Editor’s note: This essay, written by Judy Bachrach, originally appeared in the July 1994 issue of InStyle. We’re republishing it today, on the 20th anniversary of her death.
Who was she really? You’d think by now we’d all know. Certainly we wanted to. Never has any woman’s life been tracked for so many decades by so many photographs. To a nation of devoted viewers, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ life was high drama, composed in unequal parts of fairy tale, fable and tragedy. Briefly a star on a public stage, afterward she was silent for 10,000 days, an enigma in a culture that lauds celebrity. She was a book editor who refused to tell the greatest story of all—her own. And so, what we know of her, we know mostly, from pictures, and these provide the most vibrant clues to the gentle mystery of her life.
Each image of her unveils so much more than a mere click in time. More than a bared arm or freshly tanned knee, more even than a slender glimpse of mood or bright color. Take, for example, the perky Halston pillbox hats worn by Jackie, her signature crown as First Lady. From the start, they were perched marvels, set askew in a way the designer claimed he had never intended. Those hats conquered Paris in 1961 Even her husband agreed. “I am the man,” President John Kennedy told Charles de Gaulle’s enchanted countrymen, “who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
In the beginning, Jacqueline Kennedy was to express her nature, declare her breaks from tradition, exclusively through the clothes she wore. If she had one principle of dressing, it was to insist on fine fabrics and superior craft. She told a friend, “It doesn’t matter what you wear as long as it’s quality.” Consider, for example, the sleeveless, white Oleg Cassini gown she chose for the inaugural gala—and what a departure that gown was from the beaded, the bugled, the stuffy taffeta, the stiff crinolines, the tight girdles and tight curls of Mamie and of Bess. Jackie’s boxy Chanel suits were defiantly French, and how elegantly they mocked Pat Nixon’s Republican shirtwaists and that famous fatigued cloth coat.
Rumor then had it that Jackie Kennedy spent $30,000 a year on clothes. This business of looking lovely was, for a while, a consuming objective (later she’d adopt another equally aesthetic pursuit—the restoration of the White House). It was her way of attaining what few women of the era got: recognition, respect, an outlet for an identity. Jackie wrote in her high school yearbook that her ambition in life was “not to be a housewife.” Of course she became wife and mother—and gladly so—but her look expressed a yearning to be noticed for her individuality rather than for the many roles she played.
The last time we saw a famous grown woman in unabashed pink it was Jackie: Still etched in national memory is a special shade of rose, belonging to a Schiaparelli suit worn in a Dallas motorcade. By morning’s end the suit was stained with her husband’s blood, but in spite of Lady Bird Johnson’s pleas, Jackie refused to shed it. The soiled garment was—for her, for us—forever a symbol of the tragedy. This was the last piece of herself she would ever choose to share with her public.
It is easy to understand Jackie’s desire to remain apart, easier still to recognize her desire to be private. After her marriage in 1968 to shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis—a day captured in wedding pictures of her wearing white hair ribbons, improbably girlish and gay—her clothes grew protective. More and more, she showed up behind mammoth sunglasses, her dark hair hidden beneath an Hermes scarf.
In the mid-seventies, Jackie launched a new life as an editor—first at Viking Press, then at Doubleday. Oh, the Jackie style was still in evidence, of course, consistent even as her life continued to change. Now there were piles of skinny tees in every color and tight trousers, soft Valentino dresses, lovely cashmeres, and a glorious green crepe Carolina Herrera dress she wore to daughter Caroline’s wedding in 1986.
Though her taste was timeless, she was not. Her children now had grown. Pictures of her seemed rarer, more fleeting, more fragile: the delicate mother jogging, elegant even in sweats and thin as a fading hope; then the delicate grandmother jogging, thinner still.
“She wasn’t the most glamorous nor the most beautiful woman,” an actress once remarked. Maybe not. Who can begin to deconstruct Jackie’s appeal, especially now? All I know is, I found myself staring at a picture of her—among the endless replay of images marking her death this May—a recent shot from her publishing days showing her with a cashmere scarf wound around her exquisitely long throat, a cashmere sweater hugging her slight frame. I thought, “Gee, she looks just like my mother.”
And then I thought, “Why, no, my mother looked just like Jackie.”
It was, for the longest time, a sort of national ambition for us all.
This essay, by Judy Bachrach, first appeared in the July 1994 issue of InStyle, which went to press shortly after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died of cancer at the age of 64.