Words by Mr G Bruce Boyer
With his effortless American elegance and confident carefree simplicity, the tousled hair, the open convertibles and sunglasses, the photos on the beach or yacht, and the ties lightly flapping in the wind, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy seemed about as unselfconscious as a person can be. He definitely had the cool factor. He flirted with Savile Row for a brief time when his father was US Ambassador to the Court of St James's from 1938 to 1940, seen in photos of the period sporting elegantly cut double-breasted suits à la the Duke of Kent, but JFK was for most of his life what he was: an Irish American, New England Eastern Establishment elite. Born in a suburb of Boston, he went to Choate, Princeton and Harvard and dressed the part. The Ivy League style was his style, as it was for his brothers and sisters.
The Eastern Establishment style that became the basis for Ivy League clothes of the 20th century was founded in the English country wardrobe of tweed and flannel. Sports jackets and flannel suits, blazers, and a variety of pullovers with odd trousers were its basic components - a country estate look for those who pursued riding, shooting and sailing. It was a style worn by Oxford and Cambridge undergrads of the Messrs Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell set during the 1920s. The idea, of course, was a relaxed version of tailored clothes, sometimes a blend of town and country wear. It was the sort of thing that Mr Fred Astaire later made famous in films of the 1930s when he wasn't wearing white tie and tails.
His suits, a modified Ivy style with soft shoulders and shallow chest - invariably single-breasted, two-button coats - were the perfection of simplicity
American cousins of the British manor-born actually took the idea of relaxation and comfort and ran with it. As the style popularly emerged on the Ivy League campuses in the Mr F Scott Fitzgerald 1920s, grace notes of comfort were added. The Brooks Brothers "Number One" sack suit, with its unstructured, un-darted coat proved as light and unrestricting as a cardigan. The English button-down soft polo collar was adapted and adopted. Fair Isle and Shetland sweaters, plus fours, trench coats, Argyle hosiery, and a variety of sports clothes - football sweaters, white duck trousers, moccasin-type slip-ons and tennis shoes, camel hair polo coats, among other items - were soon added to the mix. The resulting Ivy style was a colourful, comfortable, highly textured mix of casually sophisticated clothes.
This would have been JFK's sartorial milieu, and the early photos confirm it. Even after becoming president he continued to wear Harris Tweed sports jackets (made for him by the esteemed Ivy League tailor and haberdasher, Chipp), and a variety of Narragansett and Hyannis Port sailing gear familiar to the New England establishment.
Mr Paul Winston, whose father, Mr Sidney Winston, started the clothiers Chipp in 1945, remembers going to The Carlyle hotel in Manhattan, where JFK had a suite, to fit and deliver clothes. "His tastes were very traditional, but he was attuned to the young too. I was just a 20-year-old, starstruck kid at the time, but I remember that Kennedy would ask me what fabrics I liked. He liked chalk-striped flannels, but occasionally I'd suggest a tweed jacket as a more casual look for family social occasions. And he liked striped and neat-patterned neckwear with a small point-collared shirt."
The Kennedys - Photographs by Mark Shaw is published by Reel Art Press. Mr Shaw (1921-1969) is one of the most prominent celebrity photographers of 1950s and 1960s America
"He liked two-button suit coats. People have said it was because he wore a back brace, but I think he knew it simply looked more elegant and slimming and dressier. A longer roll to the lapel shows more shirt front and tie and I think Kennedy understood that very well."
After graduating and serving in the Navy during WWII, his weekday wear necessarily took on the formality of office, beginning particularly with his run for the House of Representatives in 1947 and Senate in 1953. Not that he forsook the Ivy ideals. Many of his friends and advisors were still firmly tied to the Ivy League as professors - Mr Arthur Schlesinger is a perfect example, almost always seen wearing slightly rumpled tweeds and dashing bow tie - JFK rightly decided on an Eastern Establishment business look. He exchanged his button downs and school rep ties for short point collars and neat geometric printed silk ties. Boating shoes without socks were perfectly acceptable for weekends, but weekdays called for plain black Oxfords and dark hose. His plain, pinstriped and dark grey worsted suits, still cut in a modified Ivy style with small, soft shoulders, shallow chest and little waist suppression - invariably single-breasted, two-button unvented coats with plain-fronted, slim-leg, cuffed trousers - were the perfection of simplicity.
And he wasn't much for hats. "He would carry a hat, but not put it on," noticed Mr Winston. "I think he wanted to appease the hat manufacturers, who were unionised. But I think it was another sign of his youthfulness that, like the 1960s generation, he didn't really care about hats."
A personal letter from Ms Jacqueline Kennedy, dated 1963, thanking Mr Shaw for his photography work. © 2012 Mark Shaw / mptvimages.com
It was all a model of elegant understatement. President Kennedy eschewed hats of almost any kind, and when an overcoat was called for it was invariably a plain grey Chesterfield. He wore both black and white tie when the occasion demanded, both impeccably cut and starkly simple. Nothing ever frilly or fussy. He seems to have reintroduced the navy blazer to the wardrobe, as well as tweed sports jackets, khakis, Shetland crew necks, boat shoes and polo shirts to the casual wardrobe. Perhaps the only ostentation he allowed himself, apart from perfection of make, were the initialled-in-gold velvet Albert slippers he often wore around his various vacation homes.
He was careful to give that unstudied sense of ease in his dress that he cultivated in his press conferences, a nice balance of seriousness and lightness, profundity and humour, calculated intuitiveness. This is perhaps the most difficult achievement for a public person because it calls for a great deal of self-knowledge as well as considerable intelligence, both of which JFK had in abundance. But then he had those two additional attributes that made it all possible: he had charm, and he had style.