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The inside story of Jackie's timeless dress

Sunday, October 13, 2002

I recently renewed my acquaintance with Morton Myles, who was in-house designer for Herbert Sondheim in New York in the late '50s.

He was unknown then. Most designers were anonymous, toiling in the back rooms of well-known labels but seldom credited.

Sondheim's name was on the label, but he was not the designer. He did, of course, own the company.

Myles was hired as Sondheim's designer to help give the collections a newer look. He had been assistant to the late couturier Jacques Fath in Paris.

I remembered him from covering fashion in New York, but the reconnection after at least 15 years came about in a funny way.

He had been looking on the Internet for additional information on Jackie Kennedy when he came upon an article I did for this paper on the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years." I had mentioned his name.

I received his thank-you e-mail the day I returned from a visit in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Coincidentally, he sent it from Scottsdale, where he has lived since 1996. He left the design world in 1994 and divides his time between residences in London and Monte Carlo.

If you are interested in Jackie Kennedy legends and fashion, you will enjoy knowing the behind-the-scenes story of her famous "Good Friday dress."

Myles says the original pattern for the dress was discarded shortly after the collection was shipped to stores such as Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf's, but he can sketch the dress from memory.

It was a Swiss rayon linen-look fabric, often mistaken for shantung silk.

Myles recalls the day Mrs. Kennedy, young wife of the U.S. senator, came to the showroom at 530 Seventh Ave. with Diana Vreeland, the major influence at Vogue who was seeking special looks for the then-senator's wife.

Myles recalls she wanted "splendid cut and color." How a dress looked in a photograph was a prime consideration.

There was no advance call or appointment.

"The dress was not made specially or designed just for her," explains Myles, who said she chose two of his designs that day. One was never produced because buyers didn't want it, but the other one?

Nobody suspected it would one day become famous.

When the dress arrived in stock, Mrs. Kennedy returned with Vreeland. The fitting was minimal. Myles says Sondheim was not thrilled that Myles was "wasting his time with alterations for her."

If Mrs. Kennedy had walked into the showroom without Vreeland, Sondheim might have sent her away, but it was the Vogue editor he was careful not to offend, Myles says.

Who was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy? We would soon find out.

The concept of dressing celebrities or politicians' wives in exchange for exposure hadn't been considered at that time.

That now-famous robin's-egg-blue dress sold at $35.75 wholesale, double that price for retail. Myles says the company didn't receive payment for the dress until a year later, after John F. Kennedy had been elected president.

The Good Friday photo, of course, is the one in which Mrs. Kennedy is wearing the knee-revealing dress to church in Palm Beach. Many disapproved of the too-bare look.

"Her long stride made the skirt look pegged, considered bad taste in those days, but it was fuller than it appeared in photographs," says Myles.

Myles has given all this information as a narrative to accompany the dress and its background for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library archives.

Myles says he found Mrs. Kennedy enchanting and seemingly without ego. She spoke French, often in a whisper.

The famous dress was worn again in Richard Avedon's cover photo of her with the president, Caroline and baby John for Look magazine in 1961. The story was about "Our New First Family."

"We never met again," writes Myles, who, after Sondheim, went on to design a new Young Elegant collection for Larry Aldrich before having his own label.

The story of a dress can be fascinating. Myles recalls how young they all were then, with the whole world ahead of them.

"Now, three of the four Kennedy brothers are gone, she is gone, JFK Jr. is gone, and my amazing career is long behind me. Camelot was all too brief."

He takes pride in the fact Mrs. Kennedy wore that blue dress often, and it is referred to as her favorite sleeveless sundress in the exhibition catalog.

He's glad he came out of the back room at Sondheim to greet those two women in 1960. It put him in the history books.

Barbara Cloud can be reached atbcloud@post-gazette.com .

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