Make a list of defining moments in American fashion. It is sure to include images of Jacqueline Kennedy as First Lady. The easy sophistication of her iconic look is a well of inspiration to which contemporary designers and stylists return again and again.
It was the debonair designer Oleg Cassini who collaborated with Jacqueline Kennedy to create her White House look. He did not select looks from his collection, but started with a blank slate to develop a concept for her, dressing her as he would a Hollywood star. “I want you to be the most elegant woman in the world. I think you should start from scratch with a look…a look that will set trends and not follow them.” She selected Cassini as her, “official designer.”
In his book The Fashionable Savages, Women’s Wear Daily’s John Fairchild wrote that, “Everyone was surprised.” “Oleg Cassini had been around for years. He was debonair, amusing, social, but none of the fashion intellectuals had considered him an important designer.”
Nonetheless, the more than 300 outfits Cassini designed for Kennedy had a more far reaching, more total influence on American fashion than any designer before or since. Cassini not only put Jacqueline Kennedy in a Haltson pillbox hat on Inauguration Day, which became a signature look, he created the smart sheath dresses, trim little suits with A-line skirts and boxy jackets, and her elegant evening looks, including one-shoulder drapes and the strapless columns that are worn to this day. Every woman in America wanted to dress like Jackie.
Even now, looks at the houses of Kors, Klein, and Lauren owe more than a small debt to the work of Cassini.
The association with Kennedy made Cassini, at one point, the most well-known designer in the world. In addition to showing his collections in stores across the US rather than exclusively on the NY runway, he also regularly appeared as a guest on “The Tonight Show” (Cassini dressed Johnny Carson for years) and “The Mike Douglas Show.” He wisely capitalized on his fame, becoming among the first designers to set up lucrative licensing agreements, putting his name on everything from sunglasses and watches to children’s clothes.
Oleg Cassini was born in Paris in 1913 to an Italian countess and a Russian diplomat. Raised in Italy, he designed for his mother’s dress shop (as young as age 13), worked at Patou in Paris, and owned a dress salon in Rome before moving to the United States in 1936. As his third wife Marianne Cassini put it, “He arrived with a tennis racket, a tuxedo and talent and he made it into an empire.” Cassini began designing costumes for Paramount Studios. He designed for Veronica Lake, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly (to whom he was briefly engaged), and Gene Tierney, to whom he was married for a decade. “He was a man’s man and a woman’s man,” said Marianne Cassini, his name linked at various times with Anita Ekberg, Linda Evans, and Jill St. John.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War Two, Cassini opened his own design house in New York. Characteristically American looks (for better or for worse) that we can thank Cassini for include the sheath dress, the A-line, the little white collar dress. For men, he introduced color to dress shirts, popularized the Nehru jacket briefly, and the turtleneck look for men.
In spite of the fact that Cassini’s work has earned accolades and awards over the years, his detractors have said that his most visible work—for Jacqueline Kennedy—borrowed elements and looks from European designers, especially Givenchy. As the Cassini-Kennedy collaboration involved his making sketches and her editing, it’s no surprise she’d gravitate toward looks that reminded her of her beloved European designers.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America celebrated Oleg Cassini as one of seven “icons” of fashion this past February. And it is as the designer of choice for one of America’s fashion icons that Oleg Cassini will be remembered. Oleg Cassini died on March 18 at the age of 92.
For more on Cassini:
In My Own Fashion Cassini’s 1987 autobiography
Oleg Cassini: A Thousand Days of Magic
This 1995 book chronicles his experience as the First Lady’s couturier.