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Jacqueline Kennedy's Style Legacy


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, for two decades she covered theater, museums, gallery openings and movie premiers. Now arts reporter Jacqueline Trescott sits down with us to share some of what she's learned along the way. It's our Wisdom Watch conversation and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, you can't miss the fact that the presidential election is just a few days away, and that means people are paying close attention to everything the candidates are saying and doing, and you might have noticed that the scrutiny also follows the candidates' wives. Everything they do and say and especially where is dutifully taken down and analyzed and blogged about.

And you might think this is one of those byproducts of the age of social media, but it turns out that's not true. Amanda MacKenzie Stuart has written a forthcoming book about fashion icon Diana Vreeland. Vreeland served as fashion editor or editor of not one but two of the country's most influential lifestyle magazines, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. And as such she became intimately involved with dressing the former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

It turns out that that was a far more complicated and political affair than you might imagine. Amanda MacKenzie Stuart tells that story in her forthcoming book called "Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland," and Amanda MacKenzie Stuart is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Now, you write that as soon as Jacqueline Kennedy's good looks and elegance were deployed as a weapon in her husband's campaign, her clothes became politicized, and the attack was led by John Fairchild, who took over Women's Wear Daily in 1960. He said that Mrs. Kennedy, along with her mother-in-law, Rose, was running on the Paris couture fashion ticket. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

STUART: So this story that the Kennedy women, but Jacqueline Kennedy in particular, were wearing French couture - he made a great song and dance about this and criticized them for not supporting American fashion. And as soon as he led with this story, the other newspapers started to pick it up, and then the Republicans realized they were on to something too, so they wheeled in Pat Nixon, who declared that she loved American fashion and she always only ever wore American ready-to-wear fashion and she bought it off the racks in leading department stores.

And then at the same time there was another line of attack from Kennedy's own supporters, notably a man called David Dubinsky, who was a very powerful head of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, who'd contributed huge sums to Kennedy's campaign. So he was lobbying Kennedy too about Jacqueline Kennedy's un-American fashion choices.

MARTIN: So she wrote a letter to Diana Vreeland and asked for her help. How did she know Diana Vreeland and why did Diana Vreeland agree to help her?

STUART: Well, they'd known each other for a long time. Diana Vreeland had first been aware of Jacqueline Bouvier as she then was, as a dazzling debutant in 1947 and had arranged for her to photographed by Richard Avedon for Harper's Bazaar. So she knew of her and she knew of her as a very elegant and charming young woman, but this letter that Jacqueline Kennedy wrote her in 1960 was really the start of a much closer friendship between Jacqueline Kennedy and Diana Vreeland.

MARTIN: She writes: I must start to buy American clothes and have it known where I buy them. There have been several newspaper stories about me buying Paris clothes and Mrs. Nixon running up hers on a sewing machine. And then, you know, she says, just remember, I like terribly simple covered up clothes, she wrote, and I hate prints.

So how did Diana Vreeland go about helping her? What did she do?

STUART: She was the leading fashion editor of the time at Harper's Bazaar and she really knew all the designers. She knew all the manufacturers. She knew where to get things and whose look and whose work would suit Jacqueline Kennedy.

MARTIN: But there was another drama going on, which you write about in the book, which is that her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, offered to pay all of her wardrobe bills to take it off the table - right - as a political issue...


MARTIN: ...as long as she chose Oleg Cassini as her...


MARTIN: ...kind of personal - what? Stylist? Or...

STUART: Couturier.

MARTIN: Couturier. Right?


MARTIN: To supply all of her clothes?

STUART: They felt they could trust him, and this actually happened after Kennedy was elected president. At that point Joseph Kennedy stepped in to say, I think we've got to stop your clothes becoming such a political hot potato. You're going to have to work with one person and it should be Oleg Cassini because he's a loyal supporter and a loyal friend to the Kennedy clan.

