Who was Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, the style muse posthumously dubbed a ‘ghost influencer’?

The publicist and wife of John F Kennedy Jr still exerts huge influence in fashion almost 25 years after her death

Coats in classic colours and simple, unadorned dresses epitomised Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy's acclaimed timeless style. Photo: Getty Images, Shutterstock
Powered by automated translation

A new book on Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy shines fresh light on the publicist and wife of John F Kennedy Jr.

CBK: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy: A Life in Fashion charts the influence the Calvin Klein publicist still wields over fashion today.

Bessette-Kennedy died aged 33 alongside her husband and sister Lauren in a plane crash. Kennedy Jr was flying the aircraft when it hit the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, in July 1999.

Despite her untimely death, her sense of style, lauded as being both timeless and current, continues to influence and inspire the likes of The Row, the fashion brand created by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen; minimalist designer Jil Sander; and Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

New York Times recently dubbed her a “ghost influencer”, noting: “Ms Bessette-Kennedy has emerged as the ghost influencer of the season – one who has particular resonance as stealth wealth evolves into an embrace of more functional minimalism in the face of global chaos.”

Who was Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy?

New York-born Bessette-Kennedy’s introduction to the worlds of fashion and beauty started young when she was voted “Ultimate Beautiful Person” while at St Mary’s High School.

After attending Boston University, she moved to New York where she landed a job as a publicist at fashion house Calvin Klein. There, she met JFK Jr in 1992.

“They met when he went in for a fitting at Calvin Klein, I believe,” her friend Carole Radziwill told the documentary JFK JR: The Final Year. “She was the person who dealt with celebrities coming in to get free clothes – I’m sure he paid for his clothes though. I think he just liked her, and then they started dating.”

Her connection to the scion of the late US president John F Kennedy instantly propelled Bessette-Kennedy into the public eye, a position her close friends said she was uncomfortable with.

From the moment she and JFK Jr went public, she became one of the most photographed women in the world, and her style poured over and copied globally.

Bessette-Kennedy’s style legacy

Today, we know it as “stealth wealth” or “quiet luxury”, the terms used to describe chic, muted, no-logo outfits and looks as epitomised by the likes of Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, the Olsen twins and the main characters in hit TV show, Succession.

Bessette-Kennedy lived and breathed quiet luxury, embracing minimalism as her personal style ethos, which was the antithesis of other 90s styles that ranged from brash, loud and designer label-driven to grunge.

“Close friends have confirmed that Carolyn’s wardrobe and jewellery box was relatively small compared to typical Manhattan socialite standards,” writes Sunita Kumar Nair in the book.

“In fashion today, Carolyn has touched most minimalist brands that oscillate with discretion, discernment, and luxury: Alaia, Jil Sander, Khaite, Phoebe Philo’s Celine, The Row and Bottega Veneta. They all extol Carolyn’s fashion tendencies and follow her blueprint to the detail.”

Credited with making the button-up white shirt a must-have in a woman’s wardrobe, variations of one of her looks were all over the spring/summer 2024 runways, including at Dior, Altuzarra, Bally and Fendi.

For its September advertising campaign, lifestyle label Sporty & Rich recreated paparazzi shots of Bessette-Kennedy and JFK Jr in and around New York.

The wedding dress that was Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s 'everything goals'

For her September 1996 nuptials to JFK Jr, Bessette-Kennedy chose the then-relatively unknown designer Narciso Rodriguez at Cerruti to design her wedding dress.

Bridal styles at the time favoured long trains, puffy sleeves and lots of taffeta and lace, but the bride-to-be worked with Rodriguez to create a bias-cut silk crepe sheath dress with a cowl neckline.

The dress would launch Rodriguez’s career and enable him to establish his eponymous label when photos of it appeared in the media.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex would later tell People the dress was her “everything goals” when it came to inspiring the second gown she wore at her May 2018 wedding to Prince Harry.

Still influencing Hollywood

It’s not merely on the runway or the red carpet that Bessette-Kennedy’s style influence is still felt, as Hollywood directors and costume designers on movies and hit TV shows have revealed how they still look to her as style inspiration.

For the 2014 film Gone Girl featuring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, director David Fincher gave leading lady Pike photos of Bessette-Kennedy as inspiration for her portrayal of protagonist Amy Dunne. Pike likened the experience to being handed a “cypher to study”.

For the TV show House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, Wright’s stylist Kemal Harris told Women's Wear Daily that her inspirations for the character Claire Underwood were Lauren Bacall and Bessette Kennedy.

Despite there being only around 100 paparazzi photographs of Bessette-Kennedy in existence, and the fact she never interviewed marrying JFK Jr, there are hundreds of social media accounts still dedicated to her style today.

Updated: November 12, 2023, 11:16 AM