One-time First Lady Jackie Kennedy is considered one of the greatest fashion icons of the 20th century. Among her best looks is the stunning wedding dress she wore to marry John F. Kennedy. But that gown has a fascinating history behind it. And the story of its making has only fairly recently come to light.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier always had the personality, style and temperament required to be a First Lady of that era. Even as a child she was accomplished – having won a junior national horsemanship contest at the age of just 11. Plus, it didn’t hurt at all that she was also very rich.
But Jackie was also ahead of her time in many respects. She gained a reputation at Miss Porter’s School for being one of the most popular students, as well the most talented one in the field of literature. Yet in her school yearbook Jackie wrote that her ambition was “not to be a housewife.”
It was soon clear that Jackie would indeed not be a housewife. After spending some time in Paris, she became a student at George Washington University and graduated with a B.A. in French literature. Jackie then took a job at the Washington Times-Herald paper, where she interviewed notable people including Richard Nixon.
It was actually Jackie’s job as a reporter that led her to meet John F. Kennedy in the first place. Yes, in 1952 her fellow journalist and friend Charles Bartlett invited the young woman to a dinner party – hoping to introduce her to John. And upon meeting, sparks immediately flew between the pair.
But the future president wasn’t the only man in Jackie’s life – or even the only John. The same year she met her future husband, Jackie had planned to marry a stockbroker named John Husted Jr. But the journalist broke up with him, and she did so coldly by all accounts. Why? Because, allegedly, Jackie’s mother told her that he wasn’t making enough money.
Jackie’s mother Janet seemed to play quite a large role in her daughter’s relationships. Once the latter and John were engaged in June 1953 – only a year after they had met – Janet made clear what kind of wedding she wanted for them. Yet it was Jackie who talked to the newspapers about the ceremony, which she said would be small and intimate.
But John’s father Joseph disagreed with the ceremony plans, and the reason why is interesting. He wanted a big wedding, because it would invite publicity useful for his son’s political career. Janet disliked this intensely, but she went along with it – Joseph was the one paying all the bills. In the end, multiple famous and illustrious names were added to the guest list.
Everything about the wedding had to be perfect; a lot of upper-class society was watching, after all. Author Rosemary E. Reed Miller told NPR in 2007 that Joseph was involved in the planning of everything. Apparently, Jackie didn’t even get to wear her favored style of wedding dress. She wanted something French, with culture from that country having played such a big role in her life at that point. But, alas, Joseph said no.
So what did Jackie’s wedding dress look like? Well, it was a beautiful flowing gown with a bouffant skirt. It also featured a portrait neckline and a fitted bodice. The creation – which had a whole 50 yards of material on it – can’t have been easy for the bride to move around in. Yet it looked amazing on her. And only one thing was missing on the day: the name of the designer.
Though it was known where Jackie’s spectacular veil had come from. It was an heirloom from her grandmother, who had worn it on her own wedding dress. Over this, Jackie wore a tiara created from orange blossoms and lace, plus she had on a pearl choker and a diamond bracelet given to her by John.
Joseph apparently got everything he wanted – the wedding was a society occasion not to be missed, and over 800 guests turned up. But Jackie herself may not have enjoyed it so much. According to some, the young bride came dangerously close to not saying “I do” to John F. Kennedy.
Jackie knew that her soon-to-be husband was having extramarital affairs. Even during the engagement period, he had allegedly been seeing other women. She genuinely loved him, but it was a lot to deal with. And John likewise had his doubts; the notorious ladies’ man didn’t want to be tied down, according to Biography.com.
And Jackie’s father didn’t even turn up on the day. John “Black Jack” Bouvier had divorced Janet a while back, though Jackie still wanted him to walk her down the aisle. But after not being invited to the pre-wedding celebration, he got himself drunk and thus was unavailable. So Jackie’s stepfather gave her away instead.
But there were other problems on the day itself, according to Biography.com. John apparently arrived at the altar with a bad back and a scratch on his face from a football game. After that, the Kennedys had to spend two hours greeting guests at the reception, as Joseph had invited no less than 1,200 people.
Yet however bad the actual day was, at least it enhanced Jackie’s profile. Though the same couldn’t be said for Jackie’s mysterious, unnamed wedding dress designer. And the future First Lady herself may not have helped much in that regard, because word got out that the beautiful bride didn’t actually like the wedding gown.
Why was the wedding dress and its designer so very important? Because Jackie herself was a key figure in American fashion – especially once John F. Kennedy became U.S. President and she became First Lady. Many sought to emulate Jackie’s style, and her Chanel suits and pillbox hats are still iconic today.
Jackie spent thousands of dollars on her wardrobe – more than her husband actually earned for being President of the United States. It was serious, expensive business. Jackie liked to wear brightly colored dresses, long evening gloves and daringly cut gowns. And soon, American women wore these things too.
Jackie essentially retired from public life after the traumatic assassination of her husband. In 1968 she married again, to her friend Aristotle Onassis, which gave her the nickname “Jackie O.” She wore oversized sunglasses a lot during that time, so she could hide behind them – but they themselves became a fashion statement.
Jackie’s influence on fashion can barely be understated. Style expert Cynthia Weber-Cleary told People magazine in March 2019, “She really was the first lady who really had that global impact and represented the United States in such a striking way. I covered fashion for decades, and I don’t know how many times I read in the notes at a fashion show that it was [a] tribute to Jackie O.”
