Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in Southampton in 1929 to a wealthy family. She was given a private school education, and was an avid reader and writer of stories and poetry. She graduated from high school in 1947, and was dubbed “the Debutante of the Year” for the 1947-1948 season. She went on to study literature, art, history and French at Vassar College and took a year abroad to study in France. She returned and finished college at George Washington University.
She won a twelve month junior editor internship at Vogue magazine, but At 22 years old, the editor told her to quit on her first day so she could focus on finding a husband. She took the advice and moved back to Washington.
Upon moving back in 1951, she started her first job as the “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the Washington Times-Herald newspaper. She became a photographer and columnist, photographing and interviewing people on the street about the issues of the day. She interviewed Nixon and his 6 year old daughter when he was elected to Vice President in 1952. She covered the first inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.
She met John F. Kennedy at a dinner party thrown by their mutual friend, and they were married shortly after in 1953. She quit the newspaper when they married, and became a mother.
In 1960, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president and Jackie began traveling all around the country with him. As she became a public figure and then First Lady, she could no longer wear the luxury French labels she was accustomed to and had to find a designer based in America to wear. She turned to her friend, Oleg Cassini, who, while born in Russia and raised in Europe, ended up moving to America in 1936.
He created more than 300 outfits for Jackie while she lived at the White House from 1961 to 1963. He is responsible for her iconic looks - she wore pillbox hats, tailored suits with notch collars, A-line dresses, gloves and low heels. Cassini was dubbed her “Secretary of Style” and with his help she earned the title First Lady of Fashion. Her style was copied by commercial manufacturers more than any other First Lady.
Oleg Cassini was born in Paris in 1913 to Russian parents. His family fled Russia during the Russian Revolution, relocating to Florence. His mother set up a dress shop that was successful, and gave Cassini his first taste of fashion.
He studied fine art, eventually finding his first job in fashion working under Jean Patou. He won a number of international fashion competitions in Turin, including five first prizes in Mostra Della Moda for sketches and Most Creative Presentation for an evening dress painted in romantic colours on silver foil. He won a prize of 5,000 lire and opened his own boutique in Rome.
In 1936, he and his brother moved to New York City. He met his first wife, an heiress to a medicine fortune, but they divorced four years later and he moved to Hollywood. It was there that he happened to meet the head of Paramount Studios while playing tennis. He said he was looking for another costume designer, and Cassini got the job, working alongside Edith Head. His first film was 1941’s I Wanted Wings starring Veronica Lake. He met his second wife Gene Tierney during this time, and they were married for 12 years. He designed all of her gowns on and off screen until their divorce.
Gene Tierney and Marilyn Monroe in the same red dress designed by Oleg Cassini
He started making a name for himself dressing the starlets of the day, and dating many of them! He dressed everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Audrey Hepburn. He was a true cassanova, dating Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Betty Grable, and was eventually engaged to Grace Kelly whom he was head over heels for. She even said she regretted not marrying him.
During WWII, Cassini enlisted after the attacks on Pearl Harbour. After the war, he moved back to New York City and in 1952 he opened his own fashion house on Seventh Avenue.
His major influence in fashion came through when he met his ultimate muse, Jackie Kennedy, in 1953. He is the mastermind behind the “Jackie Look”, the pillbox hat, gloves and bows, hyper feminine but sophisticated and classic. His work in costume design for film made him an expert in how to design for the First Lady.
He referred to her as “the star in a major film”, making sure to dress her in clothing that was emotive, like chiffon and lace, and clean lines that were eye catching for the camera and offered an air of innocence and regency.
He created 300 looks for her in total. One of his most impactful trends was the Leopard fur craze of the 1960s. He suggested she might try a leopard fur coat despite the fact that they had been out of fashion for some time. She said yes, and was photographed in a leopard fur coat and thus set off the trend. This was devastating to the population of leopards, with around 250,000 leopards slaughtered during the 1960s. Cassini was horrified to know how many leopards were killed, and started producing fake fur as a replacement. During the years she spent as First Lady, Cassini created 300 total looks for Jackie. The gown she wore for the inaugural Gala in 1961 was named one of the 50 Dresses that Changed the World, and in 1961, Eugenia Sheppard announced in the New York Herald Tribune ”according to Tobe’s most recent coast to coast survey, the best known name in American fashion is Oleg Cassini.”
Cassini holds the record for the longest lasting career of any fashion designer, with 70s years working as a designer. He continued to work in film into the 2000s.