Jacqueline Kennedy and the Classical Ideal

Nancy Sultan

Illinois Wesleyan University

"In our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and which drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products." We know this to be a excerpt from Pericles' Funeral Oration (trans. Warner), but it could very well have been said by Jackie Kennedy—and was, in so many words—during her televised Tour of the White House on Valentine's Day, 1962. Jackie was a tireless advocate for the preservation of neo-classical architecture in and around Capitol Hill, restoring the White House to it's neo-Classic and Baroque glory, and arguing successfully against the Eisenhower plans to tear down the old State Department building west of the White House and replace the Federal style row houses in Lafayette Square. During her time in the White House she spent an estimated $50,000 a year on clothes (Klemesrud 1968, 32), working closely with her clothing designer, Oleg Cassini, to create a "new look" that was, in fact, a revival of the 18th and 19th century neo-Classical, continuing the long modern tradition of the "lure of the classical" (Haskell & Penny 1981).

In this paper I argue that it was the classical ideal—not "Camelot"—that guided Mrs. Kennedy as she crafted what Cassini called her "American-International" look (Cassini 1995, 22). The First Lady imaged herself as America's Greek muse, projecting the message of the simple beauty, youth, and vitality of the Kennedy Administration through visual metaphors drawn from neo-Classical fashion, art, and architecture, especially as expressed in Old Master Italian paintings and 18th and 19th century France. With the classical allusion she intended to bring the cultural and artistic elegance of old Europe to the US, and further JFKs own Periclean vision of an America that was the education of the world.

The traveling fashion exhibit Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, organized in 2001 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the JFK Library and Museum reveals the strength of the classical themes that pervade the clothing designed for Mrs. Kennedy by Cassini. From the gray-green jersey peplos worn by Jackie for a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel prizewinners to the iconic "pill-box" hat that resembles a Doric capital, Jackie's clothing symbolized the simple, architectural interpretations expressed in the Parthenon and the sculptures of Phidias, Paionios, and Kephisodotos. "Is it a reverence for beauty or for history? I guess both," Jackie reflected in a 1962 interview, echoing again the sentiments of Pericles. The year 2006 will mark the forty-fifth anniversary of Jacqueline Kennedy's tenure as First Lady; The enormous influence that her particular brand of classical allusions had, and continues to have, on the formation of the American cultural identity cannot be overestimated.

Works Cited

Bowles, Hamish. 2001. Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections from the JFK Library and Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. New York: Bulfinch Press.

Cassini, Oleg. 1995. A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House.  New York: Rizzoli International.

Haskell, Francis. and Nicholas Penny. 1981. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Klemesrud, Judy. 1968. "Quest of Beauty Dominates Mrs. Kennedy's Life." New York Times 18 October, 32.


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