I’m a real fan of autobiographies. It’s almost like the joy of knowing that one has the opportunity to tell history their way comes out in the reading of the storyteller’s words. This book by Oleg Cassini is no different. It’s a fun read, even if the self-proclaimed jetsetter gets a little over-confident in the telling.
Today, Cassini is pretty much remembered for two things: the wardrobe he made for Jackie Kennedy, and the myriad of licensed products that carried his name starting in the 1960s. His story is so much richer than those two aspects, which made for some pretty entertaining hours curled up with this one.
Cassini was, more than anything, a Hollywood designer. He made clothes for the movies, and he dressed stars including his wife, Gene Tierney. He eventually ended up owning his own design firm in New York, where he continued to make dresses that would have been right at home in Hollywood. In other words, he believed that a woman needed to dress in a slightly sexy manner. During his time in New York, Cassini became involved with Grace Kelly, whom he pursued, and he eventually convinced her to marry him. It never happened, due partly to the strong objections of her family and to her growing fame in Hollywood. And then before he knew it, she was swept off her feet by another.
In the 1950s, Oleg and his brother, Igor Cassini, became friends with Joe Kennedy. According to the book, Oleg and Igor spent evenings on the town with Joe in the company of young women they brought along. By the time John Kennedy was elected president, there were years of history between the Cassinis and the Kennedys.
By all accounts, the selection of Oleg Cassini to be the new First Lady’s unofficial fashion designer was an odd one. His own vision of how a woman should look was very much at odds at how Jackie herself liked to dress. According to Cassini, he began to think of the new First Lady as a character, with her clothing accentuating the role she would be playing. Into this vision he wisely incorporated the clean Parisian couture look that so appealed to Jackie. He then took his plans for her wardrobe to her hospital room in December 1960, as she had just given birth to John Junior. All around her were sketches from other designers such as Norell and Sarmi. But it was he who won out, having created a look just for her, totally unrelated to his regular design work.
As he put it, ”The clothes I designed for her – simple, elegant, classic – fit perfectly into her program. From my knowledge of her taste, I had been able to predict her intentions.”
Unfortunately, Jackie had already put in an order at Bergdorf Goodman for her inaugural wardrobe, and according to most sources I’ve read, had asked them to provide the bulk of her wardrobe for the next four years. The dress for the Inaugural Ball was already completed. In the end she wore it, but Cassini insisted in his book that she always favored the dress he provided to her for the gala that was put on the night before the Inauguration. This is probably true, as the dress he designed is one of the most famous of her time in the White House, and is pictured on the cover of Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, the companion volume to the 2001 Met exhibition of the same name.
For the next almost three years, Oleg continued to make the bulk of the First Lady’s wardrobe. Jackie, a dedicated reader of fashion magazines, would tear out photos of dresses she loved, and Oleg would work up a version, using the ideas she favored. His studio had three fitting mannequins with the same figure as Jackie along with a live model who was Jackie’s size, so most of the fitting was done in New York. Then the almost finished garments were taken to Washington by Oleg’s assistant, Kay McGowan, for the final fitting and the approval of Jackie.
One of the biggest question marks of In My Own Fashion is the strange insistence by Cassini that the pillbox hat worn by Mrs. Kennedy for the Inauguration was not made by Halston. He insisted that the idea was his, and that he and Diana Vreeland discussed how the hat would have to sit on the back of her head in order to not interfere with her hair style.
“Eventually we agreed that a pillbox would work; the actual execution of the hat was done by Marita at Bergdorf Goodman, Mrs. Kennedy’s preferred hatmaker. And so it was rather surprising, many years later, to read in the New York Times that Halston had created the pillbox. An outright lie, and an attempted revision of fashion history.”
So I turned to my fashion library to see what was written about it at the time. According to John Fairchild, writing in his Fashionable Savages in 1965, ”Her (Mrs. Kennedy) inauguration pillbox from Bergdorf Goodman’s Halston is still selling.”
As it turns out, the Marita to whom Cassini was referring was Marita O’Connor, who was not even a milliner. She was Jackie Kennedy’s millinery salesperson at Bergdorf Goodman. She was well aware that Jackie favored the pillbox shape, as she had been wearing it all through the presidential campaign. It just seems natural that she would wear a pillbox, and since it was ordered from Bergdorf Goodman, that it would be made by Halston.
At any rate, it seems such a shame that Cassini seemed to have his nose so firmly out of joint in regards to the hat. I can remember that soon before his death in 2005, he again reasserted his claim that he designed the pillbox. It just seems to me that the accomplishment of helping create the fashion icon that is Jackie Kennedy would be enough to satisfy anyone’s ego.
Tomorrow, more on Cassini’s ready-to-wear business and his licensing empire.