Sometime in July of 1996, word leaked to the press that the fiancée of America’s most eligible bachelor, John F. Kennedy Jr., was seen canoodling with another man in Paris. “I’m her supposed French lover,” designer Narciso Rodriguez dryly told The New York Times. The truth was revealed two months later on this day in 1996, when Bessette, wearing a plain, silk sheath designed by her alleged Parisian beau, married Kennedy in a private ceremony on Cumberland Island, Georgia. The next day a single photograph—the only one distributed from the wedding—showed the radiant couple descending the church steps in their finery. Kennedy had asked Denis Reggie, the unofficial Kennedy wedding photographer, to choose the picture that he felt told the story of the day, and the photo did more than that: The image captured Bessette in a revolutionary new style of wedding dress, one that was simple, elegant and, yes, sexy all at the same time.
At that time, brides were growing weary of the over-the-top bridal fashion confections that had ruled the 1980s. Vera Wang undoubtedly led the pack of designers who eschewed superfluous embellishments and cut wedding dresses down to simple silhouettes that allowed brides to show a little skin instead of hide under layers of tulle. Bessette was looking for simple and understated when she turned to Rodriguez, a designer she knew could pull off the look she wanted with class. The two had met and become friends at Calvin Klein where she was a publicist and he was a designer. By the time Bessette was engaged to Kennedy, 35-year-old Rodriguez was designing for Cerruti and hailed by critics as the new ambassador of classic American simplicity, à la Anne Klein or Halston. Had Bessette merely wanted a pretty column dress, she could have probably gotten one for a steal from her former boss, but she was clearly looking for something a bit different. And so Rodriguez, who credits his Cuban roots for his designs’ sexy edge, cut her creamy silk dress on the bias so that it flattered every curve, added a subtle cowl neckline and created a hand-rolled tulle veil and glamorous opera gloves (her crystal-beaded satin sandals were Manolo Blahniks). Bessette completed the look with a modest bun at the nape of her neck secured with a clip from Kennedy’s mother, the late Jackie Onassis. Overall the look balanced a new vision of wedding style, one that was classic yet of-the-moment, alluring yet vogue, unique yet timeless. Jackie couldn’t have done it better herself.
Bessette’s alleged $40,000 ensemble was so stunning it even caused the three-year-old ring bearer to loudly ask during the ceremony, “Why is Carolyn all dressed up?” Following Bessette’s big day, the dress became a pivotal turning point for Rodriguez, making the former designer-for-hire a household name. “Carolyn’s Dress” was the new request, as brides-to-be flocked to boutiques with newspaper clippings in hand. Knock-offs appeared everywhere, not just for weddings but also in eveningwear. Rodriguez cited Bessette as the inspiration for his next collection for Cerruti, though Carolyn’s Dress was not included in the lineup. Rodriguez even sent the original pattern to Bessette to ensure the design would remain hers and hers alone.
The new Mrs. Bessette-Kennedy was notoriously press-shy, but became a sharply watched style icon, much like her famous mother-in-law. Her life was sadly cut short three years later, but Caroline’s Dress remains a major bridal influence. —Rachel Chambers
Photo by Denis Reggie