The opportunity to create – from scratch – the many iconic fashions the Kennedy family was famous for greatly excited Costume Designer Chris Hargadon when he joined The Kennedys team as head of wardrobe. “Most costume designers like working on historical projects. This one was also expansive, covering many decades,” he says. But “it was daunting,” he admits. Each of the lead actors had 50 costumes a piece, times six, for a total of 300 pieces. The series had more than 130 secondary actors and crowds of extras – all in period garb. “We had period costumes for 3000 background extras,” he says.
Many of the period pieces were bought or taken on loan from vintage stores but even those were hard to find. “Clothes from 50 years ago fade from light exposure, especially on the shoulders from the hanger marks,” he says. To get around this problem, “we looked for old fabrics to make into new costumes of the period.” He couldn’t use new fabrics because they don’t drape and fall like fabrics of the past.
He found old fabrics by throwing the net very far and shopping in LA, New York, Toronto and Montreal. He also shopped online. “A universe has opened up for people who’re selling and buying. There’s a myriad of fabrics online.”
When he couldn’t find the right fabric, he improvised. To reproduce one of Jackie Kennedy’s evening gowns – originally made from raffia – he found a textured floral lace …and then layered the fabric to give it a similar effect and hand-painted it to get the right color ratio.
To prepare, Hargadon did meticulous research of the photographic record. “One thing that we were blessed with is that the Kennedys are among the most documented families in the world, right from the early 1920s. There is no lack of visual reference. As the decades progressed there was also moving footage. Even if the footage was black and white, I could ascertain the color or tone of the clothing just by looking at enough research. So we were able to reproduce the garment and its entire pattern.”
Hargadon and his team of fabric designers, pattern makers, seamstresses and milliners strove to be as authentic and accurate as possible. “Everyone has a perception of the Kennedys, so it was a moral obligation for each of us involved to give our work the highest integrity,” Hargadon says.
One of the reasons why Jackie Kennedy left such a mark on the world of fashion is that she heralded in a new decade, a new age of youthful energy and optimism. Her fashion choices veered away from the ruffles, pleats and crinolines of the 1950s. “Jackie preferred a streamlined, simplified silhouette which very much fitted her physique. This silhouette was already coming into being, but once she started wearing it, it became mainstream,” Hargadon says.
Jackie had been exposed to French couture when she lived in Paris before she met John F. Kennedy, and loved high elegance and wore it well. “When her husband was elected president, she was criticized for wearing French couture as opposed to American. She was aware that she needed to wear American made clothing so she collaborated with French born, American fashion designer Oleg Cassini. Together they worked on a silhouette that worked very well for her. Her evening gowns were always streamlined with the bodice and skirt usually similar in shape. They would change the colors or add a bow or simple detail. This basically remained consistent through the three years she was in the White House,” Hargadon says.
Hargadon allowed the script to dictate his choices of the garments for Katie Holmes, who plays Jackie Kennedy. “There are moments of elation and moments of sadness throughout the series, so I chose colors that would be mood representative. I specifically went for garments that were produced around or a little before the scene played.”
Jackie’s dresses and suits had a simple silhouette and appealing color. “When you look at the clothes they seem very simple, but the actual construction of such a simple garment has to be perfect for it to fall properly. She was also a perfect model for this type of clothing. She had shoulders that carried the garments well; she was slim and tall, poised and with a wonderful posture. She was a perfect blend of all of these things to create this image that has become iconic,” Hargadon says.
Jackie’s suits were functional, practical and elegant, as was all her clothing. “Often she had a suit made specifically for an event. When she first came to Canada with her husband, she wore a red suit. It was the color of Mounties’ uniforms. It was very well received by Canadians. She liked a wide range of colors but pink was her signature color.
“She also liked to wear a paler lower half with a darker top. That is an inversion of what we do as a general fashion rule. But the effect on her was stunning and she was able to wear just about anything that way.”
One of the suits Hargadon made for Holmes was a reproduction of the black suit Jackie wore at her husband’s funeral. “The original suit was a Cassini and had interesting tassel buttons. I was fortunate to find a heavy woven wool fabric in Los Angeles. Underneath the jacket is a beautiful, fitted sheath dress…Jackie wore the suit a fair bit in the days of her mourning, because she didn’t have a lot of black clothing so it came in handy… She borrowed the hat from her sister Lee and the veil was added after.”
