Kennedy myth keeps blooming as first lady's gowns hit town

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2002, 12:00am

THIS WEEKEND is cherry blossom weekend in Washington, a time when tens of thousands of people flock to bask in the life-affirming qualities of flowers produced by some 3,000 trees donated by the Japanese Imperial Court 90 years ago.

But this year the blooms have some competition. This weekend marks the opening of a hugely popular touring tribute to the clothes worn by late first lady Jackie Kennedy-Onassis. If one display celebrates nature's regeneration, the other is likely to prove that the allure of the Kennedy myth shows no sign of dying in the American heart.

'A Mere Grab Bag of Garb,' sneered the Washington Post after a sneak preview of the display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Few, however, are anticipating anything other than another blisteringly successful exhibition, such is the ongoing fascination with the Kennedy White House.

The show arrives after displays in Boston and New York. Staff at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art estimated some 560,000 people visited in just three months. That made it the most popular costume exhibition in the museum's history, and one of its most successful exhibitions of all time, putting it in on a par with relics from King Tutankhamun's tomb shown in the 1970s and a major Monet display.

The Washington Post pointed out the items are merely a dead woman's dresses, after all, and not representative of cutting-edge fashion of the time or of anything else particularly much. That will not matter.

The allure of the doomed 1,000-day reign of the youthful president John F. Kennedy and his beautiful young wife captured imaginations at the time and has slowly built into an almost regal mystique. It has become widely known as Camelot, a gushing comparison that the widowed Jackie craftily put in motion after her husband's assassination in Dallas in 1963.

After dour years of first ladies such as the frumpish Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman, Jackie Kennedy, then only 31, crafted the role in her own stylish, if aloof, image. She renovated the White House, staged lavish parties and toured places such as France and India to stellar reviews.

Every move seemed to be accompanied by a new dress, coat and pill-box hat. As millions watched an unprecedented television 'tour' of her new White House, she wore a finely-tailored Chez Ninon dress that set new standards in design.

Then there was a shocking-pink cocktail dress by Givenchy, held together with a large bow at the rear. She wore this to a White House Christmas party, prompting comparisons to a 'luxuriously wrapped gift'.

In later years, she started new trends, too, with her sporty Capri trousers, scarves and big, dark sunglasses. But these belong to the days of her marriage to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, a time that the Camelot faithful prefer to ignore. Not surprisingly, the Corcoran show has been named 'Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years'.

Of course, history tells us Camelot was largely myth. Her buying sprees at times alarmed her husband, and some biographers have suggested she was seeking to fill a void created by his philandering. In 1961, she spent more than US$41,000 (HK$319,000) on outfits - a small fortune in today's terms. Her ever-ambitious father-in-law, Joe Kennedy, was determined not to let historic opportunity slip, and quietly paid some bills.

She also skirted political scandal, traditionally favouring the great Parisian fashion houses. Under orders to back Americans once in the White House, she turned to designers in New York and California. Some brazenly copied the latest French designs.

'You have to understand what it was like to be a young woman watching the White House in those days,' said one Georgetown retiree. 'Jackie was a revolution on legs. She could start a trend with merely a single photograph of a certain type of hat. God, was she glamorous.'

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent