Jackie Kennedy, standing stunned in a blood-stained, pink Chanel suit as she watched Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn into the presidency, created an indelible image in American history. The designer suit became both a haunting reminder of President Kennedy’s assassination as well as an instant emblem of the First Lady and the immense strength hidden behind such a petite frame and a soft voice.
Decades after President Kennedy’s assassination and nearly 15 years after her own death, Jacqueline is still an icon. Taylor Swift tries to emulate her outfit after outfit. Halloween stores sell imitations of that unforgettable Chanel suit. Even Michelle Obama’s been caught with far-too-similar skirt suits, a little too comparable to be deemed coincidences. Films have been made and books have been written, and through it all, we’ve immortalized Jackie Kennedy. She’s more than just another ex-First Lady – another president’s wife to be forgotten after four to eight years of media attention.
The Kennedys were instant superstars in a time of rapid cultural and social change in the early 1960s. With their youth, power and beauty, the Kennedys sparked a national fascination. Some may have taken one look at Jackie and labeled her a “trophy wife,” – a young, beautiful accessory to the president at the start of the 1960s when being young was suddenly cool. But Jackie turned the role of First Lady into a public persona; she traveled to foreign countries, spoke French with diplomats, made the White House a national treasure, radiated brightness at a time of an escalating Vietnam War and looked fabulous while doing it all, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on clothes.
There is no doubt that Jackie’s personality put her in the spotlight. In a 2012 piece, Time Magazine summarized the First Lady’s appeal succinctly yet precisely: “She was, somehow, at once warm and elegant, youthful and sophisticated, fun-loving and serious –and on top of it all, self-deprecatingly funny.” But these traits alone wouldn’t have made her so eternally beloved.
Besides having the face of a doll, the style of Coco Chanel herself and a sharp wit, Jackie contributed to the country’s history in ways that seemed minor or flippant, but were in fact monumental. Mercedes King, a historian and author of “O! Jackie,” a historical novel exploring the private life of Jackie Kennedy and how she dealt with JFK’s affairs, has spent most of her life researching the First Lady. She believes Jackie’s most notable contribution to history was her restoration of the White House. “Many claim she over spent a great deal of money to simply redecorate, but that’s not what she did,” she said. “Jackie studied blue prints, rescued aged and neglected furniture pieces from storage and restored the historical splendor to the mansion.” It was this restoration that transformed the White House into a home of envy and prestige, and gave it the splendor we associate with it today.
Besides the restoration, there is no doubt that Jackie’s love affair with clothes contributed to her fame. It could’ve been argued that Jackie spent far too much money on designer clothes, thus feeding the cesspool of materialism and couture obsession we know today. But what she did was turn fashion into a universal form of expression. “Her fashion tastes were natural instinct; she did what worked for her, and it worked in a big way,” said King. “When it comes to first ladies and fashion, they are always compared to Jackie.” Had she not looked as glamorous and sophisticated as she did, people may have taken one look at her and thought that this tiny woman had no place among diplomats and politicians. But they respected her, because besides being intelligent and well-spoken, she also put out an image that inspired respect.
Of course, her fame was enhanced by the JFK-Marilyn Monroe scandal. “The Jackie/Marilyn link is downright juicy. The two women couldn’t be more opposite, and yet, they were both irresistible to JKF,” said King. “But Jackie was a woman of her times; infidelity didn’t mean her husband didn’t love her and unfaithfulness didn’t demand divorce.” In a sense, it gave her more humanity; she became relatable.
And, the tragedy thrust upon her at such a young age only furthered her celebrity. The president’s assassination in 1963 joined the nation in sorrow and mourning, and only intensified the spotlight on Jackie. “Because her life was interrupted by tragedy, people wanted to follow her story until the end,” said Tina Cassidy, journalist and author of “Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams.” The way she carried herself after JFK’s death, modeling his funeral after that of Abraham Lincoln and guiding her young children to the casket and through it all made her a sympathetic character – a strong one – one who America couldn’t help but love, pity and mourn alongside.
The last chapters of Jackie’s life were no less filled with scandal and fame. The marriage with millionaire Onassis itself caused gossip and upheaval “People were intrigued by her choice of marrying Onassis in 1968 and by his death in 1975,” said Cassidy.
Once Onassis died, the world saw a woman who’d been married to a president and then to the richest man in the world pick up work at a publishing house simply because she loved books and wanted to contribute to the workforce. “But it was her amazing third act, when she became an empty nester, a preservation activist and a book editor, and worked when she didn’t have to, that showed she was making a difference in her own right.” She affirmed what everyone knew: Jackie Kennedy was a good role model.
Sarai Perez, 18, a soon-to-be freshman at N.Y.U., has kept images of Jackie as her desktop since she got her first laptop in middle school – from Jackie in her wedding dress to close-ups of her face decked in over-sized, bumblebee-esque sunglasses. “Well, I mean look at her.,” said Montoya. “She’s just so glamorous. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?” And perhaps that’s the point in the end. She may have been struck by tragedy; she may have been cheated on by her husband; but ultimately who wouldn’t want to be like Jackie Kennedy?