One of America's favorite First Ladies is the subject of one of the most talked about exhibitions this year. Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years - Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is now showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition, which opened last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, marks the 40th anniversary of Mrs. Kennedy's emergence as America's First Lady and her global influence on style and culture.
The 1961 inauguration of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, accompanied by his young wife Jacqueline, is an image familiar to many Americans, played countless times on newsreels.
"[Designer] Oleg Cassini designed this simple light colored coat," explained Elizabeth Parr, Exhibitions Director at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "He wanted her to stand out and felt it was a very cold day that most of the women would be wearing either dark winter colors or big furs. And he wanted her to portray an image of vitality and youthfulness and said that she would be 'young and vibrant among the bears."
She says Jacqueline Kennedy's inauguration day ensemble the crčme-colored coat with fur trim; 'pill-box' hat and fur-trimmed boots - defined the elegant simplicity that would become her trademark.
"I think both she and President Kennedy understood the importance of image, particularly in a time when television was becoming a much more important factor in the lives of everyday Americans," she noted.
Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years features more than seventy original gowns, dresses, suits and accessories from the collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. But Elizabeth Parr says the exhibition is not only about high couture or Mrs. Kennedy's wardrobe. She says the clothes are just one aspect of many items including documents, letters and photographs that reflect the First Lady's accomplishments, her years in the White House, and her world travels.
"There's a draft of a speech which focuses on her trip to India and Pakistan. When she went on State trips with her husband or on her own, she was very concerned about the culture and the customs of he countries she was visiting," explained Ms. Parr. "She tried to assemble a wardrobe that would reflect in some ways the culture of that country. And it was a very triumphant trip for her."
Also included in the Jacqueline Kennedy exhibit are documents and film footage relating to her restoration of the White House. This became her first major project as First Lady. Mrs. Kennedy believed that the White House was beginning to lose some of its historic relevance, as she explained in this 1961 television broadcast.
"It just seemed to me such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house hardly anything before 1902," Mrs. Kennedy said.
INTERVIEWER: "Did you make these changes according to your own personal tastes and desires?"
"No. I have a committee which has museum experts and government people and private citizens on it," responded Mrs. Kennedy. " And everything we do is subject to approval by the Fine Arts committee."
INTERVIEWER: "What happens when the next President's wife comes into the White House?"
"If they don't want it, in the past they could sell it, throw it out, do anything they wanted. But then a law was passed whereby everything that's given to or bought by the White House becomes part of its permanent collection," explained Mrs. Kennedy. "So if a future First Family doesn't want it, it goes to the Smithsonian where it will be taken care of and displayed."
During their years in the White House, the President's and Mrs. Kennedy's passion for the arts was also made evident in the number of artists, poets, authors, and other cultural giants that were regularly included at state dinners. In 1962, at a banquet for distinguished American writers, educators and scientists, the guest list included 49 Nobel Prize winners.
Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years exhibit has proven to be one of the most popular attractions in Washington this spring. Visitor Carol Luttrell of Charlotte, North Carolina says looking at the dresses brought her back to another time.
"I look at those styles and think of events that we have pictures of in the family, in the 1960s....to see dresses that I remember, from the prom, weddings that were in the 1960s,and to see her clothes and to realize we were all copying her, and I didn't remember the connection," she said.
Jeffrey Simkins, also of Charlotte, says he is fascinated by the Kennedys, even though he wasn't yet born when they were in the White House.
"What I found myself thinking when I went through the exhibit was what a fascinating person she was...what a really 'qualified' First Lady she was. I just thought we haven't had a first lady like this in my lifetime," Mr. Simkins said.
Curators of the Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years exhibit say they are often asked about one particular outfit Mrs. Kennedy wore, which is not included in the display. It's the pink suit she wore in Dallas, Texas on November 23, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet. The blood-spattered suit remains in the National Archives, inaccessible.