Oleg Cassini, a Cut Above

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

No matter what else designer Oleg Cassini accomplished in his 92 years, he will forever be remembered as the man who dressed Jacqueline Kennedy and helped transform her into a cultural icon. Cassini, who died Friday at a Long Island hospital, would be just fine with that epitaph.

During his long career, Cassini designed collections for women and men, even counting Johnny Carson as a client. He was a costume designer in Hollywood, working with actresses such as Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Veronica Lake and Gene Tierney, to whom he was married for 11 years. He was among the first designers to embrace licensing -- selling the rights to one's name in return for lucrative royalties. It's now a standard practice in the fashion industry.

Cassini mingled with socialites and used his charm and connections both to attract clients and to maintain them. He helped to set the stage for the sort of debonair, socially adept designers who would follow, men such as Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Douglas Hannant and Zac Posen.

But it is because of his extraordinary collaboration with Kennedy that his legacy extends beyond the fashion industry and into the culture at large. Cassini did not merely create a collection of appropriate suits and practical day dresses for the first lady. He helped her build a distinctive image. Together, they constructed a visual vocabulary of simple sheaths, youthful A-line skirts, boxy jackets, elegant wide necklines, bracelet sleeves and sophisticated colors. With her bouffant hair and her preternaturally peaceful smile, Kennedy used her clothes to establish a lasting iconography.

Cassini complied with her preferences, offered his expertise and remained acutely aware that he was not simply designing for the first lady, he was designing for the world stage and for history. He understood from the beginning that he was not just creating pretty suits that would photograph attractively. Starting with her inaugural ensemble with its unfussy fawn-colored coat and matching dress, he set the foundation for what would be the Kennedy's signature look. (The fur muff was suggested by fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who sometimes offered counsel to the first lady. And Halston, who began his career as a milliner, created her pillbox hats.)

Over the years, Kennedy wore a wide range of designer labels. But Cassini's work dominated. The impact of the former first lady on the fashion industry cannot be understated. She is one of the rare American names that designers -- in New York and in Europe -- invoke when they are searching for inspiration. They use "Jackie" as shorthand to describe what has become a quintessentially American mode of dress: easy clothes that are sophisticated and sporty. When a woman walks down a city street in a pair of crisp capris, a jewel-neck sweater and a pair of oversize sunglasses, she is channeling "Jackie." A simple suit with unfettered lines and bracelet sleeves -- a look hanging in virtually every woman's closet -- is so very "Jackie." Designers such as Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren owe an enormous debt to Kennedy -- and, ultimately, to Oleg Cassini.

When Kennedy became first lady, she was only 31, and her taste in fashion was defined by contemporary French style and designers such as Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel. For political reasons, it was impossible for her to continue wearing clothes imported from Paris, and so she began her search for an American designer. She turned to Vreeland for advice, declaring in a short note, "I don't really know where to start with American designers." Vreeland made several suggestions, but ultimately Kennedy settled on Cassini. They had known each other before she came to the White House, and he volunteered for the job. Apparently, it did not matter that he was born in Paris, raised in Italy and had first established his business in Rome. He had served in the U.S. Army and he had a New York address.

It turned out that Cassini was particularly well suited to be the first lady's couturier. He was creative, but he was also a businessman and a technician. And he was not a star. His celebrity would not distract from either the first lady or his designs. As an immigrant, he had the ability to look at the American presidency and the American ideal from arm's length. And because Cassini had a background as a costume designer, he intimately understood the way in which fashion could be used to define a character and tell a story.

Cassini was born in 1913. His mother was an Italian countess and his father a Russian diplomat. He came to the United States in 1936. In his youth, he might have been described as possessing an aristocratic bearing, but in his later years, with his rakish mane of white hair and urgent self-confidence, and with his résumé always at the tip of his tongue, he had evolved into an astute politician keeping watch over his legacy.

He faded from prominence as fashions changed. The industry turned its attention to striving young designers and Hollywood celebrities. And first ladies became increasingly skittish about displaying more than a passing interest in fashion. But Cassini continued to work -- and collect licensing fees. Periodically, he would step into the spotlight to accept another of the many honors that come his way. In February, he was one of seven "icons" celebrated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

In spring of 2001, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years." Under the media microscope, Cassini's legacy was examined in sometimes unflattering ways. One of the issues raised was how much of Cassini's work was original and how much of it was merely re-interpretations of French designs.

It was a complicated question. When Cassini was designing for Kennedy, the center of the fashion industry was indisputably in Paris. It was common for design houses in the New York to eagerly await the unveiling of collections in Paris so they could be copied and the knock-offs sent out to department stores. Indeed, many Seventh Avenue firms paid a fee to the French houses precisely for that privilege.

Kennedy's love for French labels certainly would have had an effect on her relationship with Cassini. And like most of the designers working in New York at the time, Cassini watched what came down the Paris runways. But it seems unfair to judge his work by standards that had not yet been established.

For all of Cassini's protectiveness of his legacy, he need not have worried. It is unlikely that another designer will have such an impact on the way in which history remembers a first lady. Aside from creating inaugural gowns, other designers have made notable contributions to White House style most often in infamous ways. John Galanos supplied Nancy Reagan with gowns, but they are remembered more for their hefty price tags and for not being promptly returned. Their appearance has been forgotten. Arnold Scaasi dressed Barbara Bush in a manner that had her dubbed the "glamorous grandmother" -- a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. And Donna Karan dressed Hillary Rodham Clinton in one of her distinctive black "cold-shoulder" gowns early in her tenure as first lady, a move that went over so well that Clinton was back in headbands and prim suits the next day.

Cassini helped Kennedy dress with sophistication, style and care. His work excited the public and inspired hordes of women to mimic her look with the enthusiasm of teenagers imitating Britney Spears. With his help, the White House became, for a short time, a place that celebrated fashion, style and elegance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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