Last weekend, Gwyneth Paltrow re-married to producer and long-time Ryan Murphy collaborator Brad Falchuk. The big day, which was described as small and private, took place in the Hamptons, a suitably Gwyneth-esque location. Many had speculated over what Paltrow’s dress would look like and who her stylistic influences would be for the day. A name that came up time and time again was the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. Lainey Gossip, among others, noted that Bessette-Kennedy’s iconic slip-dress, as designed by the then-unknown Narciso Rodriguez, would be a logical and much-lauded point of inspiration for Paltrow. The two always seemed cut from the same cloth.
Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, mostly for her fashion choices. Her minimalist style, both shabby and smart, feels so very 2018: The mini sunglasses; the flare-cut jeans; the long skirts paired with knee-high boots; the sleek black dresses; the well-tailored white shirts made smart for the evenings. She’s been credited as a fashion influence on everyone from Kristen Bell to Meghan Markle. All in all, timeless chic. And then there’s that wedding dress. So simple and ageless, paired with sheer gloves and almost nothing else. Check out any listicle of the most beloved celebrity wedding dresses and the chances are you’ll see Carolyn’s in the top ten somewhere.
Of course, the icon of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy extends far beyond her impeccably timeless choices in clothes. For many, she is another face of tragedy, the fairy-tale princess who met an all-too-early demise. They call it the Kennedy Curse for a reason. She was inescapable for such a brief period and then she was gone but never truly known. The impenetrable sheen that surrounded her, one that continues to cloister her persona, has proved fascinating to many for over two decades. For someone who was everywhere for those few years, little about her is understood. That mystique is so alluring that Rosamund Pike based her performance as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl on her.
Carolyn Bessette’s life was frequently characterized as a Cinderella story, but her background was hardly that of the downtrodden servant. She had a typically WASPy upbringing, was popular in high school, dated a hockey player at university and tried her hand at modelling. Later, she would become a saleswoman at Calvin Klein, where she began her career and would later be hand-picked by a company executive to deal with high-level and celebrity clients. Carolyn was frequently praised for her charm, her lack of awkwardness in dealing with big-name customers, and of course her style. She was the ideal face for Calvin Klein, a walking advertisement for all-American casual glamour. Eventually, she worked her way up to being a director of public relations to director of show production. She was said to be outgoing, ambitious, and readily adaptable to new situations, but no woman alive could be prepared enough to deal with the typhoon of Camelot.
John F. Kennedy Jr. was never not going to be famous, given his lineage and that name, but he was also someone who enjoyed the attention of celebrity. He toyed with becoming an actor until his mother put a pin in those plans, he founded George, a magazine dedicated to the intersections between politics, celebrity and lifestyle, and he dated very famous women. Cindy Crawford was one of his exes, as was Sarah Jessica Parker, who admitted that dating him was tough since he ‘was a public domain kind of [a] guy’. His longest relationship was with the actress Daryl Hannah, which lasted over five years. It was oft-repeated that Jackie Kennedy-Onassis hated Hannah and considered the world of Hollywood too gauche for the son of a President. Never mind that JFK Jr. himself was a big fan of public attention and gathering it through wholly unclassy means. He wasn’t above taking his shirt off in Central Park or posing nude for his magazine. He had the mantle of Camelot to live up to and he needed a bride for the job.
It probably would have been a smarter move for him to marry a movie-star who knew how to deal with press intrusions. As it was, Carolyn was never able to adjust to a newly public life. Being a style icon meant being photographed endlessly, from going out to dinner to attending private functions to fighting in public with John. The press feverishly talked about her as if she were a wild animal. A New York Magazine piece from October 1996 crowned her the ‘instant princess’, describing her as ‘bright, ambitious, wickedly funny, and a master of men.’ On top of being described as ‘one of those mysterious creatures that understands, on some deep level, mystical femininity’, the writer Rebecca Mead seems determined to categorize Bessette-Kennedy exclusively as a man’s woman, ‘one of the guys’, and the ideal wife for anyone looking for a true partner. In that regard as well as many others, the piece also cannot help but compare her to the other woman in John’s life: his mother.
The iconography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis will never die, in part because she built such a robust image for herself. It was there in every precisely chosen outfit, in the causes she picked (most notably renovating the White House), and in the company she kept. ‘Chic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Even today, Jackie is praised for her loyalty and decency in the face of insurmountable difficulties, often in ways that feel stifling and archaic. It’s 2018 and she’s still celebrated for standing by her man when everyone knew he was cheating. There are plenty of incredible accomplished women in the Kennedy family - Caroline, Ethel, Maria, to name but three - but the preferred image of a Kennedy woman is still inextricably tied to Jackie, that pillbox hat and grace in the face of agony.
Most of the paparazzi shots we have of Bessette-Kennedy show her curled into a ball as much as is physically possible while still striding away from the cameras. Calvin Klein, her old boss, was said to have lamented that she made herself look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame in these moments. She felt hunted, not unlike her late mother-in-law, whose harassment from one particular paparazzi became legendary. In a pre-internet age, it all just made Carolyn seem that much more mysterious. Shunning the spotlight is a lot more intereresting to outsiders when you do it looking as good as she did.
When Carolyn, John, and her older sister Lauren died in a plane crash that John had been piloting, the Kennedy legend seemed reinforced once more. Only this time, there was no chic grieving widow to guide public emotions. Instead, the fairy-tale sheen only brightened to blinding levels. For a moment, all the stories about their alleged marital problems disappeared in favour of spinning the rose-tinted Prince Charming and Cinderella romance that had made John and Jackie so beloved. John Jr’s wasted potential was mourned, arguably more so than his rather mediocre business and professional dealings in life (his magazine was failing and he had apparently never gotten over the humiliation of failing the New York bar exam twice). The heir to Camelot was dead and so was his bride. One was known to the world and the other remained a mystery.
The Kennedy Entertainment Complex is almost as established as the family itself. Countless movies and T.V. shows have been made about them, books have been written by friends, associates and the vaguest hangers-on that promise to expose the truth, and every major fashion house is bound to go through its Jackie (or Carolyn) phase. It didn’t take long for everyone in John Jr and Carolyn’s inner circles to start blabbing and pitching their own book deals that followed one of two extremes: Either that their marriage was an unshakable union of love and destiny, or that they were a forever-warring pair on the brink of divorce thanks to his skirt chasing and her cocaine use. TLC announced a new TV movie based on the pair, titled JFK Jr. & Carolyn Bessette: A Camelot Wedding, which Vogue noted followed in a recent trend of ’90s real-life throwbacks (think both season of American Crime Story and the plethora of JonBenét Ramsey documentaries).
I think Carolyn’s continuing allure goes beyond her clothes, although it certainly doesn’t hurt that this newly nostalgic figure dressed so timelessly. Carolyn was a Kennedy but one by marriage. She wasn’t born into the public domain like her husband and she wasn’t used to the weight of history that sat atop their shoulders. Just like any woman who marries into royalty will become an instant icon, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy received the full American Princess treatment. Everyone had such high hopes for John Jr. and the next Kennedy generation, and that required a willing female partner. Despite it all, even though we know how it ends and we’re all too aware of the smothering reality that plagues women in these positions, the dream is still something we fetishize. Our culture, despite its protests, cannot help but like women in a certain way: Beautiful, stylish, silent.
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