What you see: An image from an archive of more than 40 original drawings, letters, clippings, and other materials from the early 1960s that show how designer Oleg Cassini and his team developed fashions for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Doyle estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Peter Costanzo, senior vice president at Doyle as well as its executive director for books, autographs, and photographs; coins, bank notes, and postage stamps; and estate and appraisal services.
How rare is it for something like this archive to survive? Is there anything similar between the First Lady and another fashion designer that dates to the White House years? It’s hard for me to say. It is a special archive. It’s Oleg Cassini’s workroom archive, and it shows a working relationship. It was ephemeral then, and it’s ephemeral now. The clothes were the final goal. This was how they did it in the analog age, by drawing everything out. They sat with Mrs. Kennedy and homed in on what she needed for her appearances and her events. Cassini made over 300 pieces for Mrs. Kennedy.
Wow, so he was really her go-to guy. Yes.
How did this archive survive? The archives usually remain with the fashion houses if they’re not discarded. This is a rare opportunity because material like this is seldom on the market.
What does this archive reveal about the working relationship between the First Lady and Cassini’s team? Mrs. Kennedy was highly involved in the process. She provided ideas and made her own drawings. She went through fashion magazines and newspapers and noted what she liked and didn’t like, and they would react to it. She would draw [fashion sketches] and write little comments on fabrics she liked and didn’t like. And she would comment on accessories–this needs a bag or a coat to match. The lot includes contact sheets–Cassini had models that wore Mrs. Kennedy’s size. She would annotate the pictures of the models. She’s very honest in her comments to him and very forthcoming. She felt very comfortable in the relationship and felt it went very well.
Are you aware of any other archive that’s come to auction that contains fashion drawings in Mrs. Kennedy’s own hand? We sold a similar fashion archive a few years ago. [It sold in November 2017 for $11,875.] It’s related to the same workshop, from the same period, and was retained by one of the workshop employees at the time. This is similar.
And Cassini stored it all this time? It comes directly from his estate. It was in his home in Oyster Bay, New York.
What was Jacqueline Kennedy’s relationship with Oleg Cassini like? It was extremely intimate. He was the one putting clothes on her back when she was the most-photographed woman on the planet. It has to be considered a collaboration with a wonderful public figure who embraced and acknowledged her role. I think that’s what we see with Cassini and Mrs. Kennedy.
And we know this archive stops in 1962 because… that’s the latest-dated item in it? I have something equally of note in the sale, but selling separately: Lot 14, a detailed workroom ledger of the Kennedy White House years. I know the record book starts in 1961. Page 14 is dated March 1963. The last entry before the assassination is November 13, 1963. There’s something somewhat ominous [mentioned in the ledger]–a pink costume dress and jacket. I think it’s poignant that the last entry before the assassination ends with a pink item.
What condition is the archive in? I think it’s in very good condition from the time of use until now. In the time it was used, it was handled, folded, mailed, and written on. There are some handling creases and torn corners, but it’s very well-preserved overall. The handling is original with its use.
What is it like to handle this material? It puts you in the moment with them. You feel like you’re in the room–that’s been my experience. It’s wonderful to feel like you’re in a workroom with Oleg Cassini and Mrs. Kennedy as they produced clothing that became iconic. The designs really became emblematic of the beginning of the 1960s–the Jet Set era, the Jackie look.
Why will this lot stick in your memory? Because it’s highly primary material. It’s a rare opportunity to engage with high-quality First Lady material, let alone the White House years known as Camelot, which doesn’t seem to recede from memory at all. It’s remarkable to view these items. That’s why they’ll stick with me.
Images are courtesy of Doyle.
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