On November 22, 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s worst nightmare came true. As she was driven through Dallas next to her husband in an open-topped vehicle, shots rang out and her life changed forever. Suddenly the President was dead, and because she’d been sitting so close to him, his blood had splattered onto her pink suit. And yet throughout the horrific aftermath of this traumatic event, Jackie didn’t change out of her blood-stained clothes.
If not for the terrible incident that occurred that day, Jackie’s smart pink suit would have ended up becoming simply another item in her long list of stylish outfits. Throughout her time as First Lady, in fact, Jackie had been a fashion icon. She did away with the fussy dresses of the era and embraced modern, sleek designs.
The day he died, President Kennedy even joked about his wife’s impact on fashion. “Two years ago, I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris,” he said to the crowds, according to CNN. “I am getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas. Nobody wonders what Lyndon [Johnson] and I wear.”
And some of Jackie’s most vibrant suits and gowns are still remembered today. Her wedding outfit, designed by African-American dressmaker Ann Lowe at a time when racism was rife in America, was heartily approved of by followers of fashion. Today, the dress is kept at Boston’s Kennedy Library.
Then there were the white gloves and pillbox hats. When Jackie wore those items together with a suit, the look became one that would go down in history as the epitome of elegance. And in 2001 The Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed some of the most famous Jackie Kennedy outfits, such were their significance.
In the official press release from the museum, Vogue editor Hamish Bowles stated, “Jacqueline Kennedy is one of history’s great style icons. Her profound influence on the way an entire generation wanted to look, dress, and behave cannot be overestimated. She set the standards that American women strove to follow, and, on the world stage, provided a visual metaphor for the youth and promise of the Kennedy administration.”
If that is the case, then Jackie’s blood-stained suit also provides a visual metaphor for the sudden, violent end of the Kennedy administration. It makes for a very powerful image. Despite what happened to it, the outfit was never destroyed, although you certainly won’t find it on display in any museum.
In preparation for that day in November 1963, which was supposed to be a simple diplomatic trip to Dallas, Jackie had chosen her outfit carefully. Although many people refer to the famous pink suit as a Chanel creation, it was actually an American imitation of a Chanel design. Jackie didn’t want to be seen favoring European clothes above American creations.
Jackie had reportedly worn the suit before, in fact, at public engagements in London and Washington D.C. among others. But it drew particular attention in Dallas. Fifty years after the assassination, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill told The New York Times, “She stood out so much in the car because of the color of that suit. It was like the sun just illuminated it.”
In fact, the suit had been carefully selected as something that would catch the eyes of the crowds in Dallas. Fashion expert Pamela Keough explained to the New York Post in 2013 that, “Jackie had a very clear sense she was going to be surrounded by men in grey or navy blue suits. She knew she needed that block of color to stand out. Nobody was going to have a rare and beautiful pink Chanel suit like hers.”
Jackie could never have known, of course, that the suit would go down in history for all the wrong reasons. At 12:30 p.m. the Kennedys’ car reached Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. According to the Warren Commission, which later investigated the assassination, First Lady of Texas Nellie Connally commented to John F. Kennedy, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” That was the final sentence he heard before being shot.
When the shots subsequently rang out, many people didn’t immediately realize what was happening. The streets were packed with onlookers and a large number of them assumed the noise was a car backfiring. But Texas Governor Connally, who was riding with his wife, the President and Jackie in the vehicle, knew what the sound was. Straight away, he lurched his head around to try to see what had happened.
Connally was also struck by a bullet at that point and began yelling, “Oh, no, no, no. My God. They’re going to kill us all!” His wound wouldn’t turn out to be fatal, but the situation was nonetheless terrifying. Then the shot that killed President Kennedy was fired. It hit with such force that the back of the car, and Jackie’s suit, were splattered with blood.
Clint Hill saw Jackie try to clamber out of the back of the limousine, and there are indeed photos of her appearing to do this. Jackie herself, however, would never be able to recall these moments. Hill believes that, gruesomely, she was in shock and trying to find a part of her husband’s body. The car subsequently began racing towards Parkland Memorial Hospital.
It was too late for the President, however. Governor Connally and his wife testified later that they heard Jackie state over and over, “They have killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand.” The Connallys also heard Jackie make frantic declarations that “I love you, Jack.” Jack was her nickname for her husband. But when the car reached the hospital, the staff there knew that there was nothing they could do.
Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, who’d accompanied the Kennedys to Dallas but had ridden in a different car, also went straight to the hospital. According to Biography, on a tape recording made a few days after the assassination, Lady Bird stated that she saw in Kennedy’s car “a bundle of pink just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the President’s body.”
President Kennedy’s heart soon stopped beating, and he was declared dead at 1:00 pm. A man called Father Oscar Huber administered the last rites, removing a sheet covering the President’s body in order to do so. Thirty three minutes later, Presidential press officer Malcolm Kilduff made a statement about what had happened.
With President Kennedy gone, his Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson was quickly sworn in as President. It was a chaotic situation. The swearing-in took place in Air Force One, but there was no Bible on board, so Johnson took the oath on a Catholic service book while Jackie stood next to him. President Kennedy’s body, which by this time was in a casket, was also put on the plane.
In fact, the image of Jackie standing next to Johnson is among the most well known in American political history. The picture is in black and white, so the color of Jackie’s suit cannot be seen. But it was the same pink outfit she was wearing when President Kennedy was shot – and it was still covered in his blood.
