Jackie Kennedy: The First Instagram First Lady


There is plenty of ego in the onscreen Jackie, who is prompt to grasp that image often supersedes reality. Indeed, Ms. Portman’s Jackie preens with a purpose, assiduously refining and exploiting her style in a way that was ripe for the television age.

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Ms. Portman’s character next to the coffin of her husband.

“Maintaining a glossy, impregnable front was very important for her,” said Madeline Fontaine, the film’s costume designer. “Whatever turmoil she may have felt, however exhausted she may have been, she insisted on being very much the representation of perfection, and she never allowed herself to drop that facade.”

“Jackie,” which bears the noirish stamp of its producer, Darren Aronofsky, ventures past the character’s glazed exterior, revealing the Jackie of the White House years through a screen of contradictions: alternately bemused and tormented, vulnerable and self-willed, but ultimately the product of her own towering vanity.

“If anything that a first lady does is different, everyone seizes on it,” Ms. Portman’s Jackie says, clearly relishing the notion. She is as quick to rationalize her propensity for mythmaking. “People like to believe in fairy tales,” she says.

In a riveting sequence, Jackie is seen just after the assassination pacing in her private White House rooms, smoking, popping pills and sipping vodka from a cut-crystal tumbler, as she listens distractedly to Richard Burton’s Broadway recording of “Camelot.” She rifles through her wardrobe, considering, then rejecting, in succession a bright coral gown, one in pale green and another of gold brocade, at pains at every instant to strike just the right note.

That sequence was pivotal, Ms. Fontaine said. Left for once on her own, she said: “it was as if she were trying on many skins, taking them up, then throwing them away. She seemed constantly to ask herself, ‘Who am I?’”

To her public, Jackie’s identity was rarely in question, so formidably had she succeeded in paving over any hint of disturbance and self-doubt with an immaculate, strictly constructed veneer. She relied on a highly structured wardrobe that was “very feminine,” Ms. Fontaine said, “but at the same time very controlled. Her clothes were a kind of soft cage.”

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Ms. Portman in another scene in the film. Mrs. Kennedy was “an entrepreneur of appearances,” Wayne Koestenbaum wrote.

Luxuriously pliant but restrictive nonetheless, they functioned as armature, shielding Jackie from a rapacious public and, at the same time, defining her.

“Her look gives the impression that someone has neatened you up with a sharp razor blade and finished off the whole effect with a small mathematical bow,” Siriol Hugh-Jones, a Briton, wrote in a 1962 article in Town & Country. It seemed, as has been noted, chosen to be easily legible on small home screens.

Jackie’s artfully made Chanel suits and Dior gowns, along with others copied or reinterpreted by her friend, the designer Oleg Cassini, were replicated for the movie. Reproducing them, though, was a challenge.

Jackie lovers, legion in the day, may recall the prim wool bouclé Rodier suit she wore for her 1962 televised tour of the White House. “We had to make two different versions,” Ms. Fontaine said. “One in the original shade of dark red, and another in pink, so that it would read as gray on camera, just as it did in the black-and-white original.”

There was the iconic pink suit she wore during her fateful trip to Dallas, a Chanel knockoff, as Ms. Fontaine learned. She recreated the look in collaboration with Chanel. “We hand-dyed the fabric until we found the exact shade of pink,” she said. “And then we made five of those suits.”

Chanel insisted on providing the buttons, the signature weighted chain stitched inside the lining and even a label, Ms. Fontaine said, “in case the jacket should be seen on a chair or on the floor.”

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“Whatever turmoil she may have felt, however exhausted she may have been, she insisted on being very much the representation of perfection,” says the film’s costume designer, Madeline Fontaine.

The real Mrs. Kennedy would likely have appreciated the fuss. “She managed her public wardrobe as if she were a costume designer in theater or film,” Hamish Bowles wrote in “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” a book accompanying the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001 Costume Institute exhibition of the first lady’s wardrobe.

“She had a keen understanding of the semantics of dress and of the way in which she could use her public image to help communicate the more abstract ideas that were important to her,” Mr. Bowles wrote.

Cassini, who died in 2006 and with whom Mrs. Kennedy collaborated in creating a camera-friendly, Euro-American hybrid of the Parisian looks she favored, underscored the point. “For the first lady’s official and semiofficial tours, every country was a campaign, clothing strategic in the forming of a battle plan,” Cassini wrote in a memoir, “A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House.”

That assessment was more tactful, perhaps, than that of the filmmakers and other students of the “Jackie look.” Mr. Koestenbaum, for one, called it as he saw it.

“Jackie’s laminated chic was impenetrable,” he wrote. “Fact is, she’s a sort of pinup, an image posted everywhere, inspiring curiosity and fabrication.”

Mrs. Kennedy herself might not have argued otherwise. At one point in the film, her character gazes into the camera, remarking wistfully: “I lost track somewhere. What was real and what was a performance?”

By the film’s final frames, it seems not to matter. At the wheel of her car, Jackie glimpses a series of primly suited, bouffant-haired mannequins, each perfectly cast in her image, being loaded from a truck to a local department store. She follows their progress attentively, on her face a look of rapt contentment — and just the shadow of a smile.

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