25 years later, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s wedding dress is still stunning

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For her marriage on September 21, 1996 to John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette was ready to surprise. It was one of the most anticipated nuptials since Princess Diana and Prince Charles, but instead of a cathedral filled with thousands of people, the couple chose the First African Baptist Church on Cumberland Island, Georgia, with around 40 guests in attendance. For their rehearsal dinner and reception, they celebrated at the Island’s Greyfield Inn, where most of their guests have also stayed.

The wedding was an event, but the dress was what changed everything. Bessette chose her close friend Narciso Rodriguez, who had worked with her at Calvin Klein and instantly made the designer a household name; the following year, he launched his own eponymous label. “It was a great moment in my career but also a great moment in my personal life,” he said. Vogue in 2018. “Someone I loved very much asked me to make the most important dress of his life. This life turned out to be much shorter than expected at the time – Bessette-Kennedy was 33 when she and her husband died in a private plane crash in July 1999.

Her fashion legacy, however, lives on. Twenty-five years after Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy ”Hands down changed the wedding dress game, the people who saw it happen are looking back.

The most famous photograph of the evening was taken by Denis Reggie, a longtime Kennedy family photographer who says he captured 25 Kennedy marriages. He broke the newlyweds as they walked down the steps of the candlelit church, which had no air conditioning and only eight pews.

Reggie: It was an incredibly magical moment. I saw it as it unfolded, almost in silhouette. It was practically dark outside. John grabbed Carolyn’s hand; she was caught off guard. I walk backwards in the fine rain at dusk, and John makes this amazing gesture, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.

John and Carolyn asked Reggie to choose the photo that would go public two days later on Monday, September 23.

Reggie: It was beautiful, the spontaneity of this gesture. For a celebrity to be so warm and to show her love that way, that was great. The previous time we had seen John Kennedy with an expressive gesture, that was 33 years ago, at his father’s funeral on his third birthday. It was such a revealing and interesting moment, saying hello to his father. Then, at her own wedding, another incredibly kind princely gesture. I was really moved by this and Carolyn’s surprise. I loved his expression, that says it all. The way she flowed in her beautiful dress, moving at full speed, down the steps. This was happening in real time, and in no way posed or arranged. It was indicative of how the marriage was – natural and timing, not trying to be more than it was in its simplicity. He had such incredible elegance and romance; the authenticity of the whole, its simplicity gives it real power. It was a really special photograph.

What I remember the most is the way they hang out. They exuded an affection that was beautiful to see, the love felt that weekend and that night on Cumberland Island. It’s what I remember most: the magical feeling of the two of them together, the way they were.

Carolyn’s veil was silk tulle and she wore Manolo Blahnik crystal beaded satin sandals; on her arms were long white gloves, and in her hands a discreet bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her hair was tied in a bun and held in place by a clip that belonged to her stepmother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She specifically requested that the photo Reggie chose to post show Rodriguez’s dress.

Reggie: She said, “Show the dress. My dear friend designed the dress. She knew it would be a time when the dress would fully show…. The dress was lovely and very fitted. She certainly wore it beautifully and it was made for her. It was charming in its simplicity and elegance and was very much in keeping with the theme or mood of the wedding. It was five star perfection.

Old Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Kate Betts, who was working at the time Vogue: We were a generation who grew up watching Diana get married on television in 1981 in this iconic wedding dress. In 1996, it was still a pretty iconic wedding dress. Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera simplified their designs, but not as simple as a slip dress. [Carolyn’s dress] was revolutionary in that for someone to wear something so simple. He crystallized this trend [minimalism] fashionable. It was her aesthetic, and her wedding dress was a very, very daring expression of that minimalism.

Fashion designer Ann mashburn: [Carolyn] worked in fashion and was a fashion person. Having worked for Calvin Klein, her dress made sense to me. She dressed like this in the photos and when I saw her in the Calvin Klein showroom. For it to be a slip dress, it’s a bold thing to wear; it’s not even corseted. You have to be confident; I could never wear it. Her dress was perfect for the place where she got married.


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