Thursday 19 September 2019

Roslyn Dee: 'Defined by dignity in Dallas suit'

Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960
Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960

Roslyn Dee

She carried a bouquet of orchids and gardenias while her lace veil hung from a tiara adorned with orange blossoms. The dress itself, ivory in hue, and complete with boat neckline and fitted bodice, was fashioned from the finest of tissue-silk. It's an idyllic image - Jacqueline Bouvier on her wedding day. On this very day, in fact, in 1953, when, on the morning of September 12, in St Mary's Church in Newport, Rhode Island, she married the man who would become immortalised as JFK.

We've seen those wedding photographs, and so many other images depicting the style of Jacqueline Kennedy over the years. The suits, the pearls, the shift dresses, the pill-box hats, the elbow-length gloves.

But that's not how we remember her. And as I watched Natalie Portman's depiction of her in 'Jackie', screened on RTÉ last weekend, it only served to reinforce that when it comes to the great and the good, there is generally one iconic image that defines them for eternity.

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Like Leonard Cohen, for instance, always in monochrome, complete with trilby, and that slow, seductive smile. Or George Best, forever young and in larger-than-life technicolour, his dark hair dancing on his shoulders, his red football shirt hanging loose and almost covering his white shorts. And Jacqueline Kennedy? Despite all the fashionable glamour of her White House years and beyond, she is still visually defined by that November day in Dallas.

The image flashes up and there she is, resplendent in that pink, bouclé Chanel suit. That double-breasted, sherbet-pink, wool suit with the navy collar that JFK had asked her to wear for the Dallas lunch. "Be simple," he'd said. "There will be rich Republican women there, wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets. Show those Texans what good taste really is."

Which she did. And then showed them what steeliness and dignity were too.

Encouraged to change out of the blood-soaked suit after the assassination, she refused. So she stood beside her husband's lifeless body in the operating theatre of Parkland Hospital, dressed in the pink suit. When his body was loaded on to Air Force One she was still wearing it, the jacket and skirt both red with blood all down the right-hand side, her signature gloves also saturated with Jack Kennedy's blood.

On board the plane, her secretary, Mary Gallagher, laid out a fresh dress for her, but she refused to change. Even during the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson, there she is in the archive footage, her hat gone and her hair hanging loose, but still attired in her suit. Why? "I want them to see what they've done to Jack," she defiantly declared.

And so it is that the image of her in that suit defines not just a tragic moment in history, but the very character of the woman herself. For from the moment the shots rang out in Dallas, until almost dawn the next morning back in Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy stayed in bloodied pink. Only at 5am, with her husband's embalmed body now lying in the East Room in the White House, did she slip away and finally take off the suit.

Little did she know, of course, as she left St Mary's Church on her husband's arm 66 years ago today, that in times to come, when the name Jacqueline Kennedy was uttered, it wouldn't be her image in an exquisite tissue-silk wedding dress that people would call to mind, or, indeed, of her dressed in any of her oh-so-chic fashion ensembles.

Rather, it would be the Dallas suit. Always the suit. Pristine and perfect. Then smeared and besmirched with presidential blood.

Jacqueline Kennedy, frozen forever in widow's pink.

Irish Independent

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