Jackie Kennedy’s Leopard Coat

July 29th, 2009 in American History by

Jackie Kennedy brought youth, exuberance, and style to the White House. Margaret Mead said that Jackie had “a special kind of presence – a combination of qualities that Americans have long admired in young stage and screen stars but have seldom hoped to find in the wives of famous men” (Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Oxford University Press, New York. 1988). She was dubbed among other titles: American Beauty, Queen of America, Porcelain Princess, and First Lady of Glamour.

It was Jackie’s glamour that women around the world tried to emulate. Even though Jackie had no desire to be a fashion trend setter, she became the number one fashion leader as the youthful “Jackie look” was worn by women everywhere (Boller 363).

Jackie stated that she considered fashion “at the bottom of things I attach importance to,” but her personal expenditures indicate she gave fashion some thought. In 1961, Jackie’s personal expenditures for clothes, paintings, and antiques were about $105,000. Her husband thought the amount too extravagant and reports indicate the two fought over Jackie’s spending habits. She was supposed to economize in 1962, but instead her personal expenses totaled more than $121,000 (Boller 365). Maintaining a “look” is expensive.

The “Jackie look” was created by designer Oleg Cassini who was Jackie’s sole couturier. He created 300 elegant outfits for her including her Inauguration Day outfit. It consisted of a “pill box hat and fawn-colored wool coat with a sable collar over a matching wool dress” (Sullivan, Patricia. Washington Post. March 19, 2006, p. C07). Woman around the globe rushed to find copies of this ensemble and everything else designed by Cassini.

In an interview, Cassini commented, “Many years ago, I did a fur coat for Jackie Kennedy. I suggested leopard to her. She loved the idea because those kinds of looks had not been seen for a long time.” Soon, leopard fur was in high demand as Jackie’s coat created a fashion craze. Women who could afford to buy the coat were soon seen wearing them to dinner, the theatre, and other places. In 1964, Jackie was spotted wearing hers while shopping in New York City. Women accessorized their coats with matching bags and hats. Over 250,000 leopards were hunted and killed as women purchased their copy of Jackie’s coat.

Cassini was appalled that his creation almost wiped out an entire species. Since then, he has worked to destroy the fur market he helped create. “I will do my best to redeem myself. St. Francis of Assisi has always been an inspiration to me,” commented Cassini (Sullivan). He has since developed a line of faux furs to provide the public with more humane and inexpensive alternatives. He is responsible for the development of Evolutionary Fur. This synthetic fiber is durable, easy to maintain, and requires no special storage during hot and humid months. During a recent meeting of the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Cassini said: “Is it possible to allow millions of creatures to suffer the way they do? Because it is not death that is frightening, the frightening thing is the way they die. The motto is don’t dress to kill.”

Cassini’s efforts have made it less fashionable to wear real fur and more fashionable to wear faux furs. There is no way to know how many animals’ lives have been spared. However, not everyone is happy with the new fashion trend. Some environmentalist have point out that faux fur, no matter how luxurious it may feel, is in reality a bunch of plastic threads woven together to create a coat. It is not biodegradable, and the chemicals used to create the fabric may be harmful to the environment.

Makes one wonder what Jackie would wear today.

Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Oxford University Press, New York. 1988.

Sullivan, Patricia. Washington Post. March 19, 2006, p. C07.

Molecular Expressions. www.micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/techniques/polarized/gallery/pages/leopardhairsmall.html


Donna McCreary is the author of Fashionable First Lady: The Victorian Wardrobe of Mary Lincoln and Lincoln’s Table: A President’s Culinary Journey from Cabin to Cosmopolitan.

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