American Beauty

What would you wear to ride an elephant? In 1962, on a state visit to India, Jackie Kennedy climbed aboard such a beast wearing a pale yellow silk dress with little cap sleeves and a pair of white gloves. By the end of the '60s, the hippie revolution would destroy such vestiges of ladylike dressing up, but for the brief shining moment that Jackie Kennedy was First Lady, she made Sunday best look chic. Sleeveless sheath dresses. Soft suits with covered buttons. Coats like those Audrey Hepburn wore in the movies. And hats--though she hated them. It was the last gasp of prefeminist decorum. "She put a little style into the White House," wrote the legendary fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland, "and suddenly 'good taste' became good taste. Before the Kennedys, good taste was never the point of modern America--at all."

For a window on more tasteful times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is throwing open Jackie's closets on May 1 with a fashion exhibit called "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years." On April 23, a gaggle of Kennedys--Caroline and Teddy in the lead--were expected to turn up at a gala opening benefit, along with Jackie's fashionable sister, Lee Radziwill, who has a new book out, "Happy Days," which is full of family photos. First Lady Laura Bush was also on the invitation list, as well as Gwyneth, Renee and Sigourney. Meanwhile, at least one other Jackie book--about her signature look--and even a cosmetics line called the Camelot Collection are about to hit the stores. Jackie's style never goes out.

But don't look for Jackie O at the Met, in big sunglasses and capri pants. Here instead is Mrs. Kennedy--and a powerful sense of official history shapes the show. (Without the approval of the family and the JFK Library and Museum in Boston--where the clothing from the White House years is preserved--the exhibition would have been impossible.) "For me, the biggest revelation was the level of Jackie's involvement in constructing her image as First Lady," says guest curator Hamish Bowles, the European editor of Vogue. She referred to her official wardrobe as "state clothing," and her fashion instincts turned out to be an effective political tool--though at first it seemed her clothes would be a liability. During the 1960 campaign, Women's Wear Daily reported that she and her mother-in-law, Rose, spent $30,000 a year on Paris couture. (Jackie's famous retort: "I couldn't spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.") Then David Dubinsky, head of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, complained to JFK about his wife's foreign wardrobe. After that it was au revoir, Givenchy.

And hello, Oleg Cassini, who'd once designed costumes for Hollywood. The look was still Parisian--she often bought American copies of French designs, and sometimes sneaked in the real thing--and the effect was powerful. For official trips, Jackie mapped out clothes down to every detail. Of course, she wowed the French ("I am the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris," the president famously said), but she also melted the cold warrior Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, wearing a dazzling pink-sequined gown. Back home, it was the simple elegance of those sheaths and suits that entranced the public. Even her husband understood that. "There are going to be all those rich Republican women at that lunch, wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets," he said to her before the trip to Dallas. "You've got to look as marvelous as any of them. Be simple--show these Texans what good taste really is."