April 11, 1913 – Oleg Cassini
Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to designer Oleg Cassini after her husband was elected president in 1960 asking: “Are you sure you are up to it, Oleg?” “It” was the job of dressing the First Lady. Cassini: “Jackie had an eye, but she had no means, never had any money.”
Her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, recognized that Jackie could help enhance the whole Kennedy package. Jackie was a Francophile; Joe Kennedy let her know that once she was in the White House, her labels had to be American. He called in Cassini, a friend from Hollywood, and Cassini talked to Jackie like a movie star, and told her play the role of First Lady. He designed 300 of the outfits for her in her 1,000 days as the president’s wife. Joe Kennedy paid for them.
Cassini had the longest career of any designer in the USA, over seven decades. He may now be remembered as the official designer for Jacqueline Kennedy when she was first lady, but he also designed clothes for film stars such as Joan Fontaine and Joan Crawford and for women of great wealth. Yet, he also made ready-to-wear fashions that were affordable to working women.
He didn’t do just women’s dresses and gowns, his line included hosiery, hats, shoes, gloves, undergarments, jewelry, swimsuits, sportswear and sunglasses. For men he did slacks, neckties, underwear, belts and sweaters. He even did linens for the bathroom and bedroom.
Cassini adored women and he draped them in fine fabrics, knowing how much to reveal and how much to keep secret. He did not believe in hiding a woman’s body; he didn’t camouflage it. Cassini:
“I don’t want a woman to look like a little boy.”
Cassini moved away from the sack dress and other shape-concealing French fashions. His own label, introduced in 1950, embraced body-revealing, high-impact, sexually charged clothing, within the bounds of 1950’s propriety.”
Cassini loved talking and listening to women, and they flocked to meet him at public appearances into his 90s.
He courted women in his private life. He called his models his “harem”. But he denied that his relationship to women was in any way predatory. Cassini:
“I need affection, and I do it the old-fashioned way. I earn it.”
He married Merry Fahrney, heir to a cough syrup fortune. After the marriage failed, he married beautiful actor Gene Tierney. When that marriage failed, he was seen in the company of heiresses, showgirls, society dames and ingénues. He dated actors Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Ursula Andress. He was briefly engaged to Grace Kelly. He was a true playboy up to his 10th decade.
Cassini was the son of Marguerite Cassini, an Italian countess, and Alexander Loiewski, a Russian diplomat descended of Eastern European nobles. His younger brother, Igor Loiewski, was a society columnist for Hearst newspapers, writing under the name Cholly Knickerbocker. He died in 2002.
The family was living in Copenhagen when he was born in Paris. Cassini’s father was the secretary of the Russian Embassy in Denmark. But after the Tsar was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917, his father was left jobless and his property in Russia was seized by the Communists. The family settled in Florence, where Cassini’s mother designed a line of hats and developed a formula for success in the fashion business. She traveled to Paris twice a year, looked at the new French fashions, sketched them, and took them back to Florence, where she would make them for less money. Cassini also loved to sketch, and he took drawing lessons at the Academia Belle Arte in Florence.
In 1936, Cassini and his brother moved to NYC with almost no money. He soon found work as a junior designer and rented a tiny apartment in Manhattan. In the late 1930’s, he moved to Hollywood and worked for Edith Head at Paramount Pictures, where he was paid $250 a week to design wardrobes for B movies, including a sarong for Dorothy Lamour.
In 1942, Cassini became an American citizen and joined the Coast Guard. An expert horse rider, he saw himself more as a dashing cavalry officer. With the help from the well-connected Tierney, he was transferred to the Army Cavalry, but was dismayed to learn that the Army was phasing out horses.
After his discharge, he moved back to NYC to establish himself as a fashion designer. He was good at it, and in 1948, he gave his first show of evening clothes. The failing NY Times covered the event. His fame grew, but Tierney’s grew faster. In Hollywood, they called him ”Mr. Gene Tierney”. He tried acting, taking a small role in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) starring Dana Andrews. A real stretch, Tierney played a model and Cassini, a dress designer.
