Past Imperfect: The Understated Style of the Kennedy Clan

Today we revisit this post from 2009 that examines the Kennedy Clan’s ability to make simple clothes look rich via the wearer and context.

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In the wake of Edward Kennedy’s death, The Washington Post has a fine appreciation of the Kennedy clan’s perfectly imperfect style. Fashion writer Robin Givhan puts a nice twist on the old Shakespearean adage that clothes make the man by arguing that patrician pedigree can make even modest attire look rich.

It’s an interesting way of looking at things. The idea that clothes make the man (“the apparel oft proclaims the man,” is how Polonious puts it in “Hamlet”) suggests a case of working from the outside in, whereas Givhan says that with the Kennedys it went from the inside out, with their character imbuing otherwise understated attire with the associations of wealth and privilege. In the former it’s the clothes that are doing the proclaiming, in the latter, the man himself.

Some highlights from the article:

Those images of the Kennedy clan — so steeped in mythology — speak of a particular kind of subtly sporty American style that the fashion industry has devalued.

The photographs of the generation of Kennedys… evoke what one used to think of as old-money style. The Ivy League suits, the chinos and button-downs, the boat shoes, the tweed jackets and the colorful crew necks that fit just so — loose enough to be comfortable but snug enough to hint at an athletic physique.

In looking at the images of the Kennedys, though, the clothes don’t look perfect. In fact, they don’t even look especially expensive… We associate them with wealth only because they are worn by the wealthy.

A Washington Post timeline and slideshow on Senator Kennedy can be found here.

The portrait above is from the September 28, 1962 cover of Time Magazine. — CC

36 Comments on "Past Imperfect: The Understated Style of the Kennedy Clan"

  1. We know that Chipp made JFK and RFK’s suits.

  2. Indeed, and according to Paul Winston, it was Peter Lawford who brought the Kennedys to Chipp.

  3. Christian: That is correct.

  4. They wore their clothes to look Democratic, that is more of the people; which is an amusing concept in itself.

  5. Sadly, Chipps was not a manufacturer of wetsuits. Some suits, law and others, seem to peter out before they can be rescued from the fjord.

  6. Gregory: No, they did not wear their clothes to look more “democratic” (small d ); they wore them to look old money, which is perfectly compatible with looking “Democratic” (large D), like FDR, Dean Acheson, Tony Biddle, Angier Biddle Duke etc.-all Democrats.

  7. when jfk and bobby were alive brooks bros. was considered expensive, there was no armani etc. the symbols of wealth were things like the lacosste shirt, not sold in the early years in america so it meant you had been to europe. prep school boys went on those trips, not buddy holly boys, they shopped at sears.

  8. RM, I don’t think they wore their clothes to try to look anything. They had a set of values and a certain taste, and that’s how they came out looking.

  9. Why is the Bush political dynasty villified in America, yet the Kennedys are held in such high esteem? Both families sport traditional American clothing, yet the Bushes exhibited far better behavior while in office than the Kennedy clan ever did

  10. Kennedys = pre-’67 Democrats. Bushes = post-’67 Republicans.

  11. CC: Point well taken; the Kennedy choice of clothing was the same as others of their wealth and social standing, not an attempt to ape a style.;

  12. Clothing aside, what sickens me is the lionization of this self-serving scumbag who took nine hours to report to the police the accident in which he killed Mary Jo Kopechne. The diver who retrieved her body testified that she could have been alive for as long as half an hour after the accident, and that had he been notified right away, he might have been able to rescue her. Instead, Kennedy tried to connive ways to preserve his career.

    Regardless of the Kennedy style (I particularly like JFK’s paddock jackets), “Teddy” showed himself to be of the worst character. How the people of Massachusetts could continue to elect is beyond me.

  13. Kennedy had some great paddock sack front coats that he wore to make him look taller.

    Also, the Kennedy Carolina Rocker from P&P chair Company was awesome!


  14. I totally agree with Henry. Furthermore, I believe that many of the bills that he created and passed hurt his own people!

