Those expecting to feast on the splendor of a fashion icon in the movie “Jackie” may feel misled. The promotion shows actress Natalie Portman in a copy of the Dior-inspired red dress Jackie Kennedy wore on her fabulous White House tour. But the outfit at the center of this story is the pink Chanel-like suit splattered in her husband’s blood.
The Jackie we see offers a lesson not on how to dress but on how to use image to achieve public goals. Toward that end, appearance played a paramount role.
“Jackie” focuses on the days right before and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Sitting next to John in a convertible rolling through Dallas when a bullet tore his head apart, Jackie sees her seemingly charmed life fall into the abyss of a national trauma.
As first lady, Jackie becomes the focus for a public subsumed by fear and shock. As a mother of two small children, she must explain and comfort. And as a wife violently ripped from her husband, she must grieve while performing.
The Jackie we see refuses to disappear into seclusion. Tragedy transforms her from the embodiment of a new American elegance (though many of her clothes were American-made rip-offs of French designs) to a piteous widow. But dress still matters.
On the flight back from Dallas, Jackie spurns offers to help her change out of the bloodstained suit. She’s photographed in it as Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president. She wears it descending from the plane in Washington and right up to the front door of the White House.
“Let them see what they’ve done” is her explanation.
This Jackie is angry and wanting control of the funeral spectacle. She’s no longer the breathy debutante describing her decorating choices to the TV cameras. But the crumbling structure of her life produces not a crack in her grooming, her posture or her careful use of language.
She insists on walking behind JFK’s casket in the funeral procession through Washington — and against the advice of associates concerned for her safety. They worried that she could be exposing herself and other dignitaries to assassins possibly still at large.
The early ’60s were about halfway between the Victorian era, with its elaborate formal rules for mourning, and recent efforts to suppress grief. Nowadays, joyful “celebrations of life” often replace somber church funerals. In Britain, the BBC reports, Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has become the most requested funeral song, replacing Verdi’s “Requiem.”
For her appearance in the funeral cortege, Jackie retains the Victorian mode. She wears all black. The veil covering her face reveals just a hint of the white skin underneath.
“Jackie” is very incomplete history. Audiences unaware of the back alleys where JFK cavorted with call girls and mob molls might think it was all love and glamour. Jackie herself made reference to what she called her “Asiatic” marriage.
Nonetheless, Jackie’s post-assassination agenda included hammering into permanence the myth of the Kennedy years as a modern-day Camelot. This has to be said: The orderly White House of 1963 — even amid a national crisis — will contrast sharply with the crashing vulgarity about to take it over.
Social media and the furies driving national anger are chopping up a civic culture that took centuries to build. But the more norms get smashed the more conspicuous are those who uphold them.
The word “surface” is often unfairly paired with “shallow.” But how we show ourselves to the public really does contain meaning. “Jackie” offers a reminder that mannerly appearance and behavior can be used in the service of power.
Email Froma Harrop at firstname.lastname@example.org.