When Tierney met the young John F. Kennedy on a film shoot in 1944, they began an affair that only ended when he told her there was no possibility of marriage because he needed a politically acceptable wife.
In his column, his brother had named the teenage Jacqueline Bouvier, “Queen Deb of 1947”. Cassini first met her in the El Morocco nightclub, five years before her marriage to Kennedy. He noted her fit muscle tone, especially her upper arms in sleeveless gowns.
The Kennedys were the first political couple of the television age; he understood that clothing needed to be read from a distance, had to have a clarity of line and strong color. His training as a Hollywood costumer served him well. He taught Jackie to do the Twist, and persuaded JFK to allow the First Lady to wear a one-shouldered gown on a state occasion by comparing her with Nefertiti, the most mysterious and powerful woman in ancient Egypt.
One of his first ensembles was a beige wool coat with a small sable collar, with a matching pillbox hat. Kennedy wore the ensemble to her husband’s inauguration. Soon, women all over the world were wearing A-line dresses and pillbox hats. She had ordered a complicated outfit from Bergdorf Goodman, but she chose to wear his creation and she always kept a photograph of herself in it.
Cassini was not responsible for the pink suit she was wearing in Dallas in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated; that was a Chanel copy. After the funeral, Jackie dropped Cassini, understanding instinctively that his work had become out of fashion. Critics said he was stealing French designs, just like his mother, but there was no evidence that he ever stole anything when he designed for Mrs. Kennedy. Those designs were the result of a collaboration with Kennedy, who had a strong take on silhouette and style.
When she accompanied the president to Paris, she wore a pink-and-white straw-lace dress with a matching cape for a reception at Versailles. The French press went on and on about how pretty she was. Kennedy also attracted attention when she wore a strapless Cassini dress with encrusted jewels for the unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery in Washington DC.
In his memoir, In My Own Fashion (1987), he also took credit for the ”Grace Kelly Look”. He said he designed dresses for Kelly that set off her patrician good looks. He also began a relationship with her. He was certain she wanted to marry him, despite the reservations of her Highline Philadelphia Irish family. Cassini first saw Kelly in the film Mogambo (1953) and within a few hours after, he sat down three feet away from her in a small restaurant. For the next 10 days he sent her red roses until she agreed to a date. He claimed that they were engaged on the Riviera during the filming of To Catch A Thief (1955). But, then she agreed to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, and we know how that turned out.
After the Kennedy and Kelly years, Cassini went on to new ventures, introducing men’s pink undershorts and raspberry colored dress shirts. He introduced the Nehru jacket to America and developed a line of suits named after Johnny Carson. He stayed in the business, profitable enough to buy him the former Louis Comfort Tiffany estate which he shared with over 100 animals, including horses, 30 goats, two potbellied pigs. He had designed Jackie a leopard-pelt coat so influential that thousands of big cats were killed to make copies. When he realized what he had done, he dedicated himself to conservation and campaigned against using furs.
He had suggested to JFK that he reorganize The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which led to the Native American Movement. Cassini was named an honorary member of the Chickasaw and Navajo nations in 1981.
As he got into his 80s, Cassini began to slow down, and his work seemed old fashioned. Yet, he wasn’t finished; he came back strong in the 21st century, when he introduced a collection of silk warm-up suits, satin-lined hoodies and dresses based on his designs from 1960s. He also maintained a highly successful bridal business; he still does and he’s dead!
With his popularity restored, the last years of his life brought him many awards from the fashion world. Plus, his high regard for women never waned. In 2005, when 700 females lined up to meet him during a reception at Lord & Taylor, he told Women’s Wear Daily:
“All these women, young, middle-aged, some old, they had this idea of me being the ultimate vision of fashion. For them, I am somebody.”
He was taken by an ambulism a few months later, gone at 92-years-old.