  15. he. interesting post. loved the Kennedy style though. the clothes looked great. but i agree that the fit wasnt entirely there. not many back in the day knew how to make the fit perfect.
    but they were great men with great outfits

  16. Bermuda, what most people don’t realize is that the leftist agenda is all about tearing down the West–in our case, white Americans, especially men–because of our success relative to minorities (except, of course, East Asians, who do quite well in America), women, and non-Western people in general. They believe it is due to our “oppression” of women, minorities, etc., when in fact the reasons for differing outcomes have nothing to do with oppression. Leftists hate their own culture for its success, and seek to tear it down so that we may be “equal” (actually, subservient) to all others.

    ObamaCare, i.e., socialized medicine, is all about bringing us down by controlling the people through controlling our access to health care. It’s no wonder that major leftists like Hillary, Ted, and BHO are all about socialized medicine, because it would destroy us.

    Well, as this is a fashion blog, this topic is very much off-topic. If you’re interested in more, here are a couple of links:

    Food for thought:

    In-depth analysis:

    I now return you to your previously-scheduled Ivy League fashion. My apologies for the extended off-topic diversion.

  17. Spot on Henry. I believe that the Kennedy brothers felt guilty about their family wealth and felt so sorry for the poor that they did a good job of creating a more chaotic country by passing radical laws in an attempt to help them. And they dressed pretty darn good doing all of this too!

  18. Yep, like sosialized medicine destroyed Britian and the Scandanavian countries. I’m as white as you are, Henry, and served as a Major in the U.S. Army. Stick to things you know something about, dittohead.
    Now-can we return back to Ivy Style, for God’s sake!

  19. Richard M,

    Thank you for your service. However, I do not believe that serving in the military makes one an expert in societal decay.

    Socialized medicine is in the process of destroying Britain by usurping the power over life-and-death decisions from the people. Britons have already died due to it; here is just one example:

    My apologies again for the off-topic digression, but I hope I can be allowed to respond to personal attacks (a typical leftist/liberal approach: attack the person, not his ideas).

    P.S.: I never listen to Rush.

  20. The article is great and really shows it wasn’t about how much clothing is in the closet, but what classic pieces they did have and how they lasted the test of time.

  21. Henry: You’re welcome, but I’m also a doctor, and I know many doctors in England. The NHS is most certainly NOT destroying health care there (there is, of course, a private option ) and all are insured. You may not listen to Limburger, but, unfortunately, your ideas on this topic are no better than his. Nothing personal, sir, but stick to clothing as a topic.

  22. Brilliant, Henry, you are using the Daily Mail as your reference. Enough said…

  23. A4,

    Next time, I’ll use articles about this subject in the Huffington Post and Mother Jones, because we all know that they are completely unbiased.

    Richard M,

    I said that socialized medicine is destroying Britain, not its medical services. However, it does have the latter effect as well, because socialized medicine both delays and rations treatment. If socialized medicine were a good thing–and how many things can you think of where the government does a better job than the private sector–then Canadians would not be coming to the US to get the treatment they can’t get, or can’t get in a timely fashion, in Canada.

    As far as I understand it, Limbaugh is against socialized medicine because it increases the tax burden and becomes yet another wealth transfer from the productive members of society to the unproductive ones; because it decreases access to care; and because it takes medical decisions away from physicians and hands them over to unaccountable bureaucrats. If those are his views, I’m proud to share them.

  24. Oh, Henry, my friend, no offense, but do stick to topics sartorial, in which you appear to be very knowledgeable. “Socialized medicine is destroying Britain”-ridiculous-try to take away their NHS, sir, and see what happens. As far as Canada, the tale of many Canadians coming to the US for medical care is an urban myth-Tommy Douglas, the man who first implemented the Canadian form of health care, was recently voted the greatest Canadian of all times in a nationwide poll.Raunch Limburger, who makes many millions and has expensive homes in NY and Palm Beach,is your example of a “productive citizen”? Is Paris Hilton more “productive” than a good first grade schoolteacher? Should anyone be deprived of adequate medical care because they are poor, even though they are hard working, especially as unemployment approaches 10%? Finally, do you really think that the private health care plans don’t limit access to health care and take medical decisions away from the treating physicians?? As a doctor, let me tell you, that happens every day!
    Henry, I mean no disrespect, sir, but please try to re-think your mistaken views. Thank you.