So why didn’t Jackie decide to put on fresh clothes? Several days after President Kennedy’s death, she spoke to Life about what had happened. “Everybody kept saying to me to put a cold towel around my head and wipe the blood off,” Jackie said. “Later, I saw myself in the mirror, my whole face spattered with blood and hair… I wiped it off with Kleenex.”
“I thought, no one really wants me there. Then one second later I thought, why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done,” Jackie continued. “If I’d just had the blood and caked hair when they took the picture… what’s the line between history and drama? I should have kept the blood on.”
Jackie’s decision, almost certainly born largely out of trauma, certainly had the desired effect. According to the New York Post, Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary about that day, “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.”
Lady Bird offered to get Jackie new clothes to put on, in fact, but the First Lady said only that perhaps she would change her outfit later. Lady Bird’s diary says of that conversation, “And then with almost an element of fierceness – if a person that gentle, that dignified, can be said to have such a quality – she said, ‘I want them to see what they have done to Jack.’”
As Air Force One began heading towards Washington D.C., Jackie remained close to the casket that held the body of her husband. The people around Jackie told her she could leave the plane via a different exit and avoid the gathered press and cameras, but according to Biography she replied, “We’ll go out the regular way. I want them to see what they have done.”
And once back at the White House, Jackie still didn’t get changed. President Kennedy’s corpse was taken to the East Room for public viewing. Jackie insisted that the casket not be opened – a wise decision, as the damage done to the body was terrible. Only once those arrangements had been completed did Jackie finally take off her bloodstained suit.
The aftermath of President Kennedy’s death was of course a game-changer for the entire country. The man believed to have committed the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, was soon arrested by the Dallas Police Department and charged with murder. Two days after the assassination, however, Oswald himself was shot and killed by Jack Ruby as he was being transferred to a different jail.
In her interview with People, Jackie spoke of those terrible recent events. “I thought it was a backfire,” she said of the gunshot. “Then next I saw Connally grabbing his arms and saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ with his fist beating. Then Jack turned and I turned… Jack turned back so neatly, his last expression was so neat.”
Jackie also recalled being at the hospital and knowing her husband was dead. Her gloves, she told People, had “stiffened with his blood,” so she gave them to a policeman. Then she put her ring, also blood-stained, on Kennedy’s hand and kissed it to say goodbye. A Presidential aide subsequently returned the ring to her.
Kennedy’s state funeral was held on November 25. Jackie led proceedings with her two young children, Caroline and John Jr., in tow. Coincidentally, it was also the day that John Jr. turned three, although for obvious reasons the family held off celebrating that occasion until the following month. Gone were Jackie’s colorful outfits: she wore black.
Over the next few years, Jackie rebuilt her life. She and her children subsequently remained away from the spotlight and lived quietly. In 1968 Jackie wed Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis, but he died seven years later and she was left a widow once more. Come the later 1970s she began working as a book editor.
Jackie contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1993, and unfortunately she didn’t live long after that. In May 1994 she passed away in her home at the age of just 64. She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband and her two children who’d died in infancy.
So what became of her bloodstained outfit? When Jackie finally removed it that awful night, her maid put everything – suit, stockings, shoes et al – into a bag. And early in 1964 that bag was taken to the National Archives. Attached was a note seemingly written by Jackie’s mom Janet Auchincloss that which read: “Jackie’s suit and bag – worn November 22, 1963.”
The pink suit is still at the National Archives, and still in its bloodstained condition. But no members of the public are allowed to see it. In 2003 Jackie’s daughter Caroline officially donated the clothes to the archive under the condition that they would not be kept from public view for another century.
The decree signed by Caroline reads, “The family further desires to ensure that the Materials never be subject to public display, research, or any other use that would in any way dishonor the memory of Mrs. Kennedy or President Kennedy, or cause any grief or suffering to members of their family.”
At the National Archives, the suit is carefully maintained to ensure it remains in good condition. The items are kept in a temperature-controlled room, and the air around it is changed every ten minutes or so. That seems like a huge amount of work for one pink suit, but it’s a part of history now.
Curiously, though, the gloves and the pillbox hat that Jackie was wearing at the time of the assassination have never been recovered. In 2013 author Philip Shenon told CNN that “the hat apparently goes to the Secret Service initially and the Secret Service turns it over to Mrs. Kennedy’s private secretary, and then it disappears. It has not been seen since.”
It’s possible, then, that the hat and gloves were both thrown away. After all, an item covered in blood is a potential health hazard. However, some people think that the hat may be in the possession of Jackie’s one-time PA, Mary Gallagher. Yet if Gallagher, who’s now over 90 years old, has the item, she certainly hasn’t shared it with the world yet.
Jackie’s pink suit remains an item of deep fascination. Replicas of it have been created for many shows and films, including the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode of The Crown and the movie Jackie starring Natalie Portman. The suit has even shown up being worn by Marge Simpson in The Simpsons.
Author Nicole Mary Kelby, who’s written a book chronicling the history of the famous pink suit, thinks Jackie’s choice of outfit went down in history partly because people found it relatable. “One of the reasons why there is still such fascination with this garment is that all of us could relate to the idea of having a favorite suit,” she told Texas Public Radio in November 2013.
“To have that suit ruined in such a horrible, public way still strikes us to the core,” Kelby added. Indeed, the whole terrible incident seems to. When Jackie’s outfit is finally allowed to be put on display to the public, it will be the year 2103. Plenty of other dramatic events will have occurred by then, of course, but the suit will still be a part of history.