Jackie Kennedy and Diana Vreeland: A Friendship of Icons

Jackie Kennedy and Diana Vreeland: A Friendship of Icons

Diana Vreeland, longtime editor of Harper's Bazaar, then Vogue, then consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of the most influential figures, I think, in the history of fashion. Through her vision for what a contemporary fashion magazine should look like, given what she knew contemporary women needed from fashion, she changed our relationship with the clothes we wear. We'll come back to Mrs. Vreeland, but for now, I want to focus on one particular woman who benefitted from Vreeland's vision: Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Many years after their friendship began, Mrs. Vreeland and Mrs. Kennedy Onassis, together in 1980. Image: International Center of Photography via The New York Times. 

Many years after their friendship began, Mrs. Vreeland and Mrs. Kennedy Onassis, together in 1980. Image: International Center of Photography via The New York Times. 

In the documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, about the editor's life and work, one of her sons reads a letter from Mrs. Kennedy to his mother before the election in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was still the Democratic nominee for President. 

Dear Mrs. Vreeland,

It sounds as if you know exactly the right things. You are psychic, as well as an angel. I feel it is presumptuous and bad luck to even be thinking about it now, but it’s such fun to think about. I would be imagining it even if my husband were a garbage man. I’ll just have to get it anyway and wear it to watch TV if things don’t work out. 

I am just so touched by the innocent, almost childish delight expressed in these lines. There is a universality in her words and emotions- a feeling that we women all participate in some kind of fantasy around how we will look and what we will wear at some point in our lives. And it's reassuring to know that even fabulously stylish women need a little help sometimes. 

The back story is that the Republican campaign at the time was making an issue out of the fact that Jackie Kennedy wore French designers. They were turning her wardrobe into a political point, which, given the importance of clothing, perhaps it is. Kennedy wrote to Vreeland during the 1960 election:

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. 

So, Diana Vreeland did for Jackie what Diana Vreeland did always, she lent her vision and hand to the creation of an image: this time, that of an American icon. First, as a Presidential nominee's wife, then as a First Lady, Jackie Kennedy came to represent the pinnacle of female American style.

John F. Kennedy & Jacqueline Kennedy on Inauguration Day: January 20, 1961. Mrs. Kennedy, just 31 when her husband was sworn into office, wore a coat by American Designer and Kennedy supporter Oleg Cassini, and a pillbox hat by Halston.  

John F. Kennedy & Jacqueline Kennedy on Inauguration Day: January 20, 1961. Mrs. Kennedy, just 31 when her husband was sworn into office, wore a coat by American Designer and Kennedy supporter Oleg Cassini, and a pillbox hat by Halston.  

In that evening's Inaugural Ball, Mrs. Kennedy wore a dress she designed in collaboration with Ethel Frankau, Head of Custom Salon at Bergdorf Goodman. Image: Bettman/Corbis.

In that evening's Inaugural Ball, Mrs. Kennedy wore a dress she designed in collaboration with Ethel Frankau, Head of Custom Salon at Bergdorf Goodman. Image: Bettman/Corbis.

When it came time to give a magazine the honor of publishing the first images of the presidential couple, it's no surprise that the First Lady chose Harper's Bazaar. She wrote to Mrs. Vreeland:

Dear Diana,

Everyone is wondering why we chose Harper’s Bazaar and they invent a million reasons. And no one says the real one, which is you. 

The first published images of the President and First Lady in Harper's Bazaar, February 1961. Photographs by Richard Avedon via Diana Vreeland's website. 

The First Lady also showed her loyalty to Mrs. Vreeland by insisting on including her on the guest list to the Inaugural Ball. Todd Purdham writes in Vanity Fair: 

The president-elect and his elegant wife, Jacqueline, had made a special point of inviting not only the usual hacks and flacks but also a select group of scholars, artists, writers, and thinkers, from Carl Sandburg and John Steinbeck to Ernest Hemingway and Mark Rothko. (Jackie had also taken pains to invite Mr. and Mrs. T. Reed Vreeland, of 550 Park Avenue—Diana Vreeland was the soon-to-be editor of Vogue and the empress of American taste—and to ask that they get “the most VIP treatment” of anyone on her list.)

How simply wonderful when history serves up such a story: fashion, politics, and the character and vision of two great American women. I couldn't ask for anything better. 

Happy weekend. 

 

Feature image: Jacqueline Kennedy photographed by Richard Avedon for Harper's Bazaar wearing her Inaugural Gala dress (worn on January 19, 1961), designed by Oleg Cassini. 

Sources:

1. Bowles, H. (2001). Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2. Martin, M & Stuart AM. (2012, October 25). Jacqueline Kennedy's Style Legacy. In Tell Me More. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/10/25/163628652/jacqueline-kennedys-style-legacy

3. AG Nauta Couture. Jackie Kennedy: The Presidential Wardrobe. Retrieved from: https://agnautacouture.com/2013/10/27/jackie-kennedy-the-presidential-wardrobe/

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