June 18, 2024

Historic Highlights: Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink suit is iconic in American history

Many remember Jacqueline Kennedy as the most stylish First Lady in American history. But no one can forget the pink suit.

May 19 marked 30 years since the death of Mrs. Kennedy, whose tasteful attire was the talk of the nation throughout the “Camelot” years. Most Americans, though, remember just one outfit – the pink suit, with matching pink pillbox hat, that she wore on the day her husband was assassinated.

The suit is now in the National Archives, where almost no one alive today will ever have the chance to see it. The pillbox hat, however, has been lost to history.

Jacqueline Kennedy was always on the cutting edge of fashion, down to the color. Pink was fairly new to women’s fashion, as few had worn it until the 1950s. That was the color of the suit she selected, with the help of her

husband, for the Kennedys’ trip to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Though the color is commonly referred to as pink, the hue was given as raspberry. The suit featured a double-breasted coat with six gold buttons, with two additional gold buttons on each sleeve. More prominent, though, was the navy trim, particularly on the wide collar.

The pillbox hat also had navy trim and was held in place with a regular hatpin. Rounding out the look were navy blue low heels, with white gloves.

Many sources note that Americans who watched the news footage on the day of the assassination would not have seen the color, since most networks broadcast in black and white. A week later, a commemorative issue by Life magazine printed the final photos of the President and First Lady in color. Subsequent video footage, including the famous Zapruder film, also shows the color.

Mrs. Kennedy loved French styles, and many assumed the pink suit was an original by Coco Chanel. However, it was an imitation of New York fashion house Chez Ninon, produced in 1961 from an authorized pattern from Chanel.

The knockoff served two purposes. While the First Lady could wear the style she adored, she also could report to the press that she had bought American. The cost of the suit was believed to be from $800 to $1,000. Jacqueline had appeared in the pink suit at least six times before that day in Dallas.

She wore the suit throughout Nov. 22, including at a breakfast banquet in Fort Worth at which she arrived late, entering to wild applause. As elsewhere, everyone wondered what the First Lady would be wearing.

“Two years ago, I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris,” Kennedy told the crowd at the breakfast. “I am getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.”

Then came the tongue-in-cheek punchline: “Nobody wonders what Lyndon (Johnson) and I wear.”

••••

Hours later, the President lay dead. Had Kennedy not been gunned down that day, it is likely that no one would remember the pink suit and pillbox hat.

It was what anyone old enough to remember knows the First Lady was wearing as she rode next to the President in the open convertible in those final moments in Dealey Plaza and when, terrified, she climbed onto the back of the limousine, after her husband was mortally wounded.

The horrifying scene forever burned the pink suit into the public consciousness. The President’s blood was splattered all over the suit, her face, and down her leg. The new widow washed the blood off her face, which would prove to be her only concession to the tragedy.

In this Nov. 22, 1963, file photo, Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as President of the United States of America in the cabin of the presidential plane as Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy stands at his side in Dallas, Texas. Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a Kennedy appointee to the Federal court (left) administers the oath.

Kennedy was pronounced dead around 1 p.m. At 2:45 p.m., Johnson was sworn in as the new President aboard Air Force One.

Jacqueline, the now-former First Lady, stood beside him, still wearing the suit with the fallen President’s blood. The photo taken at the moment does not capture the full extent of the blood stains on her person, or pink suit.

Aides tried to suggest a change of clothing, but Mrs. Kennedy refused. Though accounts of her exact reply vary, it was something like, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”

Lady Bird Johnson, the new First Lady, later wrote that “somehow it was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.”

••••

After hours of wearing the stained suit, Jacqueline finally removed it in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, upon returning to Washington. Exactly what happened next to the suit is unclear.

Mrs. Kennedy’s maid apparently took the suit, folded it, and placed it either in a bag or a box. The suit was never washed; the President’s blood remained.

Sometime after – no one knows exactly when – the suit arrived at the National Archives in Maryland. Included was a note that was unsigned, but bore the letterhead of Mrs. Kennedy’s mother, Janet Auchincloss.

The note contained the simple words “Jackie’s suit and bag worn Nov. 22, 1963.” Incredibly, the box was the original that had been used by the dressmaker to ship the suit to Mrs. Kennedy. It was wrapped in plain brown paper when it was shipped to the Archives.

Legally, the suit still belonged to the President’s widow, and few even knew it was resting in the National Archives. In 1996, Parade magazine contacted the Archives with a question from a reader, wondering about the whereabouts of the pink suit.

Of the few Archives workers who worked around that time and were still alive, none could remember the exact time of the suit’s arrival at the Archives. The address, though, contained a single-digit postal code, implying that it was before July 1964, when the U.S. adopted five-digit ZIP codes.

Legal ownership eventually passed to Mrs. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, the last surviving heir. Nine years after her mother’s death, Caroline presented the Archives with a deed of gift for the suit, signed July 29, 2003.

The deed ordered that the suit would remain sealed for 100 years, until 2103. At that time, the Kennedy descendants retain the right to renegotiate, meaning that the public may never see the suit. In addition to the suit, some of Mrs. Kennedy’s other accessories from that day, including her shoes, handbag and socks – which were likewise soaked in blood – are also in the Archives.

Today, the pink suit that is synonymous with the day of the assassination is stored in an undisclosed, windowless location within the National Archives facility in Maryland. Reportedly, few Archives workers have even laid eyes on the garment.

Storage is in an acid-free container in a room where the temperature remains between 65 and 68 degrees, with 40% humidity. The air is changed six times an hour.

One senior archivist – and one of the few staffers to have seen the suit – summarized its condition this way; “It looks like it’s brand-new, except for the blood.”

••••

While the suit is securely held, the tale of the pink pillbox hat is another story. No one knows what happened to it.

While Mrs. Kennedy remained in her suit in the hours after the assassination, she apparently removed the hat at Parkland Hospital, where the President was taken before his death.

Clint Hill, one of the Kennedys’ most trusted Secret Service agents and who had thrown himself on the back of the limousine to cover Jacqueline, said that he was handed the hat. Hill, in turn, said that he “gave it to Mary Gallagher,” who was Mrs. Kennedy’s private secretary.

That, apparently, was the last that anyone has seen of the hat. In her 1969 memoir, Gallagher confirmed that she was handed the pillbox hat at the hospital.

In 2011, a staffer from the Los Angeles Times tried to speak to Gallagher by phone about the hat. Gallagher refused before hanging up. She died the following year at the age of 95.

Before her death, Gallagher and Providencia Paredes, the maid who had packed up the suit in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, jointly listed a number of Mrs. Kennedy’s former possessions on Internet auctions. Some speculate that the hat is now held by a private collector, or possibly in an attic somewhere.

But the exact location of the pink pillbox hat, which accentuated the fateful pink suit on that gut-wrenching day in Dallas, is not known – and may never be.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.