Before she was known for her sweater sets and sunglasses, and before he elevated Ultrasuede and disco dresses to high design, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Roy Halston Frowick were linked through a pillbox hat.
It wasn’t just any pillbox hat, either. It was the tan little number Jackie wore on this day in 1961 for the televised inauguration of the president, her husband, John F. Kennedy. While the world tuned in to hear him take the oath of office, millions of women shifted their eyes to Jack’s right, where Jackie stood a few paces away wearing a perfectly choreographed Oleg Cassini outfit. Through their black and white TV sets, women eyed the first lady’s black sable-trimmed boots, muff and neck warmer, white opera gloves and pale dress. They admired her smart A-line coat replete with over-sized buttons, large pockets and bracelet-length sleeves. And they noted how her outfit was capped with simple elegance: a fawn-colored domed pillbox created by a then-unknown 29-year-old named Roy Halston Frowick. The hat sat tilted toward the back, nearly doubling the size of her head, frankly, and creating a pretty contrast to her striking, dark locks. She was nothing the country had ever seen: A fashionable, beautiful and highly cultured First Lady, one who not only spoke fluent French but effortlessly shopped in Paris and New York. Across the country, women unanimously agreed: This young woman was their new fashion icon. For his part, Halston had no idea what was coming.
Before that day, Halston already had an enviable clientele at Bergdorf Goodman, where, after getting his start with Lilly Daché, he oversaw Bergdorf’s custom millinery department and crafted everything from babushkas to leather turbans. He was a favorite of fashion writer Eugenia Sheppard and the indomitable Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland. The designer sat tight and cozy with his insider friends on Bergdorf’s second floor, where he charmed every customer that walked through the doors. One can presume that he was there when salesperson Marita O’Connor received a letter from the future first lady requesting assistance in selecting accessories for her White House wardrobe.
In her letter, Jackie lamented, “Oh dear, it was so pleasant when I didn’t have to wear hats.” Given her unusually large head size and even larger hairstyle (Jackie favored a bouffant ’do), she preferred to avoid the accessory altogether. But at the time, all respectable first ladies wore hats. Lucky for Jackie, Halston had a unique qualification that made him ideally suited for the job of adorning her head. They shared the same hat size. According to a former assistant, the designer “would put her hats on his head and look at them with two mirrors…turning his head at different angles to make sure they looked right.”
(Incidentally, Cassini took credit for the inaugural-day pillbox, but Halston created the hat. Multiple sources confirm this, including Bergdorf executive vice president Leonard Hankin, who calls Cassini’s claim “a pile of shit,” and Jackie herself, who verified Halston as the designer of her famous pillbox in the biography, Simply Halston.)
And so, Jackie wore hats, Halston hats. And Halston became a household name, a single-name designer, à la Dior or Chanel. Thanks in part to Jackie, Halston became a “fashion force to be reckoned with,” according to a New York Times interview the following year, and the designer didn’t deny it. “Fashion is made by fashionable people,” Halston allowed. And in the early 1960s, nobody was more fashionable than Jackie.
The year after the inauguration, Halston won a Coty American Fashion Critics Award for his millinery work. Like Chanel had done decades prior, Halston saw an opportunity and transitioned from milliner to fashion designer. On June 28, 1966, he presented his first collection of dresses and other pieces at Bergdorf’s, applying the same simple elegance to clothing that had made his hats so terminally chic. —Katrina Ernst
Credits: All images from Leonard McCombe and Paul Schutzer, Time & Life Pictures. The middle left image shows Jackie in a similar Cassini/Halston ensemble in May, 1961, and the middle right photo is credited as being from the inauguration but it must be tinted or color damaged, because that’s the only time I’ve seen the suit look anything but fawn.