A pink reminder, kept out of view
Updated: 2013-12-01 07:18
(The New York Times)
On the plane back to Washington, in her pink Chanel suit, caked with her husband's blood, Jackie Kennedy resisted all suggestions from aides that she clean herself up. Instead, she just said, "Let them see what they've done."
But for the half century since John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the most famous artifact from that day, one of the most recognizable articles of clothing ever worn, has been seen by almost no one. Preserved by the National Archives in a climate-controlled vault outside of Washington, it is subject to Kennedy family restrictions that it not be seen for almost a century more.
If there is a single item that captures both the shame and the violence that erupted that day, and the glamour and artifice that preceded it, it is Jackie Kennedy's bloodstained pink suit, a tantalizing window on fame and fashion, her allure and her steely resolve, the things we know about her and the things we never quite will.
Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit, now an artifact of November 22, 1963, will remained concealed until 2103. Cecil Stoughton / John F. Kennedy Presidential library and museum, boston
That Mrs. Kennedy is so closely linked to an item of clothing is fitting. In nearly three years as first lady, she gained celebrity for her youthful style. Politically, it meant huge crowds whenever she accompanied the president. But for Mrs. Kennedy, who felt vulnerable, fashion gave her a sense of separation from the public's gaze. It was armor.
So even on that day, before the horror of what ensued, to look at Mrs. Kennedy was to be drawn inevitably to the pink suit, a copy of a classic cardigan-style Chanel with navy lapels. The suit came from Chez Ninon, a New York salon. She wore it at least six other times, including on a 1962 visit to London.
Fifty years ago, in Dallas, Clint Hill, who was the Secret Service agent assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, thought the pink suit looked fluorescent against the dark blue of the car carrying the president and the first lady.
"She stood out so much in the car because of the color of that suit," said Mr. Hill.
Now preserved in its vault, the pink suit and its accessories, still stained, remain essentially unchanged from the day of the assassination. Only the outfit's matching pillbox hat and white kid gloves are missing, lost in the chaos of that day.
Although the National Archives has kept the suit and accessories since 1964, the items legally belonged after her death to Caroline Kennedy as her mother's heir. So a deed of gift was made in 2003 with the provision that the suit would not be seen by the public until 2103. Martha Murphy, chief of special access at the archives, said Mrs. Kennedy's clothes are the only items in the assassination collection with this restriction.
The Kennedy family never advised the archives about cleaning the suit, Ms. Murphy said, although leaving blood and other residue on garments is a standard conservation practice. Ms. Murphy said the suit essentially looks brand-new.
For all Mrs. Kennedy's visibility, it seems fitting that her pink suit should be hidden from view. "She certainly understood invisibility and disappearance very deeply, as well as staged appearance," said the cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, author of "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon." "So the unseen suit is a very poignant and accurate emblem of her contradiction."
Curators cannot think of another historical garment imbued with more meaning, and also deemed too sensitive to be shown. Among items of apparel with similar resonance are Napoleon's death coat, a shoe dropped by Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine and the suit and cloak Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.
Most experts believe displaying her suit would be problematic. "It would produce hysteria if it were placed on view," said Phyllis Magidson, curator of costume and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York.
"The Death of a President," a book by William Manchester, described how President Kennedy took an unusual interest in what his wife planned to wear on the Texas trip, something he had never done in their marriage. He said to her, Mr. Manchester reported, "Be simple - show these Texans what good taste really is."
The New York Times
(China Daily 12/01/2013 page10)