With a career spanning over 70 years, designer Oleg Cassini is best known for creating the fashion of the most iconic women in American culture. Whether it was a boxy suit for Jackie Kennedy or a sultry red dress for Marilyn Monroe, Cassini designed in a way that best embodied the spirit of his famed clients and inadvertently swayed trends worldwide doing so. “My philosophy is this: Do not tamper with the anatomy of a woman’s body; do not camouflage it,” Cassini once said. On what would be his 107th birthday, CR remembers Cassini, his struggles of becoming a designer, his rise to international stardom, and his profound effect on American fashion culture.
Born Oleg Aleksandrovich Loiewski in Paris on April 11th, 1913 to a family of Russian aristocrats, Cassini’s maternal side had ties with imperial Russia while his father worked as a Russian diplomat for a period. However, the 1918 Russian Revolution forced the family to uproot and leave their home in Paris, and ultimately seek refuge in Florence. It was in Italy that the family began using the maternal surname Cassini to blend in.
Cassini began cultivating his interest towards fashion and American culture in his youth. As a boy, he suffered a major accident that required him to spend the better part of a year in bed. During this time, Cassini provided himself with entertainment by studying American history books and watching American films, which would be an early catalyst for his future work. Additionally, his mother, Marguerite, opened a dress business in Florence which became a successful source of income for the family. It was also there that Cassini received his first hands-on experience in fashion.
At the University of Florence, he studied political science, and later fine art under painter Giorgio de Chirico at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze. Eventually, Cassini started his career in fashion as an apprentice for designer Jean Patou, though Cassini’s end goal was to open his own boutique. He entered and won a number of international fashion competitions in Turin, including the first five prizes in Mostra Della Moda for a painted silver foil evening dress, winning a prize of 5,000 lire which he used to open his first boutique in Rome.
For some time, Cassini developed his life in Italy, becoming engaged to Roman debutant Anna Donnina Toeplitz. Yet the young designer craved the American life he’d dreamt of since he was a child. So on Christmas Day 1936, he broke his engagement and sailed to New York. After several years on the East Coast–two of which were spent in a brief marriage to Merry Fahrney, an heiress of a patent medicine fortune–Cassini settled in Los Angeles in 1940 and began practicing tennis at West Side Tennis Club. According to Cassini’s autobiography, In My Own Fashion, after winning a doubles tournament against another member, his opponent revealed himself as an executive of Paramount Pictures who subsequently offered him a job as a designer which he accepted.His first job was on the 1941 film I Wanted Wings designing costumes for newcomer Veronica Lake, but Cassini quickly built a strong resumé in Hollywood dressing stars like Jayne Mansfield, Audrey Hepburn, and Rita Hayworth, to name a few. A notable flirt, Cassini held romantic relationships with quite a few of the talents he clothed, including Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly, to whom he was briefly engaged before her relationship with Prince Rainier of Monaco.
His most significant romance, however, was with actress Gene Tierney, whom he was married to for 12 volatile years. The pair wed in 1941, and Cassini designed many of the clothes she wore in her blockbuster films throughout the decade. They had two daughters, Daria and Christina, and went through multiple separations throughout the course of their relationship, including two divorces, the final one being in 1953. At one point, Tierney even confessed to Cassini that she had fallen for a naval officer named John F. Kennedy. It was after their marriages that Cassini turned casanova, often mixing business and pleasure. In the ’70s, the designer clandestinely wed Marianne Nestor, a model who also worked in the licensing department of Cassini’s business.With the start of World War II, Cassini served five years in the U.S. Cavalry before moving to New York City to pursue opening his own fashion house. With enough money to launch, his inaugural collection received rave reviews. Cassini’s designs embodied the ultra-feminine styles that were increasingly popular during the ’50s, working mainly in romantic fabrics like chiffon and lace while also popularizing styles like white-collared dresses, knitted suits, A-line dresses, and nipped waistlines. His name was making strides in the fashion world, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Cassini would receive his big break after meeting Jacqueline Bouvier shortly before her marriage to John F. Kennedy.
When Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1961, Cassini was formally appointed exclusive couturier to his friend, the First Lady, who dubbed him as her “Secretary of Style.” While many First Ladies preceding Kennedy were known for their contributions to the White House, Kennedy was particularly regarded for the elegance she bestowed on the capitol as the “First Lady of Fashion,” a title which she received with the help of Cassini. With televisions in most homes at the brink of the ’60s, Cassini was the perfect candidate to define her public image, as his background in film helped him design what looked good on the screen.
He crafted clean silhouettes in sumptuous fabrics that were symbolic of the “Jackie Look.” Cassini emphasized the big buttons, geometric lines, and pillbox hats that made Kennedy the most copied woman in the world. “I dressed Jackie to be a star in a major film, which she was, the most famous First Lady of all time,” he said. “I became her secretary of style.” Cassini designed a reported 300 outfits for Kennedy in less than three years, including a white Swiss double satin gown which she wore to the Inaugural Gala Ball in 1961 as her first appearance as First Lady. The dress was soon named one of the 50 Dresses that Changed the World by the Design Museum in England.
Following the President’s assassination in 1963, Cassini returned to ready-to-wear launching a successful bridal line and even designing a collection of men’s suits for late night television host Johnny Carson. In 2001, his collection of Kennedy’s dresses were displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibiting the great influence Cassini had on trends through his union with Kennedy. Cassini died on March 17th, 2006, leaving behind a legacy on the fashion world remembered by the styles he created for America’s most beloved stars that became iconic in their own right.END
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