‘The Pink Suit,’

by Nicole Mary Kelby

Published: 02 May 2014 07:24 PM

Updated: 02 May 2014 07:36 PM

It is the most famous piece of women’s fashion in the world, an elegant garment so marked by tragedy that it has been hidden away forever in the National Archives. It is so burned into the collective memory that any woman’s coat or dress of its type — a particularly vivid shade of rose pink, trimmed with navy blue — brings it instantly to mind, and one cannot help but think of a terrible November day in Dallas.

Novelist Nicole Mary Kelby picks up those threads of memory and weaves them into The Pink Suit, a subtly heartbreaking, completely believable tale inspired by the Irish immigrant dressmaker who made Jacqueline Kennedy’s Chanel knockoff.

As in Kelby’s book, the real-life dressmaker was named Kate; the character otherwise is fiction. But the pink suit’s detailed genesis gives historical weight and substance to Kate’s story, which seems every bit as true as the first lady’s.

Jacqueline Kennedy is a central but remote, rarely glimpsed figure in The Pink Suit. At the Manhattan atelier of Chez Ninon, she is known as “the Wife,” the ne plus ultra of global fashion in the early 1960s. At a moment’s notice, the entire staff leaps to her command, for she is their idol, their queen, and “it was always Christmas when an order came in from Maison Blanche.”

For an American first lady, buying Paris couture — then as now — is considered politically insensitive. So Chez Ninon copies and re-creates French outfits for the Wife. In the case of the pink suit, Chez Ninon goes so far as to pay Coco Chanel for the right to make a line-by-line replica, even using Chanel’s own muslin patterns and fragile wool-bouclé fabric.

Chez Ninon’s stylist cleverly rationalizes this dodge: “The suit is American if we make it. The reporters can’t touch her for that. If we make it, she’s not taking jobs away from anyone. She can wear French without the criticism — it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Kate is proud to be not just a “back-room girl” seamstress but a dressmaker. She may be just six years off the boat from County Cork, but she has a refined sense of style and exquisite skills that enable her to create anything she wants. Sewing is “about perfection. Each stitch must be exactly like the one before it; each must be so small that it seems part of the fabric.

“Each tuck and pleat carefully disguises any flaw in the wearing or the wearer — small breasts, uneven hips, thick waists, and, of course, waning youth.” In the case of the first lady, tailoring disguises what Kate always thinks of as “Slight Spinal Sway,” the legacy perhaps of too much horse riding. Kate always builds forgiveness into the Wife’s wardrobe, and she puts loving, heartfelt care into her copy of Chanel’s pink suit.

Fashion is the art of the possible — Kate was quite fond of saying that, but it was true. With a needle and thread in her hand, anything was possible, especially when it came to the first lady, because Kate’s sister, Maggie Quinn, and the Wife were exactly the same size. Kate couldn’t help herself. On a rather regular basis, she turned her own sister into a ‘Little J,’ as everybody in the neighborhood called her.”

Inwood, their neighborhood on the northern tip of the island of Manhattan, at the time was so predominantly Irish that it was like a transplanted slice of Dublin. In Kelby’s hands, Inwood becomes another character in the story, a traditional village filled with its residents’ prejudices as well as their loyalties. Here, Kate has family, makes friends and, eventually, finds love along with heartbreak.

That fatal day in Dallas, “the suit that Kate knew every stitch of, lived every tuck and pleat of, had worried over, and cried over … this pink suit was the last thing the President ever saw. And it had been made by so many hands, so many hearts. Those who were well known and those who were never known, and those whose names would be forgotten, not just Kate: it was a part of them all …

“He died in all of their arms.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.