It is a blustery, bright January day in 1961. Dressed in a pillbox hat and a pale beige fur-trimmed Oleg Cassini coat, a woman stands beside her husband, grinning at the crowds before her. The coat’s oversized buttons and pockets indicate a certain level of Hollywood drama, but the neck is trimmed with sable, a weightless, silken, and noble fur – an indicator of class and luxury.
At an Inaugural Ball, the woman enters in a white gown and cape, which she co-designed with the help of the head honchos at Bergdorf Goodman, the leading department store of the moment. The daring 32-year-old not only presents her image, she crafts it. She considers the emerging media’s role in what she wears. Her beige fur coat will stand out alongside dark coats on a black and white screen. Her white dress will make a bold statement against other dark evening gowns. She will be spotted easily in a crowd. She is Jacqueline Kennedy, her husband is John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and she has just become the First Lady of the United States.
How do you brand the Commander-in-Chief, the premiere example of the American man, at the helm of a world superpower? One’s first thought might suggest presidential speeches, photographs, and other public appearances as the president’s primary reputation generators. How often, though, do your hear mention of Franklin Roosevelt without Eleanor? JFK without Jackie? Barack without Michelle? The First Lady often becomes more influential in shaping an administration’s public image than the president himself.
Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon before her husband was elected to the nation’s highest role and her youth was admired by the masses who were used to seeing older women alongside politicians. Jackie was a photographer when she met JFK – taking portraits and weaving interviews into a column for the Washington Times-Herald. She understood fashion, color, and how to present oneself smartly. Upon her husband’s election, she called upon designer Oleg Cassini, a family friend who would come to be Jackie’s greatest style ally, to design her White House wardrobe.
Together they made careful choices in color, cut, and texture. She chose fabrics with the public in mind, often prioritizing looks over practicality — her inaugural coat was made of very thin fabric despite the biting January air because it allowed her to stand out among a sea of long furs. On a trip to India, Kennedy wore an apricot-colored sleeveless silk dress. She chose a fabric which would be light enough to withstand the heat, but bright enough that she was sure she would be recognized by those watching from the sidelines.
Her aesthetic expertise was not a coincidence; it was a strategy. One of her most notable projects as First Lady was her renovation and restoration of the White House. She established a White House Fine Arts Committee and created the role of White House curator, citing that the American people needed to better understand the history and allure of the political home. The aesthetic expertise she’d honed for years was ideal for this project – it not only considered, but valued, the interior appearance of the home, which she believed didn’t feel like a home at all.
From the outside I remember the feeling of the place. But inside, all I remember is shuffling through. There wasn’t even a booklet you could buy. Mount Vernon and the National Gallery and the FBI made a far greater impression,” she said, recalling a childhood visit to the White House in an interview with Life.
When Jackie began planning for the White House’s restoration, she did so publicly. She enlisted the top industry experts for her initiative, including Henry du Pont, then the nation’s largest collector of Americana, and Sister Parish, the leading society designer of the day. She prepared an article for Life, which outlined her detailed plans for the home, and used her interview as not only advertising but onboarding for the masses. Many Americans mailed antiques and family heirlooms to the White House for inclusion in the restoration.
Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there,” she said in her interview. “It would be sacrilege merely to redecorate it — a word I hate. It must be restored, and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.”
Valentine’s Day, 1962 was the culmination of the detail and care with which she crafted and reconstructed the White House we know and love today. Her White House tour aired live on CBS and a record eighty million Americans became intimately connected to the historic Capital home. They learned its rooms and its artwork, whether they were in Oklahoma, Arizona, or Washington. Jackie’s role as an aesthetic driver is seen in these two devotions of hers: her own public image, and the public image of the home that represents her presidential family. Her comprehension of the importance that appearance plays in reputation was not an obsessive vice. It was the strategic position she chose to take in her husband’s administration.
The brand that Jackie created was one of elegance and virtue. Her look was in the details. She wore chic but bold jewelry, and her famous bouffant hairstyle was created uniquely for her by Marilyn Monroe’s hairdresser. Her aesthetic choices, both in her self-presentation and that of her presidential lifestyle, worked harmoniously to build and accent the walls of her husband’s Camelot. Her demure yet commanding personality wove fluidly with the expectations that 1960s America had for its women. She spoke multiple languages with ease, and gained the love of hearts not only here but around the world. Again, I ask you: what would the image of JFK be without Jackie by his side? Jackie’s image perfectly accentuated the greatest qualities of JFK. Their young, stylish aura worked to revive America. The Kennedys took the most visible American family into a modern era engaging media, taste, and the American people in each step of the process. The modern comparison that is so incredibly obvious is the White House of Barack and Michelle Obama.
They are in many ways doing exactly what the Kennedys did. They have crafted a brand whose central elements are youth and professionalism. The Obamas are never petty. They do not play on vices and ignorance. They speak the language of the White House – always virtuous, always kind. Michelle Obama crafts her image with the attentiveness and style of Jackie O. She wears the finest clothing, regardless of the price. Michelle Obama has been photographed wearing clothing from J.Crew just as frequently as she has in Carolina Herrera or Christian Dior. Her husband is prided on being calm and collected. His demeanor not only commands respect; you give it willingly. It is casual while assertive. Gentle while dominant.
Like the Kennedys, the Obamas have in many ways brought the White House into the modern era. The pair are frequently on late-night TV, playing games, singing, and cracking jokes like any other entertainers. They publicly support contemporary art, the most memorable being the couple’s prominent support of the new musical Hamilton. Barack Obama is also very vocal about his support for Drake, a rap artist admired primarily by young people. The Obamas have refreshed and revived the White House’s youthful spirit. The sentiment that comes to mind is Hamilton’s “young, scrappy, and hungry.”
The effects of Jackie Kennedy’s first ladyship on the role itself are immense. The visual choices and strategies that turned a photojournalist into a cultural marvel have lasted over half a century. The plans she implemented – restoration, public inclusion, and personal advertising – are ones that the First Ladies who came after her implemented as integral elements of their presidential reigns. Michelle Obama singing Beyonce in the passenger-side of an SUV on a late-night TV show was no coincidence. The signature Republican red of Nancy Reagan’s White House was no aesthetic blunder. Hillary Clinton’s shift toward pants after her husband’s misstep was no folly.
The First Lady commands social trends. She has the ability to make or break a presidential reputation. So how do you brand a president? You make sure the most strategic, intelligent woman in the country is standing beside him.