Everyone remembers Jackie Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit, that looked so chic and fresh when she arrived in Dallas, so gory and awful when she left three hours later. But who knows anything about the clothes worn by the two men shot that sunny day in November, 1963?
The two, of course, were Texas Governor John Connally, who survived, and President John F. Kennedy, who did not. Like most politicians, neither dressed to draw attention to their clothes, yet what they wore that day was intensely scrutinized later. What happened to the clothes during the shooting helped explain what happened to the men, and even exactly when it occurred. The garments were part of the crime scene, and part of the collateral damage, sustaining injuries that mirrored those of the victims.
The president disembarked from Air Force One in a grey two-button sack suit, pin-striped white shirt, blue and grey grid-patterned tie, dark socks and black oxfords. It was a typical outfit for Kennedy, who helped popularize a relaxed variation of the Ivy League look associated with the Eastern establishment. Veteran style writer G. Bruce Boyer describes Kennedy’s preferred style of coat as a single-breasted, unvented cut with “small, soft shoulders, shallow chest and little waist suppression.” Minimal waist contour went along with the sack or sacque coat, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a loose-fitting coat the back of which is not shaped to the figure, but hangs more or less straight from the shoulders.” Boyer says Kennedy liked “plain-fronted, slim-leg, cuffed trousers,” though the ones he wore in Dallas look full by current standards. The tailor was either Sam Harris, who dressed Kennedy until 1961, or Sidney Winston (“Chipp”), another New York tailor who took over after Harris, in a Life magazine interview, spoke about the presidential wardrobe too freely for Kennedy’s liking.
Connally met the president on the tarmac at Love Field in a more conservative black wool three-button suit, tailored by Oxford Clothes for the John L. Ashe clothing store in Forth Worth. He wore a plain white Arrow shirt with French cuffs, a black and gold striped tie, and an off-white western-style hat that he held in his lap during the motorcade, and kept holding even after a bullet had damaged nerves in his wrist.
The Warren Commission examined these clothes while trying to determine the path of the first bullet to strike Kennedy, which passed through his back and neck and then (according to the Commission) inflicted several wounds on Connally. In the process, it ripped through 19 layers of cloth, as the report details with tailorly precision. The bullet, it says, “entered the back of [Kennedy's] clothing in the vicinity of his lower neck and exited through the front of his shirt immediately behind his tie, nicking the knot of his tie in its forward flight.” The Commission found holes “on the rear of the coat, 5 3/8 inches below the top of the collar and 1 3/4 inches to the right of the centre back seam,” and in the shirt “5 3/4 inches below the top of the collar and 1 1/8 inches to the right of the middle of the back of the shirt,” with corresponding holes on the shirt front below the top collar button. The report also mentions that after the wounded president arrived at Parkland Hospital, “his tie was cut off by severing the loop immediately to the wearer’s left of the knot… The tie had a nick on the left side of the knot.” The obsessive concern with exactly what happened to shirt, jacket, and tie gives you the fleeting impression that part of the crime was the damage inflicted on the clothes.
The report offers the same level of detail about the bullet’s passage through Connally’s coat, shirt, sleeve, French cuff, and pant leg, though omits the data (supplied by Connally’s wife Nellie) that the slug also shattered one of his Mexican-peso cufflinks. The Commission’s examinations of the bullet holes—jagged tears, mostly—was hampered slightly by the fact that the blood-spattered shirt had been laundered before it was given to investigators. I like to think that this washing had less to do with evidence-tampering than with someone in the Connally household finding it unseemly to hand a bloody rag over to a panel of US government officials.
The holes in Kennedy’s clothes didn’t quite match up with each other, which seemed suspicious until photos were produced that showed the president rode with the back of his jacket slightly bunched up below the neck. A detail of Connally’s clothing actually helped pinpoint the exact moment at which he and Kennedy were hit. Close examination of the famous video made of the event by Abraham Zapruder—a Dallas womenswear maker—revealed that the right lapel of the governor’s jacket swells out slightly in the film’s 223rd frame. Computer animator Dale Myers, who spotted the lapel movement in 1993, concluded that it was caused by the bullet bursting through Connally’s chest.
Like Jackie’s pink suit, the clothes Kennedy wore in Dallas have never been shown in public. (By the way, Jackie’s suit was not actually made by Chanel; it was an authorized copy made by Chez Ninon of New York, commissioned to show that the First Lady supported American clothiers). Connally’s outfit, however, went on display recently at the Texas State Archive and Library in Austin. The black suit, as shown in this slideshow, looks suitably funereal. The white laundered shirt is still speckled with rust-coloured blood stains. These are the clothes not just of a man, but of a memory that still haunts the American people and their politics.
text // Robert Everett-Green