National Archives have Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit, but hat is missing

On Nov. 22, 1963, President and Jacqueline Kennedy were greeted by a crowd after they landed in Texas.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President and Jacqueline Kennedy were greeted by a crowd after they landed in Texas. (Art Rickerby/time & Life Pictures/getty Images)
By Faye Fiore
Friday, February 4, 2011; 7:30 PM

COLLEGE PARK - In the nation's collective memory, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a clash of images and mysteries that may never be sorted out to the satisfaction of everyone.

But if there is a lasting emblem that sums up Nov. 22, 1963, the day America tumbled from youthful idealism to hollow despair, it is Jacqueline Kennedy's rose-pink suit and pillbox hat.

An expanded collection of Kennedy treasures and trivia was unveiled this month at an exhibit as well as online to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration; it includes the fabric of his top hat (beaver fur) down to his shoe size (10C).

But missing and hardly mentioned are what could be the two most famous remnants of Kennedy's last day. The pink suit, bloodstained and perfectly preserved in a vault in Maryland, is banned from public display for 100 years. The pillbox hat - removed at Parkland Hospital while Jacqueline Kennedy waited for doctors to confirm what she knew - is lost, last known to be in the hands of her personal secretary, who won't discuss its whereabouts.

Does it matter? Should it? It's said that history's great chapters are defined by the trappings of everyday life: a stovepipe hat, a pair of polio braces. Jacqueline Kennedy could not have imagined that the outfit she put on that morning would come to epitomize the essence of Camelot and the death of it.

"The single symbol of that event and of her as a persona is that pink suit," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a first ladies' historian. "It's all anyone need see and, in an instant, people know what it is in reference to."

This is the story of how an otherwise ordinary pink suit and hat came to be treasured by a nation, only to slip from its reach.

Emblem of style

Few public figures understood the power of fashion the way Jacqueline Kennedy did, and when she packed for Dallas, she chose nothing she hadn't worn before. The goal was not to upstage the president as she had on a recent trip to Paris but to exquisitely accentuate him as the 1964 election season kicked off. She took along two suits, one of them the pink Chanel knockoff created by a New York dress shop so she could indulge her French tastes and still buy American.

The pink was unforgettable - the color of roses, azaleas, watermelon. Kennedy asked her to wear it. The suit was trimmed in navy blue, and she wore it with a blue blouse, blue pumps and a blue handbag, and the pillbox hat, secured with a pin.

Looking back at the grainy footage of the first couple as the dark limousine, top down, rounded the turn from Houston Street to Elm, it's hard not to hope for a different outcome. As long as she is wearing that hat, the world is intact. Then comes the lurch of his body, the unforgettable flash of pink scrambling in panic across the trunk. That day, her clothing bore witness to history.

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was riding in the motorcade's third car, told investigators her memory of Secret Service agents frantically trying to get the president inside Parkland Hospital while his wife bent over him, refusing to let go: "I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw, in the president's car, a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat."

Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the first lady, remembered resting his hands on her trembling shoulders, the left side of the skirt wet with blood where she was cradling her husband's head.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company