Hargadon says that right from the beginning – at the President’s inauguration in Washington – Jackie made a fashion statement and stood out from the crowd. “Her coat was cream colored cashmere with sable collar and matching pillbox hat. She looked different than the other women who wore fur or heavy, dark garments.” Hargadon produced a replica, with the same big buttons and hand stitched pockets. “We made it from lighter weight cashmere because we were shooting in summer and didn’t want Katie to get heat exhaustion.”
Loreen Lightfoot, a cutter and milliner on The Kennedys crew, hand made all the hats worn by the women in the show. One creation was the pillbox hat that matched the inauguration coat. “From what I understand, Jackie Kennedy didn’t enjoy wearing hats but it became an obligation of her station in the White House. You don’t see photos of her wearing hats in the 1950s and she didn’t wear them after the presidency either. It was a look she acquired for the White House. “Because she didn’t favor hats initially, she wore them further back on her head…She’s known for the pillbox hat, which was her signature hat, but really, she wore all types of domes and Bretons too.”
Hargadon’s favorite costumes to create were Jackie’s ball gowns. Reproducing each gown was labor intensive, but he knew that they would stand out in the series because they were out of the ordinary. “At first glance the gowns look very simple, but when they’re put on they come to life.”
Creating her pink silk ball gown was the most fun, he says. “The original was sewn from woven silk given to Jackie by the King of Saudi Arabia. Jackie took this fabric to American designer and A la Carte boutique owner Joan Morse, known for searching the world for flamboyant fabrics and interesting textiles. I showed a picture of the gown to a textile designer friend who had studied in Italy and she beautifully reproduced the pattern with paint and hand-stencilling.”
Hargadon appreciated the close collaboration he had with Katie Holmes who, “always was receptive with all the things we presented her because she loved Jackie’s style in clothes, the simplicity of the lines, the fabrics and workmanship. She came with a lot of research under her belt and she had certain likes,” he says.
Jackie Kennedy revolutionized fashion. She was wildly imitated. Mannequins in New York stores were dressed in knock-offs of Jackie originals. “She was one of those rare women throughout history who influence a wide range of people.”
When Jackie left the White House she could wear what she wanted. She liked wearing pants and was often photographed in them in the late 1960s when she was constantly followed by paparazzi. “At that point she was heralding in the 1970s with her low cut pants, fitted tops and large sunglasses. It was a completely different look,” Hargadon says.
It was also a challenge to create suits for the actors playing the Kennedy men because it was difficult to find fabrics of the right weight. The structure of the suits and their silhouettes were very different 50 years ago than they are today. “Even if you give a modern tailor specific instructions, they are not used to cutting pant legs like that and using zippers that long, etc. They try, but I am never 100 percent satisfied,” Hargadon says.
The costumes for Jack Kennedy had to be created for two men: John White, who plays JFK as a young man up to 1946 and for Greg Kinnear who plays Jack to 1963. “The young Jack was less put together, and less concerned with his presentation. But Jack the president was very refined in his tailoring. We bought some of his suits as originals and we built all the others,” Hargadon says. He had to study historical photographs very closely to discover what patterns Kennedy liked in his suits and ties. “I also wanted to have some power colors in there, so when he’s in a room full of men in dark suits, he wouldn’t be dressed identically but in a combination of color tones.”
Bobby was a different fashion person than his older brother JFK. “Someone described him as scruffy but preppy. He had all the beautifully made clothes but once he put them he didn’t pay much attention to them. You see pictures of him with his cuffs hanging down or his tie tucked into his shirt to get it out of the way,” Hargadon says. “We built most of the suits for Bobby and tried finding authentic period clothing wherever we could.”
Dressing Tom Wilkinson who plays Joe Kennedy Sr. and Diana Hardcastle who plays Rose Kennedy was a challenge because their roles traverse a 40 year span. “They were both a joy to dress. Diana loves clothes and she was very responsive to all different styles and really enjoys vintage as well. Tom was a good sport too; he had a lot of changes and I was always at his trailer door asking for a fitting. He’d comply as long as it was done quickly.”