MARTIN: But then Jackie Kennedy had the challenge of - she'd already reached out to Diana Vreeland and she was very much connected to the American design scene, so then she had to keep both of them happy and she wrote, Now I know how poor Jack feels when he has told three people they can be secretary of State, she wrote to Cassini.

STUART: It reached a kind of pitch of absurdity.

MARTIN: How did the two of them get on? How did Diana Vreeland and Oleg Cassini get on together? At some point each knew of the other. Right? So...

STUART: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: So how did they work it out?

STUART: I'm obviously - I'm Diana Vreeland's biographer and so I'm rather on her side about this, but I think she - Jacqueline Kennedy had much more trouble keeping Cassini calm and his ego in check, actually, than Diana Vreeland's. Diana Vreeland was one of two or three people who continued to feed through advice and introduce Jacqueline Kennedy and Cassini to new ideas and new looks that they might think about.

MARTIN: She writes another letter that you cite in the book, where she writes that it's very hard for him and me this first year, speaking of Oleg Cassini, as we don't quite know the occasions for clothes. So he makes 200 sketches when all I want are two dresses. That does speak to, I guess, the idea that the clothes remained political.

STUART: She was aware of it. Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think that that was justified? Or I mean I think people looking back on that now might think, oh, well, that's just, you know, people with not enough to do. But do you think that she was right to be so concerned about it?

STUART: Well, she was right. I mean she - over time, she - Jacqueline Kennedy, I think I'm right in saying, really, began to dislike the amount of attention that was paid to her appearance, but she was absolutely right to sense that clothes and image-making in this new era of television politics was very, very important, whether one liked it or not. And somehow a special place was reserved for the president's wife when it came to scrutiny and ideas about what she should and shouldn't wear.

MARTIN: Obviously I want to hear about how you think this is all working in the present day, but just as kind of a coda to this story of how she helped Jacqueline Kennedy get through the campaign and the inauguration and those kind of first, you know, early, tricky days, to thank her, you write in the book, Jacqueline Kennedy agreed to be photographed with the president-elect and their children for Bazaar, which is where she was fashion editor. You know, at the time this turned out to be a major coupe because she decided after that that she didn't want a lot of photographs and kind of intrusion into the lives of her children, so she never did sit for a formal portrait with Vogue, which was apparently quite a big deal.

But then when Diana Vreeland tried to get a raise after scoring this coup, what happened?

STUART: Nothing. Well, $1,000. She was so offended by the behavior of the Hearst Corporation, who owned Harper's Bazaar, that she jumped ship and went off to Conde Nast and Vogue.

MARTIN: Well, it is a fascinating story, as I said, and I hope we'll talk again and you can tell us more about Diana Vreeland. But again, this has been quite a revelation just seeing just how much was involved, even before the age of the - kind of the 24-hour news cycle in deciding what the first lady should wear.

And I don't know whether you have any insights into this, but what do you think about now? I mean as you note, there's a whole blog devoted just to what Mrs. Obama wears.

STUART: I have trouble with this, I must say. I mean if they like American fashion, if they find a designer that suits them, great. But if they decide to go off pieced(ph) and wear Alexander McQueen, in the case of Michelle Obama - well, she should really be allowed to wear whatever she likes. I mean, presidents' wives should be regarded as people, you know, not flagpoles.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I mean there is the argument that they can do a tremendous amount to promote the industries of their respective countries.

STUART: Their influence is just enormous. There's no question of that at all, but you know, if the president's wife isn't wearing clothes by a particular American designer, I think what needs to happen is, really, the American designer needs to think, well, why isn't she? Maybe I should just design her some clothes she wants to wear.

MARTIN: Well, a good place to end. Thank you. Amanda MacKenzie Stuart is author of the forthcoming biography "Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland," and it comes out this December and she was kind enough to join us from member station WGBH in Boston.

Amanda MacKenzie Stuart, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STUART: It's been a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.