When John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier married in September 1953, the nation was enchanted by the wedding, the couple and the young bride’s off-the-shoulder gown.
Now two artists have used paper to replicate the wedding dress in connection with an exhibit of her clothing, “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” currently at Chicago’s Field Museum.
The dress went on display last week at the downtown location of Marshall Field’s, which is helping sponsor the exhibit in Chicago. In April, the department store will donate the paper dress to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, where the original gown cannot be exhibited because of its fragile state.
“I feel it’s really an icon for the American people,” said Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who painted and prepared the paper to mimic the texture and ivory color of the silk taffeta dress.
Her creative collaborator, Rita Brown, then folded and glued the paper into the dress’ final form — from the pleated bodice to the 24-inch waist to the ruffles on the bouffant skirt. Creating the dress was a full-time project that took more than a month.
The women have worked together for 10 years on paper costumes that have been featured in several museum exhibits. Yet they acknowledged being nervous when asked to reproduce a famous dress worn by a woman renowned for her style. De Borchgrave and Brown spent hours at the Kennedy museum in Boston, measuring, photographing and examining the original gown.
“I felt I was touching history when I was measuring the dress,” Brown said. “It was really quite extraordinary.”
The original dress, which required 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta and more than two months to make, was designed by Ann Lowe, a dressmaker born in Alabama who had designed gowns for high society matrons. It was last on display at the Kennedy museum and library in 2003 as part of an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the couple’s wedding, spokesman Tom McNaught said.
“Every time we display it, it is a huge draw,” he said.
Curators and preservationists have warned, however, that the dress should not be displayed again because its weight is causing the fabric to tear. So the paper replica will be welcomed at the museum, McNaught said, and probably used in future exhibitions about the first lady or the Kennedy wedding.
As for why Marshall Field’s decided to re-create the gown in paper instead of fabric, a spokeswoman said the store was looking to do something more artistic than an exact duplication and had worked with de Borchgrave and her paper creations in the past.
The weight of the paper the artists use is somewhere between tissue paper and wrapping paper. With the right preparation it can mimic fabric in appearance to an amazing degree, but the paper dress wouldn’t stand up to the rigors of a wedding, Brown said.
“If someone is as tiny as Mrs. Kennedy, they could put it on,” she said, “but I wouldn’t like to say they could wear it.”