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Oleg Cassini – Couturier to Camelot

Oleg Cassini (1913-2006) American

Inaugural Gala event, 1961.

Oleg Cassini was born a Count in the Russian nobility. In his earlier years, he worked as a sketch artist for the House of Patou in Paris. After his arrival in America, he worked under Edith Head at Paramount and later left the company for Twentieth Century Fox in 1942. Comfortable in Hollywood, he was married to actress Gene Tierney for many years and after their divorce, he was engaged to Grace Kelly before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Crepe dress, 1950.

In 1960, Oleg Cassini was considered a second-string American designer when he was tapped by Jackie Kennedy to design her European influenced wardrobe. She had been chastised for wearing expensive European designers so an American designer was required. Cassini became the first official White House fashion designer. The clothes were designed, in collaboration with the First Lady, replicating European designs using the same fabrics being used by the likes of Balenciaga and Givenchy.

Alaskine silk dress worn at the Vatican, 1962.

In the past, Cassini’s designs for other clients tended to be skin-tight, slinky dresses with daring necklines; however, Jackie required clothes that shielded her body’s curves from view. She preferred fabrics with body and substance to thin clingy materials. Cassini used fabrics such as linen, shantung, heavy satins, and wools that were then made up in silhouettes that would stand away from her body. He designed what she wanted, simple and young clothes that were still suitably covered up for the occasion. The clothes tended to be architecturally clean, with A-line or bell shaped skirts, and made up in sumptuous fabrics. They sometimes projected an almost monastic simplicity, as epitomized in his design for her Inaugural Gala gown.

Swiss double satin Inaugural Gala gown, 1960.

With her patronage, Cassini was able to expand his staff and business; in fact, he created a separate staff responsible only for the First Lady’s wardrobe. In designing a complete wardrobe for one woman, Cassini was able to develop a specific look for Jackie. The dresses were mostly sleeveless sheaths, though some dresses were A-line or had slightly gathered fuller skirts. Each dress had its own matching jacket or coat along with coordinating hats, gloves, and shoes. An often used signature was a fabric bow or tie detail either near or at the waist of her dresses, both in daytime and evening.

Televised White House tour "suit", 1962.

Her suits were boxy but had softly shaped shoulders, three-quarter length sleeves, and were frequently accented with over-sized fabric-covered buttons.  Many jackets were collar-less or banded; however, if a jacket did have a collar it was usually so distinctive that it was the only decorative element on the ensemble.

Ensemble sketch from One Thousand Days.

After this period of designing for Jacqueline Kennedy was over, clothes created by Oleg Cassini were more popular than ever. His new-found celebrity and frequent appearances on talk shows such as The Tonight Show, Phil Donahue, and Merv Griffin were in part responsible for raising the status and image of the American designer to the domestic and international public.

Wool melton coat, 1960.

Note: A fabulous slide show of the First Lady’s clothing can be viewed at the  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website.

Prominent Designer, A513.

Home Sewing connection: Cassini lent his name to some Prominent Designer mail order patterns.

Mauve silk gazar dress, 1963.

His style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • Though conceived originally by Balenciaga, Jackie’s dependence on the pillbox hat design kept Cassini, Halston, and other American designers creating them for years.

Silk ziberline dress for India, 1962.

  • He became well known for the icy pastels shades he put the First Lady in as well as the bright yellow, oranges and hot pinks that were used in the First Lady’s wardrobe, especially in the brightly colored wardrobe worn during her 1962 solo tour of India.
  • Cassini created about 100 outfits for the First Lady during that first year and around 300 during her entire time in the White House.
  • He was one of the first designers to franchise and license his name on a variety of products, not only on clothing related items.
  • In menswear, he popularized the “Nehru” jacket along with strongly colored button-down shirts in shades of dark blue, orange, and red in the mid-1960s.
  • After writing his autobiography, In My Own Fashion in 1987, Cassini published a fabulous 217-page book on his time with Jackie Kennedy called One Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House in 1995. Cassini examines sketches and pictures of 102 dresses worn during the three years in the White House and it is highly recommended.

From One Thousand Days of Magic, 1995.

  • His designs were showcased in a 2001 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition entitled “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.”

Images: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Sources: The Way She Looks Tonight (1996) Marian Fowler; In My Own Fashion (1987) Oleg Cassini; A Thousand Day of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House (1995) Oleg Cassini.

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