  25. Richard,

    We seem to have very different views of life and politics. You appear to fall within the current mainstream, and I am of an older, more traditional point of view. I believe in smaller government, in less government, and socialized medicine is the exact opposite of that.

    Furthermore, it’s a darned shame, but inequality is a fact of life. I do NOT believe it is within the proper role of government to try to “fix” that inequality, especially because much of it is inherent to individuals, even groups, and cannot be changed by human means. Ultimately, virtually all attempts to “fix” inequality result in greater government interference in our private lives. In my decidedly non-libertarian opinion, the government is already interfering far, far too much, and the Federal leviathan has its tentacles in areas it ought not. Fortunately, in regards to massive government interference in 1/6 of the US economy, I seem to be on the side of American public opinion, and because we are fighting against it, Obamacare will not pass.

    Let’s get down to the fundamental issues. Medical care can be broken down into three areas: access, quality, and cost. Most people have no problems with the first, and almost no one complains about the second. The only real issue in America is cost, and the Congressional budget office has shown that Obamacare would INcrease costs, not lower them, in part because the Democratic party is beholden to the trial lawyers who would be hurt by the tort reform that would lower physicians’ malpractice insurance costs. Yet Obama is doggedly pursuing healthcare “reform.” Why? Because he appears to believe in the leftist rhetoric he lapped up from his anti-American mentors, like Bill Ayers, Saul Alinsky, and Jeremiah Wright.

    For the record, I don’t think that political pundits, athletes, or celebrities contribute more to society than, for example, teachers, electricians, or computer programmers, but then again, I don’t decide their remuneration. Productive citizens are those who pay taxes; unproductive ones are those who consume them in the form of welfare benefits, incarceration, and the like. (I include many of those whose paychecks are provided by the taxpayer–military, police, etc.–in the class of productive citizens, as they are working and providing valuable services in exchange for the taxes we pay to them.)

    And let’s be fair–Paris Hilton is a vulgar slattern who got her start because she inherited great wealth. She was not the best choice, I think.

    Well, perhaps we can get back to sartorial matters, though if you wish to pursue this, I will keep reading these comments.

  26. Cease fire ordered.

  27. Henry and Christian: I’m most happy to declare a cease fire! While I strongly disagree with Henry’s Ayn Randish views, he is very much a gentleman, and we can certainly amiably agree to disagree. Henry, my handshake is extended to you, sir. Now-back to Ivy style! Best, Richard M

  28. Agreed; handshake warmly accepted. By the way, I find Randianism a cold, even inhuman ideology, but then again, this never was the proper forum for non-sartorial discourse.

    All the best,


  29. The convention floor at the Washington Hilton has (or used to have: I was there about 30 years ago) a wall that features pictures of all the presidents and their spouses. My friend’s comment on the picture of JFK and Jackie was: “You’re going down the line looking at all these bland characters and suddenly: Town & Country!”

  30. Vern Trotter | October 25, 2016 at 3:19 pm |

    As usual, the best comments here are by Henry.

  31. kenpollock | May 5, 2017 at 11:16 am |

    Chipp made good-fitting clothing. Strange that all of the Kennedys had such difficulty keeping their trousers up.

  32. I like Henry’s comment about inequality. In order to be a free society inequality must exist. The USSR is what you’ll get when “equality” is your goal.

  33. Henry, where ever you are, we need your wisdom again. Please come back.

  34. Henry Contestwinner | May 5, 2017 at 11:48 pm |

    Thank you, gents, for the kind comments. I’m still here, just not commenting as frequently as I once was. I shall endeavor to pick up the slack.

    P.S.: Bravo, kenpollock!

  35. Please do!

  36. It seems Henry is knowledgeable about other subjects besides topics focusing on the sartorial, at least more so than those who say he isn’t.

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