Despite being first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy usually kept her distance from politics. Yet in 1963, while still recovering from the August death of prematurely born son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, she agreed to join husband John F. Kennedy on a trip to Texas. Unfortunately, in Dallas on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot while sitting next to Jackie, and the pink suit she was wearing became covered in her husband's blood. In the aftermath of the presidential assassination, Jackie refused to change her outfit for the rest of the day. This created a powerful and devastating image for the public while also reflecting her personal trauma.
Jackie clutched her husband after he was shot
On November 22, 1963, Jackie was seated next to her husband in an open-top limousine driving through Dallas. She looked eye-catching in a pink suit (though often described as Chanel, the suit was actually an authorized replica made in New York so Jackie wouldn't be criticized for shopping overseas). Then shots were fired. One hit her husband's back and exited via his throat. Another tore through JFK's head. As Jackie grappled with what was happening, blood and gore seeped into her outfit.
Jackie clutched her husband on the way to Parkland Memorial Hospital, attempting to tend to his mangled head. John's vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been in a separate vehicle in the same procession, and he and wife Lady Bird proceeded to the hospital as well. Lady Bird later described how she "saw, in the president's car, a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy, lying over the President's body."
Though they were separated as doctors tried to save the president, Jackie quickly returned to her husband's side. She even kneeled on the blood-covered floor to pray. However, given the severity of JFK's injuries, doctors soon stopped working on him. A priest offered last rites; the time of death was marked as 1:00 p.m.
Jackie left her bloody suit on to 'let them see what they've done'
Jackie stayed next to her husband's casket as they drove to Air Force One, where Johnson — now the president — and his wife were already onboard. On the plane, Jackie found a change of clothes waiting for her. She wiped off her face, but would later recall for a Life magazine writer: "One second later, I thought, 'Why did I wash the blood off?' I should have left it there; let them see what they've done."
With this in mind, Jackie opted not to change her clothes, even as she agreed to be present as Johnson took the official oath of office. The former first lady had always understood the power of imagery to convey messages. By showing up in her bloody outfit, she reminded everyone there, and everyone who would later see photos from the ceremony, of the slain president.
Air Force One soon took off for Washington, D.C. Jackie went to sit near her husband's casket, still in her bloody outfit. When offered the option to descend from the plane without being photographed, she again insisted, "We’ll go out the regular way. I want them to see what they have done."
Jackie said that JFK did not 'have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights'
Right-wing opponents abhorred the fact that Kennedy was Catholic, disliked his proposal for Medicare and hated his support for integration. Approximately 5,000 copies of a flyer that stated Kennedy was "WANTED FOR TREASON" were distributed around Dallas before his visit. Given this, much of the nation initially assumed that a far-right component must have been responsible for his assassination.
Jackie likely shared this belief, as she'd seen for herself how disliked her husband was by some. On the day of his assassination, an anti-JFK ad in the Dallas Morning News asked why he was being "soft on Communism?" After taking in the ad, Kennedy had said to Jackie, "We’re really in 'nut country' now."
These political enemies may have been the intended recipients for Jackie's message of "I want them to see what they've done." When she later learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested for her husband's assassination, she reportedly said, "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It's — it had to be some silly little Communist."
The first lady kept her composure, even when recounting what happened
Jackie's refusal to change her clothes wasn't solely about projecting an image. After accompanying Kennedy's body to Maryland's Bethesda Naval Hospital for a required autopsy, she was no longer on public display. She also had time to change out of her blood-soaked outfit while waiting in the on-site presidential suite. Yet she continued to refuse to do so.
Instead, at Bethesda Jackie began to relive the trauma she'd experienced. She'd already told Robert Kennedy, who'd joined her after Air Force One landed, what had happened in Dallas in that limousine and afterward. Now she repeated the story, over and over, to the friends and family who'd gathered around her. She also recalled another recent loss: the death of her premature son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, less than four months earlier.
Jackie never lost control as she replayed the devastation she'd endured. But amidst this trauma, changing her outfit was the last thing she wanted to contemplate.
The outfit is stored in the National Archives
Jackie remained at Bethesda until around four in the morning, when her husband's body was ready. She then accompanied him back to the White House. After his casket was placed in the East Room, she went to her room and finally removed her outfit.
Her maid, shocked by the state of Jackie's clothes, placed the items in a bag. Months later, Jackie's suit, blouse, stockings, and shoes, all still stained with blood, were sent to the National Archives. Her outfit has been stored there ever since.
In 2003, Caroline Kennedy made a deed of gift of her mother's clothes. However, she stipulated the outfit not be placed on display for 100 years; in 2103, Kennedy heirs and archivists can revisit the issue of a public showing. Until then, Jackie's pink suit is preserved in a carefully controlled environment, a symbol of one of the worst days in her life and in U.S. history.