These were the winning words of 22-year-old Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, writing in a Vogue magazine competition in 1951. She achieved her ambition later, as the stylish Jackie Kennedy, wife of US president John F Kennedy. Who hasn’t seen that iconic, pink Chanel wool suit that she wore on the tragic day of November 22, 1963, when her husband, President John F Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas? The suit is remembered stained with blood — the blood of her husband.
Much has been written about the glamorous Jackie, the profligate spender and aficionado of art and haute couture, who incurred the wrath of the garment unions for spending so much money on French fashion. Now, an American writer, Nicole Mary Kelby, has published an historical novel, The Pink Suit. This is the story of a girl from Cobh, Co Cork, one of the seamstresses at Chez Ninon, in Manhattan, who worked on the suit.
Kelby was planning another book. Her mother worked for Chanel, as a clerk, prior to World War II. “When she died, she left a tape recording of her life and mentioned that she had worked for Chanel. I googled Chanel to see if there were any photographs of her working there. Then, I googled something else; I don’t remember what it was. But what came up was that the pink suit was a Chanel suit, and then I read that the suit wasn’t Chanel. I thought I was going to write about my mother, but I started wondering about the suit. I noticed that in one of the entries, someone said their aunt, Kate, a seamstress, had finished the pink suit. Being a reporter (with CNN in Minneapolis), I was intrigued by this story and decided to track down this Mike Naughton, who told me about his ‘aunt Kate’. I was hooked.”
Naughton’s ‘aunt’, Kate Sheridan, was from Mayo and lived in the Irish district of Inwood, in New York. When Kelby visited Kate’s local Catholic church, nobody remembered her. However, Kelby learned that there was another Irish woman in the neighbourhood who also worked for Chez Ninon. She was from Cork. She had stayed in the neighbourhood for six years.
“No one could find the records, but they remembered this nameless young woman, because she was a bit of a spitfire. I decided to call her Kate, a fictional character based on these two women. The real aunt Kate actually made copies of Mrs Kennedy’s clothes for her niece (Naughton’s mother). The neighbours in Inwood used to call the girl ‘the little Jackie’,” Kelby says. The pink suit, designed by Chanel, was a ‘knock-off.’ But it was an authorised copy made by Chez Ninon. Jackie Kennedy first wore the suit at Camp David. In the romantic novel, Kate, who falls for an Irish butcher, slaves over the suit for very modest pay. “Twist your thread, wax your thread — Kate repeated this over and over again. The needle was so very small. The silk thread was slippery and too delicate to use...The bouclé needed to be quilted to the silk with the smallest of stitches, in tiny straight rows, one inch apart, before anything could be cut or sewn together. And each stitch had to be perfect. The notes from Chanel demanded it.”
Kelby says that while Jackie was proud of her French heritage, she didn’t refer to her Irish blood. She hid those humble roots. She reportedly has ancestry from Shandrum, near Mullagh, in Co Clare. Records show that her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Lee, was born in the early 1800s in Cork.
With Kelby’s novel, Jackie’s story has come full circle. Her most famous outfit was worked on by a Cork seamstress. Today, the pink suit, one of the most iconic fashion items of the 1960s, is stored, out of public view, in the National Archives. It won’t be seen by the public until at least 2103.
Is fashion as important as it is treated in Kelby’s book? Kelby thinks so. “Jackie had a platform. As designer Oleg Cassini said, ‘dressing her was like dressing an actor for a role’. If you have a particular look, you become that person. The Kennedys had a fresh, modern, forward-looking appearance that made us all want to strive to do better,” she says. The pink, blood-spattered suit survives in a climate-controlled vault. It is an emblem of the death of the American dream.
* The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby, is published by Virago. Kelby will sign copies of her book in Waterstones, Cork, tomorrow at 2.30pm.