Golden Years: The Battle To Dress JFK

Forty-eight years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. Richard Press remembers this icon of American politics and who won the battle to dress him.

The epic saga of President John F. Kennedy’s individual travail and public triumph is recounted with explicit and captivating detail by Chris Matthews in his new best-selling anecdotal biography, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”

Scant attention is paid in the book to the candidate’s wardrobe, but Matthews included a revealing moment from the 1959 Wisconsin primary. Kennedy’s local operatives wanted him outside the factory gates at six in the morning in sub-zero temperature, and figured he would wear his heavy blue overcoat topped with a fur-trimmed aviator hat. Instead, JFK threw out the hat and braved the cold in his favorite H. Harris custom-tailored Shetland Tweed Herringbone Topcoat.

Matthews failed to include JFK’s dumping of H. Harris, his longtime Savile Row tailor who maintained a New York branch on 57th Street run by third-generation family member Sam Harris.

Seven months after the inauguration, “Tailor” Sam Harris, as he was condescendingly described in LIFE Magazine, disclosed the intimate wardrobe details of his most prominent customer. Harris concluded his comments with a benediction from hell, “He is the best dressed president since Grover Cleveland. We made his suits, too.”

There were no more “happily-ever-afterings” in Camelot for Sam Harris.

This was all undisclosed to the public, but Frank Brothers/Fenn Feinstein leaked to a Connecticut newspaper that the president got rid of his tailor because of the LIFE article. Fenn Feinstein, whose client roster included Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver and Gov. Abe Ribicoff, speculated that JFK might come on board.

Irving Press and my father, Paul, reached out to our J. Press regulars. The Kennedy circle included Charlie Bartlett, who introduced Jack to Jackie, longtime JFK intimate Chuck Spalding, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., FAA head Jeeb Halaby, foreign affairs advisor Bill Bundy, Kennedy personal photographer Mark Shaw, and his chief economic advisor Walter Heller.

Chipp, however, won the contest by default. Their stalwart customers included JFK’s brother Bobby, brothers-in-law Peter Lawford and Steve Smith, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Sid Winston, his son Paul and master fitter Bob DiFalco began to include the White House on their finished-garment schedule.

These tailoring tidbits were admittedly incidental to Matthews’ great new addition to Kennedy lore.

The night Marilyn Monroe delivered her allegedly drunken rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to JFK in Madison Square Garden, Jimmy Durante also croaked his birthday tribute to the president in raspy Brooklynese, “The song’s gotta come from the heart.”

Chris Matthews’ book comes from the heart. — RICHARD PRESS

12 Comments on "Golden Years: The Battle To Dress JFK"

  1. Thank You- This really clears up the speculation and the time line of JFK tailors.

  2. Richard Meyer | November 22, 2011 at 5:44 pm |

    As related by Paul Winston as well. Proud he is still my tailor!

  3. So Chipp was Kennedy’s tailor between 1961 and his 1963 assassination.

  4. No,the main tailor of JFK was H.Harris,

  5. Norman Bates | November 23, 2011 at 9:49 am |

    Cool photo.

  6. Always liked Chris Matthews.

  7. Richard Meyer | November 24, 2011 at 5:55 am |

    Carmelo: No, after the article, Chipp became his tailor.

  8. But why in 1962 “Gentlemen’s quaterly” yet talk about H. Harris?
    The suit that JFK wearing in Dallas was a Chipp suit?
    I have noticed that from 1963 the President’s suit are more “in fashion” that before.
    We see some three buttons,more narrow lapels.
    Is possible that JFK dressed also in Saville row?
    The Italian tailor Litrico said that had make some suits for the President in 1963.
    The shirt that wearing in Dallas was by Cardin,so is not impossible that also some suits were foreign.

  9. I suppose that like the rest of us JFK got his clothing from various sources.

  10. Jack Kennedy’s suits were indeed made by Chipp. I never saw him in anything but a two button paddock model with that lower button stance. Someone once said that JFK wore his clothes, the clothes did not wear him. And although he had an extensive wardrobe and very fine things it was mostly him that drew people in – not the clothes. “He lit the room up when he walked in”

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