Throughout eight episodes of The Kennedys, Katie Holmes evolves her style as Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Bouvier, Kennedy and then Onassis from New Look debutante to elegant socialite hidden behind huge plastic sunglasses. Unquestionably her most important outfit is a Chez Ninon pink wool suit for JFK’s fateful trip to Dallas, recreated here by Giorgio Armani under guidance from The Kennedys costume designer Christopher Hargadon.
The real suit, still covered in President Kennedy’s blood, is housed at the Maryland National Archives; however the accompanying pillbox was lost at Parkland Memorial Hospital where he died. This suit is symbolic of a tumultuous period in American history and of an eternally glamorous woman who will forever be defined by what she wore. Even though the costume is only seen for one episode of The Kennedys, in narrative terms it marks both the return of Jackie to public life after the loss of her prematurely born son and the impending death of her husband.
Earlier in the show, effort is made to illustrate the evolution of Jackie, her crucial progression occurring midway through episode 5, ‘Moral Issues and Inner Turmoil’. Selecting garments, mainly A-line shifts, capped sleeved and sleeveless, from a rail sent by ‘Mr Cassini’ (Oleg, fashion designer credited with creating the First Lady’s iconic look), she blossoms into the public figure we readily associate her with today. The first time we see Jackie in a suit, a red double breasted jacket with black pencil skirt, is not until newsreel footage for episode 4, ‘Broken Promises and Deadly Barriers’.
In the flashback scenes as Miss Bouvier for episode 2, ‘Shared Victories, Private Struggles’, there are hints of her earlier style. On trend for the 1950s, she rides horses in blue jeans and a white shirt then attends an exclusive evening function, where incidentally she meets JFK, in a fitted waist gown with copious skirt; the unmistakably feminine Dior silhouette.
The innocent naivety she possessed in these early years, perhaps even her enjoyment of clothes, was swept away on joining the Kennedy clan. If this show is even partway reflection of the truth, Jackie was considering ‘buying American’ even before she became First Lady; as she attempts to defend her taste in European fashions, matriarch Rose Kennedy (Diana Hardcastle), who seems like an older reflection of Jackie at times, cattily remarks that such clothes are generally made for a “slimmer figure”.
If Jackie’s infamous rose pink suit is most significant in a historical context, within The Kennedys show itself, gloves play the most important role in exemplifying her insecurities. There are several moments throughout when she dons them almost on autopilot, as if slipping on a pair of slippers with her nightgown. One imagines that without them she feels nude; unprotected and vulnerable.
Long white gloves were a commonly employed accessory for Jackie, but in this context they represent a sartorial shield. At a White House ball in episode 3, ‘Failed Invasion, Failed Fidelity’, she takes a deep breath and pops them on her fingers, instantly embodying the Mrs. Kennedy persona. They compliment her outfit, a long white evening gown seemingly based on ubiquitous daytime shifts, but more crucially they keep her clean. Likewise attending a state ball in a pale pink dress festooned with appliqué flowers for episode 6, ‘On the Brink of War’.
Yet most noteworthy is at Bobby Kennedy’s (Barry Pepper) graveside in episode 8, ‘The Aftermath: A Family’s Curse of Misfortune and Heartbreak’. Now as Jackie ‘O’ wearing a simple black mourning dress the gloves still remain. However, although when grieving for her husband Jackie she chose black, here she has chosen white; respectful, but somehow sensational with it.
Of course Jackie also wore (short) white gloves with her suit on the day President Kennedy was shot. Even though Christopher Hargadon costumed The Kennedys as a whole (that’s 40-50 ensembles for each of the leads plus extras), fashion designer Giorgio Armani was selected to make the pink suit and two further dresses. Presumably the idea was twofold; one to maximise publicity (reputedly Katie Holmes suggested Armani’s involvement) and secondly to echo that he did actually provide clothes for Jackie at some point. The suit in question is a fairly accurate recreation of the real garment, although the fabric appears to be lighter tweed and the jacket is trimmed in black instead of dark blue.
Contention remains over exactly who designed the original garment. It is obviously based on the Chanel box suit introduced in 1954, but was credited to small New York house Chez Ninon. However, Chanel did supposedly provide material required to make the outfit, so Jackie was actually wearing a sanctioned reproduction of Chanel’s suit by Chez Ninon. This meant she could still be seen supporting U.S. industry yet keep up to date with the latest continental styles. It was not the only suit that Jackie owned by Chez Ninon, most famous of which is a two-piece skirt and jacket in grey tweed. Similar versions can be glimpsed briefly during the show.
The Kennedys is far from fact, but it is gratifying to see that so much effort was spent recreating their era via Emmy nominated production design and Hargadon’s painstakingly detailed costumes. Jackie, and by obvious extension Katie Holmes, is central to the show’s lavish, if bitterly tragic facade. As Greg Kinnear playing President Kennedy announces to a rapturous audience just hours before he is murdered, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear!”
The Kennedys was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 18th July.
You can watch Katie Holmes in The Kennedys at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2013, Chris Laverty.