[December 3, 1961] Of Wives and Men (or First Ladies’ Fashion)

When I started this endeavor, I never expected to find so many fellow travelers.  Each has provided an unique insight into the worlds of science fiction, comics, science, fandom.  I have tried to balance staying true to my original vision (which is why I promise to keep writing at least a majority of the articles here) with showcasing all of these lovely perspectives. 

A few months ago, I met a remarkable young woman with a keen eye for fashion as well as an uncommon understanding of geopolitics.  The premise of Galactic Journey is that context matters.  This is why I leaven the fiction with nonfiction.  And it’s why the Journey now has…a fashion column.  Read on – I think you’ll agree that Ms. Conaway is a worthy addition to our constellation of authors…


by Gwyn Conaway

This is a time of change and uncertainty, but we are full to the brim with ambition. We hope for a future of technological mastery. An age of abundance and exploration. We see our society as a beacon of moral and economic high ground. The Reds do too.

You see, I observe the world in patterns of psychology, fear, and desire. I’m a costume designer, and I glean more from fashion trends and wardrobe choices than any newspaper. This shadow of nuclear war hanging over our heads is worrisome, but it seems to me, across the distance of ideology and oceans, that we still dream the same dreams.

“It seemed clear proof that an atom smasher is a poor match for an attractive young lady in a well-fitted blouse.”
The New York Times, Style Show – SRO Soviet Exhibition, NY NY – July 2, 1961

First Lady Jackie Kennedy recently met with Nina Khrushcheva, wife of Nikita Khrushchev, the current Premier of Soviet Russia. While many of my cohorts discussed the new president and the premier’s first encounter in Vienna, I was captured by the meeting of the wives.


Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushcheva meet in Vienna, 1961.

Jackie Kennedy wore an elegant black skirt suit, presumably by Coco Chanel. A signature style in her closet, the suit consists of a black silk blouse, a velvet pillbox hat, pencil skirt, and three-button jacket with a three-quarter-length sleeve and delicate lapel. Her pearls are classically understated. She is elegantly reserved, poised for what was sure to be a tense meeting.

What interests me most, however, is the ensemble of Nina Khrushcheva. Her frumpy floral ensemble, designed by Nina Gupalo, is considered a fashion failure around the world. However, what it lacks in style, it makes up for in context.

After World War II, New York quickly overcame Paris as the global leader of fashion. Of course, this means that Russia has spoken out vehemently against the industry. While Americans embrace glamour and beauty, Russian leaders publicly admonish such trends. Instead, they call for art and design that serves the people. In the USSR, utility and function supersede glamour and personal expression these days.

Although Nina Khrushcheva has been an advocate for the fashion industry, her personal style choices have always been dowdy and poorly-composed. Common natural fibres such as cotton and wool combined with boxy tailoring express her loyalty to communist ideals on the global stage.


Madame Khrushcheva invited Christian Dior to Moscow in 1959 for the first fashion show exhibiting Western designers. Here are Dior models in a street show, taken from my old copy of Life Magazine.

This is apparent in an iconic image of former First Lady Pat Nixon and Khrushcheva published on the cover of Life Magazine two years ago on August 10, 1959. Pat Nixon wore a vibrant floral ensemble while her Soviet hosts wore the more utilitarian styles accepted by the Ruskies. What is most compelling about this photograph is not that their respective fashion choices express the ideals of their two nations, but that Nixon’s Russian hostesses appear to be looking in longing at her bold dress and styling.

All three hostesses, Mmes Khrushcheva, Mikoyan, and Kozlov, wear plain-cloth house dresses and skirt suits without jewelry to frame their faces. Much like the communist uniforms of working women and students, their torsos are boxy and loose with minimal darting to shape the bust or waist. Unlike the sweeping pleats of Nixon’s dress, their skirts are straight and simple.


The cover of Life Magazine, August 10 1959

Through this single photograph, the demarcation of both powers’ post-World War ideals is very clear. While all nations limited their consumer goods for the war effort in the 1940s, America and Russia have obviously striven for very different Utopian futures. Pat Nixon’s joyous ensemble expresses America’s newfound abundance; a thriving capitalist economy powered by fast-paced, bold trends conveyed through its loud patterns and colors, the ample use of refined fabrics, and jewelry. Khrushcheva and her comrades, on the other hand, wear the dream of a future that works for the common man, a society of builders rather than consumers, so to speak. Khrushcheva’s fabric, a muted geometric textile, is an homage to this idyllic industrial Russian character.

Now, as I look at Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushcheva’s first meeting, I chuckle. Although Khrushchev has worn florals before, this particular ensemble means more. She is not only reaching out to American women through her words of peace and understanding, but also through this Gupalo design. Unlike Khrushcheva’s usual folkish patterns, this floral acts as a bridge across our two nations. By combining an industrial grey and cream palette with an abstract floral pattern, Khrushcheva has extended her hand in a show of unity between the Reds and the West.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come in the Kennedy Administration. After all, standing next to every great man is an equally great woman. The distance between ourselves and the Russkies is not insurmountable after all.

2 thoughts on “[December 3, 1961] Of Wives and Men (or First Ladies’ Fashion)”

  1. Thank you for this interesting post.

    I look forward to seeing if Canel et al. adapt their style to the Russian winters and poorly heated buildings of most of the SU; or if European fashion remains the luxury of a small elite as before 1917. (It would be just like Clio if the artificial fabrics were produced more cheaply (to the manufacturer) in the SU, and a pipe for Western currency.)

  2. The First Lady seems to have the same sense of style, grace, and charm as Audrey Hepburn.  One could not ask for a better cultural ambassador for the USA.

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