In the opening pages of Nicole Mary Kelby’s new novel, we’re in a place none of us wants to be, yet we’re riveted. It’s Nov. 22, 1963, and we’re watching the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the eyes of his wife, Jackie. The scene ends at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, where we see the bereft first lady, her fashionable pink suit covered in her husband’s blood.
Few items of clothing provoke as much emotion as the outfit Jackie was wearing on that fall afternoon. The confection of pink bouclé wool is tucked away in a National Archives storage facility; the blood stains never removed. The mystique surrounding it is locked in our memory.
Kelby plays on that collective fascination with The Pink Suit. Her cleverly imagined novel spins the story of an Irish immigrant named Kate who helped cut and sew Jackie’s navy-trimmed outfit — an authorized line-by-line Chanel replica created at Chez Ninon, a New York couture house. In the novel, as in real life, the fabric and buttons come directly from Coco Chanel’s salon in France, as does the “toile,” the replica test garment made of muslin.
Kelby’s brilliant idea for a novel is inspired by history but is not a mirror image of it, and much like off-the-rack clothing, The Pink Suit won’t fit everyone’s taste. Part of the problem is that the author has trouble balancing the two aspects of the story. Although her prose is runway ready when she’s talking about couture, the book stumbles when it roams into Kate’s life in Upper Manhattan. Kelby captures the Mad Men-era struggles of women torn between marriage and work, but her description of Kate’s life simply isn’t as elegant as her deconstruction of the suit.
In those passages, The Pink Suit is tailor-made for enjoyment. Kelby’s narrative rises to stylish heights when she’s talking about fashion and, of course, that eponymous outfit: “Not merely pink but a tweed of pinks — it was ripe raspberry and sweet watermelon and cherry blossom running through an undercurrent of pink champagne. In full light, it was like a vibrant wall of fuchsia growing wild in the Mexican sun.” The suit’s construction is lovingly detailed, from the 90 hours it takes to cut and hand-stitch the jacket, to the gold chain sewn into the hem to ensure it hangs properly, to the intricate manner in which the handmade “CC” buttons are attached.
But why does Kelby never refer to the Kennedys by name? Jackie is “The Wife,” “the First Lady” or “Her Elegance.” JFK is “the President.” (Even the White House is “Maison Blanche.”) This distances us from these already enigmatic characters. Still, Kelby does capture what Jackie meant to Americans. When someone at Chez Ninon comments that the pink suit “will be very pretty on her,” one of the fashion house’s designers responds: “This isn’t about what’s pretty. … It’s about perfection. The First Lady is the best of us. She’s who we all aspire to be.”
Americans couldn’t get enough of Jackie during her tenure as first lady, but in The Pink Suit, she doesn’t play an active role. I kept looking forward to Kelby introducing us. Like the men and women who sewed clothing for the first lady, I wanted to meet her. At one point, someone announces that Jackie’s arrived at Chez Ninon, but it’s not really her. I was just as disappointed as Kate, who “didn’t know what the First Lady was like, and now she would never know.”
Kelby quotes Yves Saint Laurent saying, “Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.” That goes for novels about pink suits, too. Without the woman, the gorgeous ensemble might as well be dressing a mannequin.
Carol Memmott reviewed this book for the Washington Post.