Robin Givhan on Fashion: The Kennedy Photographs Evoke a Bygone Old-Money Style

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, August 30, 2009

The recent death of Sen. Edward Kennedy unleashed hours of black-and-white video footage and countless pages of archival images of him surrounded by his relatives. As all those Kennedys smile toward the camera, one can't help but notice the sheer number of ruddy-cheeked family members, the dark thatch of hair that serves as proof of lineage and the way in which their attire so perfectly captures a not-so-distant era in the culture. Those images of the Kennedy clan -- so steeped in mythology -- speak of a particular kind of subtly sporty American style that the fashion industry has devalued. It also calls to mind a brand of noblesse oblige politics that our culture now regards with suspicion.

The photographs of the generation of Kennedys that include John and Jackie, Bobby and Teddy evoke what one used to think of as old-money style. The Ivy League suits, the chinos and button-downs, the boat shoes, the tweed jackets and the colorful crew necks that fit just so -- loose enough to be comfortable but snug enough to hint at an athletic physique. These all serve as components for a life lived at boarding school, on sailboats and in family compounds. They form a look that suggests wealth and prestige without ever coming right out and announcing either in the manner of a Louis Vuitton handbag with its distinctive logos or Christian Louboutin shoes with their famous red soles.

The day may have passed when these Kennedyesque preppy frocks were the actual uniform for those who summer on the Cape or in Newport. (Although President Obama, currently vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, has certainly worn his share of khakis and polo shirts.) But they still serve as synecdoche for that well-to-do demographic, which for a time was overwhelmingly white and out of reach for so many. It is no wonder that when young African American hip-hop entrepreneurs first arrived in the moneyed class, men such as Sean Combs and Russell Simmons adopted many of those staid stylistic flourishes to announce their success. And others in that new generation of millionaires appropriated polo shirts, super-sized them and turned the old-money staple on its head.

In the photographs of the Kennedy family heyday, they are dressed in the style of the times, which was more formal than what people are now accustomed to. The 1950s and '60s were eras when men didn't wear baggy trousers or faded anything. (See: "Mad Men" for reference.) Everyone back then looked more pulled together, and flamboyance was for the most part considered something best left to undesirables. The mix of chinos and button-down shirts, sport jackets and club ties was drawn from the East Coast/Ivy League world, which was calling the shots when it came to fashion. But the denizens of that sphere were taking an awful lot of notes from the Europeans. The result was a style of dress that might best be described as both aristocratic and democratic.

It's a mix that seems virtually impossible today, at least on the political stage. The idea that someone would have the audacity to try to merge the two and actually make a success of it seems virtually unthinkable. It wouldn't matter what sort of help-the-little-guy legislation he might be peddling. He'd be dismissed as a elitist before his first town hall meeting.

The photographs of the Kennedys ooze with wealth and privilege. And yet they are romanticized as political savants and national royalty. They represent a time when this culture seemed more comfortable -- even mesmerized -- with the idea of an anointed family, a ruling class, a group of public servants to whom so very much had been given.

Over the years so much has shifted. The culture now looks at the word "aristocratic" and, instead of reading it as synonymous with "noble" or "well bred," can only infer "snobbish" or -- that political kiss of death -- "elitist." Some of that may have had to do with the fashion industry, which saw it as a matter of progress and inventiveness to step away from the understated constraints of a moneyed style that whispered toward one that bellowed, shrieked and just didn't know when to shut up. The razzle-dazzle ostentation of the 1980s and beyond gave new money a bad day and ultimately gave money, in general, negative connotations when it comes to a person's ability to behave with empathy or frankly, to behave. Money came to be associated with a kind of lavishness that was flaunted rather than quietly enjoyed. Any hint of wealth became cause for cynicism. Anyone who didn't worry about paying the mortgage couldn't possibly understand what it meant to have such basic concerns.

But the Kennedys were mostly grandfathered in. Bad behavior was incorporated into the myth. It's hard to think of any political family that so publicly lived a life of luxury with little comment. The Bushes of Kennebunkport certainly revealed their patrician background, but it was met with plenty of comment . . . and criticism and derision.

In recent years, more members of the fashion industry have come back around to understatement. Some menswear designers have made it their mission to build a brand based on the perfect pair of chinos or button-down shirt. Certainly, Michael Kors has always found plenty of inspiration in the world of Jackie Kennedy and the Newport crowd. And Ralph Lauren built his massive empire on Americana. But classics today must come with a twist. Boat shoes with tuxedos! Sack suits with high-water trousers! A formal gown with cowboy boots! Wealth -- as it is displayed on one's back -- cannot be quiet. It must be self-consciously perfect, prohibitively expensive, loudly eccentric or a costume.

In looking at the images of the Kennedys, though, the clothes don't look perfect. In fact, they don't even look especially expensive. The designer frocks worn by Jackie Kennedy don't look pricey; they look refined. In those images of the Kennedys, the clothes are discreet. We associate them with wealth only because they are worn by the wealthy.

The modern fashion industry has argued that clothes can make a man look rich. Those images of the Kennedys recall the days when it was assumed that a man did that for his clothes.

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