The timeless fashion style of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy

Has it really been 25 years? It was on the evening of July 16, 1999, when a small plane carrying 33-year-old Carolyn Bessette disappeared off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, along with her older sister, Lauren, and her husband, the pilot of the aircraft, John F. Kennedy Jr.

The story, of international proportions, focused then mostly on Kennedy. After all, America had watched him grow up … when he lost his father … as he rode through the streets of New York … started a magazine called George … and began dating Bessette, a publicist for fashion designer Calvin Klein.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette are pictured during a fundraising gala at the Whitney Museum in New York City, March 9, 1999. / Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette are pictured during a fundraising gala at the Whitney Museum in New York City, March 9, 1999. / Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Twenty-five years later, what is now also coming into focus, according to author Sunita Kumar Nair, is the impact Bessette herself had on young women, then and now. "There are TikTok accounts, social media accounts, all based on Carolyn's style," she said.

More significantly, according to Kumar Nair, fashion designers today still look to Bessette for inspiration: "For example, long opera gloves that she had worn were recently in the runway at Marc Jacobs."

In "CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion" (published by Abrams), Kumar Nair takes a look at Bessette's fashion style, and her continuing allure.

 / Credit: Abrams
/ Credit: Abrams

Almost from the moment she first began appearing at the side of Kennedy until their deaths three years later, Carolyn Bessette was one of the most photographed women in the world. "She had such an understanding of what worked for her and what the cameras would like," Kumar Nair said. "That is her allure, that's what makes her different from many of the other women probably today."

She described Bessette's wardrobe style: "The white shirt, the white T-shirt, a really great coat, jacket. She was a big fan of jeans. It's from there, the foundations that one would build your wardrobe from."

Pictures of Bessette were taken more than a decade before social media sites like Instagram and YouTube gave celebrities some control over their images. But back in the late 1990s, Bessette was hounded by paparazzi, even when walking her dog.

Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, said, "I get why the fashion industry wants to celebrate her, why a book like this exists, because she did have this outsized impact on a lot of designers, on a lot of people who were trying to sort through their own personal style."

Givhan says those pictures today also reveal something unsettling: "I also felt like almost all of these pictures, she looked like such an unwilling subject."

It's a glimpse, Givhan said, into what it was like for Bessette caught in the unrelenting spotlight. "In most of these photographs, she is turned away from the camera, or she looks like she's just really trying to crawl into herself. And so, in that way, it made me really quite sad that, while I think obviously the intent is celebratory, there is a subtext of just sadness, I think, that goes through the book."

Bessette was a private woman who did not like the attention. Did that give Kumar Nair pause in creating this book? "Absolutely, that was actually one of the stalling features of why it took so long for me to do it!" she replied.

But she said the book is simply a celebration of Bessette's keen eye for design and her fashion sense.

The most obvious example? What Bessette unveiled on her wedding day: a very simple white slip dress of pearl-while silk crêpe with a silk tulle veil, designed by Narciso Rodriguez, long before there was a Narciso Rodriguez brand. Givhan said, "I think [it] underscored that, you know, she didn't see herself as this traditional princess. It was very much not a princess dress. It wasn't fussy.

"She knew that everyone was going to be looking. They knew this photograph was going to be sort of seen around the world. And honestly, it's one of the few photographs where there just seems to be unfiltered joy on her face," Givhan said.

And it's that unfiltered, genuine joy, more than anything Carolyn Bessette wore that day, that remains most enduring – an American love story with no end.

Givhan said, "With these images, we have the fantasy, and it never really unravels. It's stopped in time. They are forever in our memory as this sort of young, vivacious couple."

    
For more info:

"CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion" by Sunita Kumar Nair (Harry N. Abrams), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via AmazonBarnes & Noble and Bookshop.orgsunita-kumarnair.comRobin Givhan, senior critic-at-large, The Washington Post

      
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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