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March 30, 2010

Return to Camelot: The Jackie Years

At the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An exhibition of what Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy wore during her husband's presidency is a roll of the dice. But when it's mounted by the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, the prospect of something better suited to Madame Tussaud's is greatly diminished. And when the curator is Hamish Bowles, it simply disappears. The European editor at large for Vogue, Bowles is not so much a student of fashion as a scholar of style. As we discussed his work as creative consultant for Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years—Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (opening May 1), he described how he came to a new appreciation of the former first lady.

Jesse Kornbluth We thought we had seen and read everything. Yet so much here is new.

Hamish Bowles This show had the support of her family. That made doors open that might not have otherwise. Jacques Lowe's photos are widely known—but we got to look at his contact sheets. The same with the shots taken by White House photographers; there was an envelope for practically every day Kennedy was in office.

JK Did you find any surprises?

HB Lots. Don't forget, I'm English. And not of her generation. A lot of people have an investment in Camelot; I responded in a different way to these images and this woman. She was an extraordinary letter writer. She cast herself as a fly on the wall. I mean that literally: She had wardrobe doors made with all sorts of images and references on them. And she had an artist paint a fly on the wall.

JK Was it hard to work through what we know now versus what they knew then?

HB The book and the exhibition are not an exploration of a private world. They're about a woman with an extraordinary sense of self as she constructed a public role. Like her husband, she keenly understood the power of image.

JK Image is always to a purpose. What was hers?

HB She saw that the restoration of the White House could set the tone for his presidency. She was creating an environment meant to put the country and the presidency in the best possible light: young, contemporary, cultured, glamorous.

JK Those ideas conflict with "fly on the wall."

HB Her concern was her husband's image. She saw herself as a passive, Victorian wife. But I actually think she was extraordinarily hands-on in a number of ways. It's intriguing to see how involved she was in the minutiae.

JK Jacqueline Kennedy, passive-aggressive micromanager?

HB We found guest lists for functions, with comments next to the names. She made lists of dignitaries who would require gifts, with suggestions as to what might be appropriate. She commissioned jeweler David Webb to do paperweights for German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg.

JK Did your research produce any great revelations?

HB Discovering the extent of her involvement in constructing her image and her wardrobe—she completely controlled all those sartorial details. Of course, we know that she was a Francophile. During the presidential campaign, she had a very reductive wardrobe. But as narrow as it was, it was mainly Parisian: understated, elegant.

JK Yet those clothes might as well have been made of flashing neon—they were trouble.

HB Yes. John Fairchild had been brought back from Paris to run Women's Wear Daily, which was not then a fashion power. In July 1960, he reported that Jackie and Rose were spending $30,000 a year on Paris couture. That infuriated David Dubinsky, of the garment workers' union, which was supporting Kennedy. So Jackie compromised: Her clothes might be designed in Paris, but they'd be manufactured in the United States.

JK You collect couture. If you could choose one thing from this exhibit. . . .

HB I really love the dress and opera coat Givenchy designed for Mrs. Kennedy, which she wore to an evening at Versailles given by De Gaulle. The event was magical, so the associations are wonderful, and the pieces are examples of the highest couture. They show Jacqueline Kennedy as the acme of youthful, cosmopolitan chic.