In the margins of the weekend’s itinerary, which she had written out for her personal assistant, the first lady scheduled the visit outfit by outfit.
For the day of Nov. 21, 1963, her look would be head-to-toe Chanel: a white coat, skirt and blouse, with a black hat atop her head and a gold and navy bracelet on her wrist (“safety pin,” she wrote underneath, perhaps in reference to its clasp).
In the evening, she would don a black velvet dress with satin shoes and white kid gloves. And of course the jewelry had been considered: pearls with a diamond bracelet and earrings. Kennedy was not one to leave room for surprises.
But even the best laid plans can change. The gloves, for one, surfaced on her descent from Air Force One in Houston, paired with the daytime Chanel suit. If she wore the bracelet, it went unseen. And the days that followed would stray much further from the first lady’s notes.
Her bloodstained pink Chanel suit tells more acutely than any other image the story of what happened in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22.
But the notes she prepared for her personal assistant, Providencia Paredes, read as stage directions for a weekend of political theater and a catalog of the wardrobe that made her the most fashionable first lady of the 20th century, referenced by her successors to this day.
Kennedy was best known, during her time in the White House, for the uniform of her public appearances: the tailored skirt suits, shift dresses, layered pearls, white gloves and pillbox hats photographed around the world.
But her leisure wear — the equestrian gear, swimsuits and cotton summer clothes immortalized in photos of family trips — also became a part of her visual imprint. Many of those signature items were penciled into the itinerary for the Texas trip, including suits and dresses in summery shades of yellow, blue and green, and riding clothes for an appointment at Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch on Nov. 23.
There are many mentions in her notes of Oleg Cassini, the designer who became Kennedy’s personal dressmaker in 1961: a green wool suit (“for Mex not used”), a white crepe coat, a short pink crepe dress, a long mauve one, an orange coat and dress (“silk — worn in Udaipur, India — on lake”).
Another favorite of the first lady, Gustave Tassell, appears on the packing list for a baby blue dress that Kennedy also wore in India. Her detailed lists, many of which make reference to past manifestations of the dresses, are a view into the mind of a woman who took both image and organization very seriously.
Stacey Bredhoff, the curator of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, described Kennedy as a “meticulous planner” who concerned herself with every detail of ceremonial events: the guest lists, the menus, the seating arrangements, the flowers and of course the clothes.
The museum’s collection contains 95 of her dresses, including the white Chanel suit she wore on Nov. 21 and the orange silk Cassini dress from the state visit to India.
“We don’t have everything that she wore as first lady,” said James Wagner, the Kennedy museum’s exhibit specialist, “but our understanding is that once she left the White House, as far as we can tell, things that she wore at public events or during official travels, she set those aside and didn’t wear them again after 1963 with the intent that she would deed them to the library for our collection and for potential display in our museum.”
Some of the first lady’s best-known garments reside in and around the federal capital. The pink suit is being kept under climate-controlled wraps outside of Washington by the National Archives and Records Administration, barred from public view until 2103. Kennedy’s inauguration dress, by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Goodman under her direction, is kept at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
In 2003, Paredes and Mary B. Gallagher, the first lady’s personal secretary, consigned together a number of Kennedy items. Those that sold included some of Kennedy’s square-toe leather shoes, her nightgowns and sleep bonnets, cotton summer dresses, which had not been kept in the best condition. It’s one of the reasons so many of her archived items are seldom seen.
“One thing about the dresses is that they are very fragile, and the best thing you can do to take care of them is to keep them stored in a cool, dark place,” Bredhoff said. “So we’re very careful about how much time they can be out on display, exposed to the light and so on.”
In their thoughtful, organized detail, though, the notes from the Texas trip might say more about the first lady than the clothes ever could.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Bonnie Wertheim © 2018 The New York Times