Women in white: Did Hillary, Melania borrow Jackie Kennedy’s style?
There’s an art to standing out, and the stars of the political conventions proved it:
Dressed in white, you must be right.
Could it be mere coincidence that the suffragettes wore white, too?
Could she be stealing a page from Jacqueline Kennedy’s style book?
Jackie’s favorite dress of all time was the elegant white gown her friend Oleg Cassini designed for the 1961 inauguration gala.
Cassini, who often visited Palm Beach, designed more than 300 head-to-toe outfits for Jackie — gowns, coats, suits, shoes, hats, gloves, handbags.
More than that, he created her “visual story.”
“I talked to her like a movie star, and I told her that she needed a story, a scenario as first lady,” Cassini wrote. “I want you to be the most elegant woman in the world. I think that you should start from scratch with a look…a look that will set the trends and not follow them.
“Her reaction was immediate, visceral: ‘Absolutely right.’”
‘That suit made reference to history’
White represents purity, of course, but it also represents clarity and simplicity.
“Simplicity is perfection,” wrote Cassini, who died 10 years ago at 92, after an incredible 70 years in fashion, the longest career of any designer in America.
“I dressed Jackie as a star in a major film, which she was, the most famous first lady of all time, I became her Secretary of Style. Jackie graciously stated, ‘Oleg dressed me for the part.’”
Whatever your “part,” wearing white can send a message.
Style expert and author Steven Stolman, who dressed Tipper Gore in the early 1990s when he was design director of Albert Nipon, says Clinton’s beautifully made white pantsuit was less about fashion than philosophy.
“It served the moment perfectly,” the part-time Palm Beacher said. “It was a conscious, cerebral choice that exclaimed, ‘I come before you in good faith as a reflection of your hopes and dreams.’ Purity? Probably not, but clarity, certainly.”
Clinton had worn white jackets before on the campaign trail, but the all-white pantsuit had a layered meaning, says Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times, because it echoed the color of the suffragettes.
“She understands the way fashion can be useful in contemporary politics and is willing to leverage that,” Friedman wrote. “That suit, quietly yet clearly, made reference to history, specifically the history of the women’s movement.”
Melania Trump’s choice of two white dresses was stunning but almost confusing — at first glance, her second convention dress, a Fendi, looked the same as the Roksanda dress she wore to give her speech.
Both dresses were slim-cut but covered-up — probably to keep the former model from looking overly sexy.
She chose them herself, a campaign spokesperson said, and bought them from net-a-porter.com.
Mrs. Trump also wore a white sheath for her CNN interview with Anderson Cooper and a slim white gown for her appearance at this spring’s Time 100 gala.
Stolman says the similar looks make sense: “Clearly, Mrs. Trump understands the importance of telegenics and the message of consistency in dress. As a model, she is probably her greatest critic when it comes to the purely visual. I’m sure that she has pored over pictures of herself, as every model does, and has figured out what looks good on her.”
Cassini was a fan of Melania’s and a friend of her husband, says Peggy Nestor, creative director of Oleg Cassini and sister of his wife, Marianne.
“Melania is elegant and beautiful and articulate,” Nestor says. “Oleg and Marianne were at dinner for a charity event with Donald and Melania prior to their marriage, and Oleg wanted to use her as a model image for his wedding-gown campaign.”
Stolman doesn’t think Melania was aiming for a “bridal” innocence look with her choice of white convention dresses.
“I do not think the subliminal, encoded aspects of wearing white are even remotely a part of this,” he says. “It’s far more simple. Is a white dress her pantsuit? Her pearls? Maybe. But do we ask those questions about men? I don’t think so.”
Stolman recalled that Geraldine Ferraro also wore white when she accepted the vice-presidential nomination at the Democratic convention in 1984.
White is the most flattering color up by the face, Cassini believed.
Of course, it works all over the body, too.
Remember Betty Grable’s famous swimsuit poster, where the star shows off her glam gams in a white bathing suit?
Or how about Bo Derek’s swimsuit from “10”? It wasn’t white, but it was close — a tan color that made the actress appear almost nude when she was running down the beach.
‘It stands the test of time’
In the movies, white costumes usually have meaning — to reveal a character’s pure qualities, perhaps, or to separate the actress from the background.
The most famous example is the white halter dress William Travilla designed for Marilyn Monroe in 1955’s “The Seven-Year Itch.” She stands over the subway grate, the air blows up — and so does the frock.
Monroe wore two pairs of underpants under the dress for modesty — although panties aren’t always worn with white costumes, as Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation scene in “Basic Instinct” revealed.
In “Bonnie and Clyde,” director Arthur Penn dressed Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie in a pure white dress for the gruesome death scene — better to show off the blood.
The real Bonnie Parker wore a red dress and red shoes when she and Clyde were gunned down in 1934, but reality plays little part in movies. (The real Clyde was no Warren Beatty.)
Whoever you are, wearing white draws attention to the person, not the fashion, says LaVelle Olexa, former fashion director of Lord & Taylor in New York who now runs a mentoring program, LaVelle & Co., for young women professionals.
“It’s universally flattering,” she says. “It stands the test of time.”
Jackie Kennedy’s Cassini-designed wardrobe remains as stylish today as it was in 1960. The designer did, indeed, make her timeless.
What about Hillary Clinton’s white pantsuit?
History has already shown — it’s the moment, not the outfit, that matters most.