The details on this dress are simply stunning.
There’s no doubt that Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress was one of the most beautiful creations of the era. The ruffled and tiered dress not only had an off-the-shoulder style, but was also adorned with giant flowers along the skirt. But, with the color scheme of white-on-white a lot of these details can be missed- especially if seen only in old black and white photographs. A 2004 collaboration between the Marshall Field’s department store and the JFK Presidential Library sought to bring all the intricate elements of the dress to life in paper and the results are truly exquisite.
About the Famous Wedding Dress
Jacqueline Bouvier had been courted by John F. Kennedy for around 2 years before popping the question. The couple announced another engagement in May of 1953. In only 4 short months the wedding was planned out, but it didn’t go how Jackie or her mother had hoped.
Instead of a small and intimate wedding, Joseph Kennedy decided a huge affair with a long guest list of powerful people would be a better look for the Kennedys. The concession was not pleasing to the bride and her family, but a compromise was reached wherein Joseph would pay for the wedding and the nuptials would take place at the “home turf” of the summer home of Jackie’s mother in Newport, Rhode Island.
Even the dress was a compromise for Jackie. She would have preferred a more modern and chic style as she favored French couture fashions (and they suited her slender frame). But, she was pressured by her future in-laws to wear a more traditional dress that would have broader appeal in press photos. Joseph’s worry was that a more modern dress would alienate voters.
Jackie was fitted in a custom wedding designed by Ann Lowe, an African American dressmaker who had made gowns for the Rockefeller, Du Pont, and Post families and whose mother and grandmother had been making gowns for upper echelon white women in the South for decades.
Lowe is now recognized as the first African American fashion designer to rise to prominence, but even her 1981 obituary referred to the designer as “society’s best kept secret” because many of her high profile clients didn’t want people to know that she wasn’t white.
Even Jackie herself had belittled Lowe’s work because she hated the dress so much. It was also said that when Lowe came to deliver the dress that she was asked to use the servants entrance to which she replied that if she couldn’t come in the front door then the bridal and bridesmaid gowns simply would not be delivered.
The Design Details
Lowe designed the dress from ivory silk taffeta and it reportedly took 50 yards of this fine material to make the dress. You can tell that this was no quickie job since the dress contained dozens of decorative pleats. In particular the portrait neckline was draped to fit only Jackie, with each pleat of that section lapping over the previous one in a herringbone design at the solar plexus. This is the kind of couture work that only years of experience designing and making formal gowns can yield.
Nevertheless Jackie told people that she felt like a lampshade in the ruffled fit and flare dress. The one concession for her look was that Jackie wore her grandmother’s wedding veil, but this doesn’t seem to have placated her much.
The Paper Recreation
In 2004 a creative collaboration between the JFK Presidential Museum and Marshall Fields sought to bring to light the painstaking craftsmanship of Lowe and her staff. Working together with artists, Isabelle de Borchgrave and her collaborator Rita Brown, the dress was recreated for exhibit in paper. Slightly darker than the original bone silk, the details really stand out in this pulp version.
In addition to the herringbone wrap-around neckline, the dress also features a tiered skirt flounce with yet more herringbone seams and large appliqué and embroidery flowers spanning the entire skirt. Bias cut panels create volume in the skirt, which would have made Jackie’s waist seem even tinier. But, there really was no need for visual illusions. The paper dress is a direct copy of Lowe’s gown, right down to the minuscule 24-inch waist.
She may not have been given her dues at the time (a 1953 New York Times article about the dress said nothing of Lowe’s work), but decades after her death the designs of Ann Lowe can finally be admired in the light of day.