Jackie Kennedy and changing fashion

 In Diary, News

In The Years That Followed, Calista’s mother admires the style of Jackie Kennedy. Simplicity, elegance and strong colours formed her trademark look.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece for an anthology that explored women’s relationship with clothes. Each of the invited authors chose an item that had special resonance for them – a memory of some sort, a texture perhaps, or an association with someone from the past. I delighted in the opportunity to write about my paternal grandmother and her collection of sumptuous, highly-decorative hats.

My piece was entitled ‘Talking Through Her Hat’ – a phrase usually associated with someone who talks stuff and nonsense. In this case, though, I chose it because of the ways in which fashion, and the clothes we choose to wear, speak volumes about about ourselves and how we see our place in the world.

My grandmother’s hats form a narrative around early twentieth century society. They were large, ornate, often hand-made by one of Belfast’s many milliners. Wearing them, she proclaimed her social status, her leisured, financial comfort and her celebrated good taste.

Less affluent women wore hats that were much smaller, made of less expensive fabric, decorated with a simple flower, perhaps, or a gathering of ribbons.

But no matter how ornate or understated, hats were part of the fashion of the day: a lady – rich or poor – was not dressed properly without her hat and her gloves.

Fashion has always spoken to us of status.

It also speaks to us about social change. Look at the shorter skirts and smaller hats that were in vogue in the late forties – they spoke of post-war austerity, of a world of shortages and uncertainties. In the fifties, the yards and yards of fabric used in Dior’s ‘New Look’ spoke of the opposite – of a world finding its feet again in terms of abundance and financial security.

Even more tellingly, the feminine, flowery and impractical garments that became fashionable in the fifties spoke of women being sent back home once again, out of the workplace: because now the men were back.

And then we had the nineteen-sixties: an era of worldwide radical change.

In The Years That Followed, Calista’s mother admires the style of Jackie Kennedy. Simplicity, elegance and strong colours formed her trademark look.

For her, too, a hat and gloves were an important fashion statement.

Among her many influences, Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat both fashionable and accessible.

A pillbox – unlike my grandmother’s earlier creations, for example – could be made or had for very little money.

And so, this up-to-the-minute fashion statement suddenly became available to all women: it was almost as though Jackie’s pillbox ushered in a new democracy in fashion.

Or more accurately, a democracy of style: Jackie created fashion with her own individual taste. When other women followed this look in their droves, a new era in fashion was born.

Jackie favoured the suit, and the statement it made.

It became the hallmark of the intelligent, independent and sophisticated woman of the early nineteen-sixties.

One such suit designed by Chanel, is the strawberry pink, double-breasted jacket and skirt in boucle wool that is indelibly imprinted on our memories.

It is the suit that Jackie wore, complete with pink pillbox hat, on the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

Its blood-spattered wool has become one of those symbols of the end of an era, the death of innocence.

After the President’s death, Jackie’s public appearances were rare – but she had left her mark on those early years until everything changed once again.

In the latter half of the sixties, fashion exploded in a rainbow of psychelic colour, of new and freer shapes, of back-to-nature fabrics in a new and unfettered counter-cultural revolution.

The age of flower-power and free love had arrived – and with it a disregard for the tailored, buttoned-down, formal structures of the suit, the hat, the gloves and the overcoats that had gone before.

These radical changes in the shapes and colours of clothing became emblematic of that most tumultuous decade – a time of change that has left its mark on fashion and society even today, some fifty years later.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Catherine Dunne author - photo Noel HillisCatherine Dunne author - photo Noel Hillis