Remembering a style icon: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy on the anniversary of her death

Twenty years after Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s premature death, her style still inspires the world over. Rachel Marie Walsh reflects on the enduring appeal of an American princess.

Remembering a style icon: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy on the anniversary of her death

Channelling Carolyn was among the many verdicts on Meghan Markle’s bridal-wear last summer.

The Duchess of Sussex previously described Ms Bessette Kennedy’s wedding style as “everything goals” and dressed like her throughout her courtship and first royal engagements with Prince Harry.

Carolyn’s brief time in the spotlight — as John F. Kennedy Jnr’s girlfriend, fiancee and wife— contributed to an idea of Upper East Side style that is still relevant.

Her favourite strappy, barely-there sandals are very hot for summer and Alexander Wang cited her as inspiration for his Autumn 2019 collection.

Man-tailored shirts, maxi-skirts, block-heeled boots, satin headbands, tortoiseshell sunglasses, the list of Bessette-Kennedy-esque currently in stores make getting her look a breeze.

Minimal though it was, words like ‘relaxed’ or ‘casual’ wouldn’t define it.

Good grooming and fine fabrics ensured her low-key outfits were always luxe. Allure magazine called it “effortful effortless”.

“You know it took work to look that unstudied,” Harper’s Bazaar editor Linda Wells told Newsweek in October 1996.

Effortless chic on this side of the Atlantic is somewhat different, a kind of Parisian, thrown-together glamour that doesn’t cut it with ultra-polished New Yorkers.

Moreover, while Europeans associate intricate embellishment, weaves and prints with art and couture and see plain separates as basic, East Coast Americans feel the reverse.

Perhaps it is their reaction to the aesthetic clutter of multiculturalism but in basics are tasteful, a bold print akin to vulgar.

No wonder Ralph Lauren can keep prices so high in the Land of the Free. The designers to benefit most from Carolyn’s flair were Calvin Klein, Narciso Rodriguez and Yohji Yamamoto.

Each of them define a chapter of her life in public.

Klein was her first employer. She started as a salesgirl in Connecticut before moving to New York, where she became a close friend of Kelly Klein and was promoted to dressing personal clients like Faye Dunaway and Blaine Trump.

“Even if she wasn’t wearing Calvin Klein she always epitomised his look,” then New York Times Fashion Editor Anne Marie Schiro told Harper’s and Queen in 1999.

The tabloid version of Carolyn’s love story has her meeting her husband while jogging in Central Park.

Carolyn in Yohji Yamamoto at the White House Correspondent’s annual dinner. Picture: Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty
Carolyn in Yohji Yamamoto at the White House Correspondent’s annual dinner. Picture: Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty

Reports that Kelly Klein, a friend of John F Kennedy Jnr’s, introduced the couple seem far more likely.

Growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, Carolyn was reportedly a trend-setter among her peers and the Calvin Klein look was widely copied but being a Kennedy girlfriend seriously increased her influence.

Her Prada bags are the same black nylon every female Yuppie toted in the Nineties but was Carolyn carried one they were class symbols, not fashion-victimhood.

Her beauty products were even easier to pick up, especially her favourite Egyptian Musk Oil, which at the time was sold from New York street vendors for less than €20 a bottle.

Bobbi Brown was definitely behind her ‘Bone’ eye shadow but there is some dispute over her signature red lip colour. Was is MAC’s ‘Ruby Woo’ or Bobbi Brown’s ‘Ruby Stain’?

Face Stockholm’s ‘Cranberry Veil,’ now discontinued, is most widely-reported choice.

Her shade of blond was even more coveted. The Park Avenue-based protagonists of Plum Sykes’ 2004 novel Bergdorf Blondes “worship CBK, possessor of ideal hair”.

Ms Sykes was a fashion writer at US Vogue in the Nineties, where she reported on the rise and rise of the Narciso Rodriguez look.

Carolyn in a classic white shirt and maxi skirt at the Whitney Museum in 1999.
Carolyn in a classic white shirt and maxi skirt at the Whitney Museum in 1999.

The Cuban designer became an international name when Carolyn, one of his best friends, wore his simple, pearl-silk gown at her wedding in 1996.

They worked closely for months and had two couture fittings in Paris of three hours each to get it just right.

“We’d love to have her on the cover,” Liz Tilberis, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, told The New York Times of her wedding day.

“She’s going to be an amazing symbol of American style.”

She wasn’t the only New York beauty championing minimalism, of course. Gwyneth Paltrow, Carolyn Murphy, Christy Turlington were her style-sisters but with one important difference: they wanted to be photographed.

Part of Carolyn’s personal allure grew from her resistance to the public, or at least to publicity.

The spotlight seemed to heighten her natural reserve in a way that her outfits grew to her hemlines always fell below the knee.

She bared shoulders but never cleavage and her clothes never showed a label or brand insignia.

Her palette was simple, neutral and earthy, and made of leather and natural fibres.

In the last six months of her life she favoured Japanese avant-gardiste Yohji Yamamoto, whose difficult, eye-wateringly expensive designs look armour-like in photos.

Carolyn wearing cream wool Versace at the Fire and Ice Ball, with Candice Bergen and Maria Schriver
Carolyn wearing cream wool Versace at the Fire and Ice Ball, with Candice Bergen and Maria Schriver

Yamamoto, the only son of a Tokyo war widow, has spoken in various documentaries of how a long-held desire to protect women shapes his work.

Slick and inaccessible, this is not a fashion phase Meghan Markle would find easy to emulate.

Still, Tom Ford thought such clothes enhanced rather than hid her.

“She chooses simple, severe looks that not everyone would wear. She knows how to set off her beauty with clothes. That’s a rare gift.”

Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece, the American Duty Free heiress, married Pavlos, Crown Prince of Greece, the year before Bessette-Kennedy became unofficial American royalty.

Both ladies had a passion for fashion and lived in New York and Connecticut as newlyweds.

Now a childrenswear designer in London as well as a Crown Princess-in-exile, she has spoken to British Vogue about how she looks back on her style then as overly formal, saying the pressure to look conservative made her less “woo-hoo!” than a young wife might have been.

Perhaps Carolyn Bessette Kennedy would feel the same.

I picture her 2019 self in a Celine blouse and Theory trousers, maybe running a discreet luxury lifestyle brand.

Or she’d still be rocking her Calvins and camel coat, avoiding cameras, just distant enough to keep the fairytale intact.

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