September 21, 2021

25 Years Later...

Photograph by Denis Reggie

"How many dresses can we say get better and better?"

{Below is a reprint of Rachel Burchfield's anniversary article in Vanity Fair, remembering this lovely, intimate wedding 25 years later and the bride's extraordinary fashion-forward statement...all captured in Denis Reggie's remarkable photograph, above. At the time, the designers for my bridal art-to-wear shop in Atlanta--who had been designing many "princess gowns" since Diana Spencer's wedding in 1981--had begun to create simple, 1930s-inspired gowns for modern-savvy brides. So we were delighted to see Carolyn's wedding dress leading this trend with such feminine style and glamour!}

For her September 21, 1996, wedding 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 about 40 guests in attendance. For their rehearsal dinner and reception, they celebrated at the island’s Greyfield Inn, where most of their guests stayed as well.

 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 next year, he launched his own eponymous label. “It was a great moment in my career but also a beautiful moment in my personal life,” he told Vogue in 2018. “Someone I loved very much asked me to make the most important dress of her life.” That life turned out to be much shorter than anyone 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 watched it happen look back.

The most famous photograph of the evening was captured by Denis Reggie, a longtime Kennedy family photographer who says he has captured 25 Kennedy weddings. He snapped the newlyweds as they descended 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 was unfolding, almost in silhouette. It was virtually dark outside. John reached for the hand of Carolyn; she was caught off guard. I’m walking backwards in the light rain at dusk, and John does this amazing gesture, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.

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

Reggie: It was lovely, the spontaneity of that gesture. For a celebrity to be that warmhearted and showing his love in that way—it was great. The previous time we’d seen John Kennedy with an expressive gesture was 33 years before, at the burial of his father on his third birthday. It was such a telling, interesting moment, him saluting his dad. Then, at his own wedding, another incredibly kind, princely gesture. I was really moved by it and Carolyn’s surprise. I adored her expression—it says it all. The way she flowed in her beautiful dress, moving at full pace, coming down the steps. It was happening in real time, and not in any way posed or arranged. It was indicative of the way the wedding was—natural and of the moment, not trying to be any more than it was in its simplicity. It had such an incredible elegance and romance; the authenticity of it all, its simplicity gives it real power. It was a really special photograph.

What I remember most was the way they were around each other. They exuded an affection that was beautiful to witness, the love felt that weekend and that night on Cumberland Island. That’s what I remember most—the magic feeling of the two of them together, the way they were.

Carolyn’s veil was made of silk tulle, and she wore crystal-beaded satin sandals from Manolo Blahnik; on her arms were long white gloves, and in her hands were an understated bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her hair was pinned into a bun and held by a clip that once belonged to her mother-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She specifically asked that the photo Reggie chose to release show off Rodriguez’s dress.

Reggie: She said, “Show the dress. My dear friend designed the dress.” She knew it would be a moment where the dress would show fully…. The dress was lovely, and very fitting. She certainly wore it beautifully and it was made for her. It was lovely in its simplicity and elegance and was very much consistent with the theme or feel of the wedding. It was five-star perfection.

Former Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Kate Betts, who at the time was working at Vogue: We were a generation that grew up watching Diana get married on TV in 1981 in that iconic wedding dress. In 1996, it was still a pretty iconic wedding dress. Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera were simplifying their designs, but not as simple as a slip dress. [Carolyn’s dress] was revolutionary in that sense, that someone would wear something that simple. It crystallized that trend [minimalism] in fashion. That was her aesthetic, and her wedding dress was a very, very bold 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 that in photos and when I saw her in the Calvin Klein showroom. To have it be a slip dress is 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 where she got married. ~

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