Yesterday I wrote about Oleg Cassini and how he became Jackie Kennedy’s dressmaker during the White House years. For ten years before the Kennedy relationship, Cassini had run a ready-to-wear business in New York. He was known for being independent from the work coming out of Paris; indeed, in 1957 he not only did not fall into the chemise trap, he openly ridiculed the look. He continued to design the fitted silhouette he favored.
The work that Cassini did for Mrs. Kennedy was a separate operation from his ready-to-wear business. Her dresses were designed strictly for her, and only her. She actually wrote about this in a 1960 letter to Cassini:
Just make sure no one has exactly the same dress I do – the same color or material – Imagine you will want to put some of my dresses in your collection – but I want all mine to be original & no fat little women hopping around in the same dress… I really don’t care what happens later as long as when I wear it first it is new & the only one in the room.
In a 1964 interview with WWD, Cassini claimed that “my regular collection – which reflected my own personal attitudes – didn’t represent what I did for Mrs. Kennedy.” However, you can look at clothes from his early 1960s collections and see just how much those clothes were influenced by what he was doing for Mrs. Kennedy. He would have been crazy to do otherwise.
I hope you can look past my poor photos (red gives me fits) to see the detailing in my early 1960s Cassini dress. It has the typical over-blouse effect, but with tricks that Cassini used in Mrs. Kennedy’s clothes. To make the bodice seem more form-fitting, he used princess seeming, and the skirt tucks accentuate the waist without being truly fitted.
He had a thing for large, dramatic self-covered buttons and they are seen quite often in the Kennedy wardrobe.
And while his ready-to-wear line was certainly not of the same quality as what he made for Mrs. Kennedy, it still has the nice type of dressmaker touches that you hope to see in a higher priced garment.
Not long after President Kennedy’s death in November, 1963, Cassini closed down his Seventh Avenue business so he could concentrate on his licenses. He had been doing licenses since the mid 1950s, starting with men’s ties and women’s coats. But being the designer for Jackie Kennedy had made Oleg Cassini a household name, and he set out to capitalize on it. In “In My Own Fashion” he referred to his licenses as the “Oleg Cassini Seal of Approval.” It meant that he certified that a certain object had style, even if he had not actually designed the item.
There were Oleg Cassini scarves, shoes, jewelry and eyeglasses, as well as towels, bed sheets and luggage. Within a few years his company was grossing $350,000,000 a year at retail.
In the early 1970s Cassini started a new clothing line in Italy, which sold well internationally, but by the 1980s the clothing made under the Oleg Cassini name was all licensed. A quick look on Ebay or Etsy shows that the great majority of things offered under the Cassini name date from the 1980s, but if you look closely, you can find the occasional dress that was actually designed by him. Out of the 391 Oleg Cassini clothing items on etsy, only 11 seemed to be actually his work, and I spotted only 4 items out of 119 on Ebay. And what’s more, today there are still Oleg Cassini items being produced under licenses.
I found this dress years ago in a thrift store, and I kept it because even though it represents a very small part of the clothing produced under Oleg Cassini’s name, it is the part that is important. If not for the three years that he designed for Jackie Kennedy, it is very doubtful that he’d be known for anything other than a Hollywood marriage and some very sexy 1950s frocks.
The label I’ve shown, plus a similar one in black with white print and a gold crest, are the labels from the 1950s and 60s. The problem is that the 1980s label is very similar. All of Cassini’s actual designs were made in New York, and the labels were hand sewn into the dresses, often at the waist. If a label says “Made in Hong Kong” or “China,” it is newer. If the label is machine stitched into the dress, it is newer.