Golden Years: The Battle To Dress JFK

As Marily Monroe once sang, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Today JFK would have been 100. We mark the occasion by revisiting a 2011 column by Richard Press.

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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 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

20 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”

  11. Grey Flannels | May 29, 2017 at 10:56 am |

    Visionaries never go out of style:

  12. Mitchell S. | May 29, 2017 at 11:26 am |

    I once read JFK owned over 100 suits. I am 45 years old and I own one suit and a few sport coats. Why anyone would own so many suits (even a President) is beyond me.

  13. Mitchell S. | May 29, 2017 at 12:41 pm |

    WWD has a group of quotes about Kennedy’s sartorial legacy from Tommy Hilfiger, Joseph Abboud, and Michael Kors. Abboud’ s quote ties JFK’s style to ivy style without using the word “ivy.” Says Abboud, “He exemplified that Northeast preppy — and he was preppy before they had the word preppy — it was collegiate and traditional, but with incredible style. In my opinion it originated from the Northeast — Harvard, Yale and that kind of community, which is intellectual dressing. It’s professorial and has a lot of gravitas. It’s not fashion and for me, it’s more about style than fashion.”

  14. Mitchell, in those days a man who worked in an office (which would certainly include a congressman or Senator) had to wear a suit every day of the working week, and possibly more than one if he had to change during the day for a function. Anyone who tried to get by on one suit would find that it would not long survive such a regimen.

    As well, suits didn’t go out of style in those days they way they do now, so you could hang on to them forever. JFK probably still had every suit he bought since high school. I’m, um, over 50. I grew up in a more casual era, but I certainly remember the days (it was only the 1990s!) when you had to wear a suit to the office 4 or even 5 times a week. If I still had every suit I’ve bought since my 20s, I’d probably have 20 or 30 suits by now. But all but 7 or 8 of them are gone.

  15. Mitchell S. | May 29, 2017 at 2:58 pm |

    @tmjm:.Okay, I see your point, but a garage full of suits is ridiculous-like the Imelda Marcos of suits. They say, though, that all of Marcos’ shoes were made in the Philippines. Kennedy had his suits made all over the globe according to Carmelo.

    It’s unpatriotic to say the least, like Trump and his Brioni suits. There are so many great American manufacturers still in the U.S.: Abboud, Southwick, Oxxford, etc…

  16. President Kennedy, God rest his Soul, (as well as Papa Bill Buckley) gave us “non-waspy wasps” (Catholics, Orthodox, Jews) a hope, and a timeless style “blueprint” how to dress.

  17. Vern Trotter | May 29, 2017 at 7:21 pm |

    Before I retired, I had 50 suits. Not hard to accumulate; five days a week plus Sunday morning, winter and summer. My thrift shop is always glad to see me. New York apartments don’t allow many unlike large New England Victorian homes.

  18. Henry Contestwinner | May 30, 2017 at 3:34 pm |

    My father had a closet full of suits, blazers, and sport coats when he was working. I couldn’t say just how many, but suit and tie, or at least coat and tie, were still de rigueur when he was working, and he had plenty. Now, a quarter-century or so later, he has only a few of each, just enough to suit his octogenarian retired lifestyle.

    While I don’t often wear suits, I do wear a coat & tie five to seven days a week—by choice, of course. I have at least two dozen sport coats and half-a-dozen blazers, all in different patterns, weights, materials, and colors (except for the blazers, of course), along with a couple hundred ties. As the estimable Mr. Trotter says, not hard to accumulate, and with each new one you get, the others get less wear, making them last even longer.

    I’m sure there are denim fans who have countless pairs of jeans, and T-shirts are also easy to acquire and hang on to. Why should tailored clothing be any different?

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