The Secrets Behind Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's Enduring Style Legacy - The Gloss Magazine

The Secrets Behind Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s Enduring Style Legacy

A must-read for fashionistas is a new book by fashion writer Sunita Kumar Nair which pays homage to the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s effortless style and fashion legacy …

“It’s not a style that calls attention. It is a style that tries to deflect attention, and by deflecting that attention, she’s making people pay more attention. She didn’t have a strategy: she wore what she felt, and her intuition would drive her. Her looks and the way she dressed is a very relevant aesthetic today that goes beyond trends. She understood the value of quality and moderation. She was not someone to be taken in by excess. The fact that she had just a few pieces shows how modern she was. This to me is the very essence of Carolyn and her timelessness.”

This is the verdict of designer Gabriela Hearst, founder of her eponymous brand and creative director of Chloé, on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s iconic style. She’s just one of many designers, including Tory Burch, Ann Demeulemeester, Yohji Yamamoto, Pieter Mulier of Alaïa who have been interviewed in CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, A Life in Fashion by Sunita Kumar Nair. If, as Hearst believes, Carolyn relied on a few key pieces in her wardrobe, what were they?

Image; Micheal Vinick

The White Shirt

“I’m not comfortable with anything ornate, I like clean understated looks,” Carolyn once explained. The white shirt was a regular player in her wardrobe – whether for work, leisure, or black-tie occasions. According to her college roommate, Dana Gallo Strayton, Carolyn would wear a shirt with sweatpants or a long midi skirt, to downplay her luminous beauty. One of her most iconic looks was when she chose to wear a crossover Yohji Yamamoto shirt with a black ruffled skirt for a black-tie dinner at the Whitney Museum in March 1999.

The look was stunning in its simplicity and is easy to emulate. The key is to contrast the materials of the shirt with the bottom half of the outfit and keep accessories minimal but feminine. Carolyn’s friends spoke of her instinctive ability to style a shirt in multiple ways – making a crisscross like her Whitney ensemble; tucking one shirt end into her trousers and leaving the other out; or unbuttoning the top buttons to show her décolletage. There was no end to how Carolyn made the white shirt “hers”.

Image; Avalon Red

Monochrome ensembles

“Carolyn’s wardrobe was a deliberate ‘absence of colour’, a term coined by Coco Chanel, when explaining the absolute beauty of black and white,” explains Nair. Carolyn, who worked for Calvin Klein before she married John Kennedy, progressing from saleswoman to director of publicity in the company’s flagship store in Manhattan, once advised a former colleague that if she couldn’t afford expensive fabrics or designs then she should stick to black. She also spoke about colour during a brief interview with Glamour magazine in 1992, saying, “I like very classic colours, black, navy, grey and white. If I want to add some impact, I’ll do it with texture.”

Image; Zuma Wire

The Statement Coat

After Carolyn’s secret, yet perfectly choreographed marriage to John Kennedy on September 21, 1996, her arsenal of statement coats increased. She chose Prada coats over any other fashion brand – often buying the same style in two colours. One of my favourite images of Carolyn is of her wearing a red checked Prada coat, blue jeans and a black beanie while walking the dog with John. This coat was from Prada’s SS96 collection, based on a 1960s Formica kitchen print used on tiles, wallpaper and curtains.

Other memorable coats in her collection included a vintage leopard print, an astrakhan fur by Ann Demeulemeester and a Yohji Yamamoto raincoat. Uncharacteristically she wore a green checked Valentino coat to Jackie Kennedy’s memorial service – perhaps in homage to Jackie’s strong personal links with Valentino. For everyday, Carolyn favoured a belted utilitarian coat style complete with shoulder epaulettes and three-quarter-length silhouettes that perhaps offered protection not just against the weather but also intrusive paparazzi. For evening wear, she liked a simple coat with luxe details – made from suede, or faux fur with a velvet collar.

Image; Hanna Tveite


As Nair explains, “Carolyn was an LBD virtuoso. Lucky for her Calvin Klein’s designs covered every black dress occasion, making for a happy fashion marriage, particularly while she was dating John.” How she accessorised these dresses was distinctive – a cream cardigan coolly wrapped round her neck, or with a pair of Manolos and a slick of red lipstick.

The Accessories

“Carolyn loved bags – she liked no cumbersome hardware or chains, tell-tale signature prints or any logos in sight,” explains Nair.
Her eveningwear accessories ranged from a vintage croc envelope and velvet purse to a small silk mini clutch, a Comme des Garçons pouch and a gold link chainmail. “These were all a subtle but the ideal composite to her style and the sculptural line of her look,” says Nair. Most of her eveningwear bags were either sourced from New York’s vintage stores or from her mother-in-law Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s personal collection. On Jackie’s death Carolyn was gifted one of her Cartier watches. Headbands and tortoiseshell sunglasses were other favourite accessories.

For more insights read, CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion, by Sunita Kumar Nair, published by Abrams.

Get the look:

Milly Bohemia Leopard print coat, available to pre-order, €635;

Black leather Frankie handbag, €180;

Red Power Matte lipstick, Giorgio Armani, €24.50; at counters nationwide.

Black crepe Dolman dress, Victoria Beckham, €1,090;

Ivory linen oversized Aisling shirt, €104.30;


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