.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Jackie’s mother Janet Lee Auchincloss was given the suit by Jackie’s maid who had placed it in a box. Janet wrote “November 22, 1963” on it and put it in her attic for safekeeping. The pink pillbox hat reportedly made it back Washington as well, but is still missing to this day. The website PinkPillbox.com has several pages devoted to solving this mystery. Eventually Jackie’s suit was donated to the National Archives in Maryland. It is hidden from public viewing and stored in a custom made acid free box in a climate controlled room. It’s contents are listed as: “Pink Chanel Suit — Jacket and Skirt; Blue Blouse; Pair of Stockings, wrapped in a white towel; Pair of Blue Shoes; Blue Purse.” Steven Tilley, a senior archivist, told the Washington Post in 2011 that “It looks like it’s brand new, except for the blood.”
Unfortunately none of us will ever be able to see this famous suit in person. In 2003, Caroline Kennedy signed a deed of gift with the provision that the suit be preserved but not displayed publicly until at least 2103 as not to “in any way to dishonor the memory of the late President or cause unnecessary grief or suffering to members of his family.” At that point Kennedy heirs and archivists will revisit the idea of a public showing. Until then, this outfit which is both soaked in blood and American history remains safely tucked away from the world, as an eternal symbol of the day that ended America’s innocence.