Jackie was never actual royalty, but she’s even considered to have had an impact on royal fashion. Yes, it’s believed that the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton has taken some cues from the former First Lady when it comes to her most stylish looks. And she too wears collared coats and matching pillbox hats.
The world knows the names of some of the people who helped Jackie find her famous sense of style. One of these was fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who became noted during his lifetime as the person behind the “Jackie Look.” He even gained the unofficial but catchy title “Secretary of Style.”
Jackie had various other favored designers, too. Her famous sunglasses came from the French company François Pinton. and she loved Gucci bags so much that the brand named one of their designs after her. Italian designer Valentino Garavani also reportedly created at least one hundred dresses for Jackie throughout her life.
It was actually Garavani who designed the wedding dress Jackie used to marry Aristotle Onassis. But the person who created her earlier, even more famous wedding dress was left forgotten for a long time. The designer was in fact a woman named Ann Lowe, and she put a lot of work into the gown. But Ann was also African-American.
Many of us will know that the ’50s were an era of intense racial discrimination in the United States. It wasn’t until 1954 – a year after the Kennedy wedding – that the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools. But even then black students and their parents were subject to violent threats and intimidations. After all, it was still only the tail end of the Jim Crow laws.
Ann Lowe herself was the descendant of a woman who had suffered horrors under slavery. Her great-grandmother had been raped by a white plantation owner and bore his child. The child was also a slave until she was purchased by a man who freed her. This was Ann’s grandmother, and she found work as a seamstress to rich Alabama women.
Ann’s grandmother passed her talents down to her own daughter, who in turn gave them to the former. The designer told Ebony magazine in 1966 that she would pass the time as a child by creating cloth flowers from the scraps her mother and grandmother left behind after their work. And when Ann’s mother passed away, the teenager was left to complete her unfinished orders.
Ann absolutely excelled at her chosen career against all odds. When the designer was 18 years old she enrolled in a New York fashion school. Ann shocked the administrators when she arrived, as they hadn’t realized she was black. They reportedly made her sit apart from the other students, but she still graduated early.
Ann was the woman who designed the dress Olivia de Havilland wore when she accepted her Best Actress Oscar in 1947. The dress’ tag gave the name of the store that it was purchased from – Sonia Rosenberg – but not the name of the designer. This was common at the time, but it still meant that Ann didn’t get her due.
Designing Jackie’s wedding dress – plus the dresses for all her bridal party – would have been a major win for Ann if anyone had ever known about it. The accomplishment was all the more remarkable considering that disaster had struck in her design studio just ten days before the ceremony was to take place.
A pipe had burst in the room – ruining the bride’s dress and most of the others. And Ann was horrified. With so little time to spare, the designer got to work anyway. After ordering more material, she and her team simply worked for every possible hour until the dresses – all of them stunning creations – were recreated.
But Jackie and her family never knew about the trouble Ann had gone to in order to ensure the wedding day was special. Apparently, she simply never told them. And the designer also didn’t bill them for the extra materials. Ann found herself down $2,200, which in those days was a lot of money.
Ann also suffered further discrimination when she personally delivered the gowns. She took an overnight train to Rhode Island to Manhattan, but after arriving at the wedding venue she was told to use the back entrance. Ann simply said that if she had to do that, no one was getting a dress. Thankfully, this defiance worked and they eventually let her through.
And yet, despite all the work she had put in, Jackie didn’t name Ann as the gown’s designer. According to Rosemary E. Reed Miller – author of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers from 1850 to Present – when asked who created the dress Jackie only called her “a colored dressmaker.”
Rosemary told NPR News, “Ann Lowe was devastated… she had dealt with her for years, you know, Jackie was 22 then. She’s done dresses for her and the family since about 17 and so she was very, you know, disappointed with that kind of thing. And most reporters did not follow through to say, ‘Who was this colored dressmaker?’”
According to Rosemary, Jackie was upset because she had been denied her first choice of wedding gown by her father-in-law. She told NPR News, “She didn’t love the dress and [when] people asked her who did the dress, she said, ‘I wanted to go to France, but a colored dressmaker did it.’”
After the wedding Ann continued to make dresses for the upper classes, but she still remained completely unknown to the average person. And financial troubles constantly plagued her. During a 1966 interview with Ebony magazine she said, “Right now I do not have the money to carry out my ideas.”
Ann’s personal life was difficult as well. Her son and business partner Arthur was killed in a car accident in 1958. And eight years later in her Ebony interview she declared wryly, “My second husband left me. He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.” Perhaps Jackie – who had denounced becoming a housewife – would have related.
By 1962 Ann was in despair. She had come down with glaucoma, which eventually caused her to lose her right eye entirely. The designer didn’t have enough money to continue her business or pay taxes due either, and the IRS kept calling her. Then one day they rang Ann for a different reason – to explain that an anonymous person had paid her debts.
For the rest of her life, Ann apparently believed that Jackie Kennedy had been the anonymous savior. She had kept in touch with the First Lady, so the latter could have easily found out that something was wrong. Whatever the truth of the matter was, that career-saving payment marked the end to this tale of two equally accomplished women.