John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States and U.S. Navy veteran
Off the New England coast, August 1962
Photographs by Robert Knudsen
Part of BAMF Style’s Iconic Photo Series, focusing on style featured in famous photography of classic stars and style icons rather than from specific productions.
On the anniversary of his May 29, 1917 birthday, I wanted to revisit the 35th President of the United States, who has often been credited as the man who brought a new sense of style to the White House during the brief Age of Camelot.
One of my most visited posts on this page was a comprehensive look at John F. Kennedy’s style, from suits and sport jackets to white tie and windbreakers, which I had published to commemorate his legacy on the 50th anniversary of his November 1963 assassination… and which I imagine is in dire need of revision after nearly a decade.
Kennedy once said: “Sailing has given me some of the most pleasant and exciting moments of my life. It also has taught me something of the courage, resourcefulness, and strength of men who sail the seas in ships.”
He would know plenty about this firsthand, as one of JFK’s earliest claims to fame had been when he was a young U.S. Navy lieutenant in command of PT-109 during World War II. In August 1943, the patrol boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, immediately killing mates Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold William Marney. Kennedy’s actions in leading the eleven survivors (including himself) to safety established him as a war hero but exacerbated his chronic lower back pain into severe issues that would plague him for the rest of his life.
Despite the experience and its aftermath, Kennedy never lost his love of the sea, having frequently sailed during his youth. Even after he took the oath of office in January 1961, Kennedy often relieved the stress of the executive branch by taking to the sea, most notably on the USCGC Manitou. This 62-foot racing yawl had been commissioned in the 1930s for race car driver James Lowe and eventually donated to the U.S. Coast Guard for use as a training vessel before it was requisitioned as JFK’s presidential yacht.
Occasionally joining for these excursions was Robert Knudsen, who had joined the White House photography staff in 1946 during the Truman administration and was himself a commander of the Washington area flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, according to his New York Times obituary.
Knudsen’s camera captured many of the most enduring photographic chronicles of the vigor that the Kennedys introduced to the presidency, including a Sunday cruise in mid-August 1962 off the coast of Maine where Jack was joined by Rat Packer and brother-in-law Peter Lawford and—two weeks later—a sunnier weekend sailing past Newport, Rhode Island.
What’d He Wear?
As part of his his revolutionizing the image of Executive Branch leadership by dressing casually in public, JFK also popularized the now-enduring tradition of presidents donning leather flight jackets.
Elected at a time when military service was considered a strong asset for a commander-in-chief—especially on the heels of his predecessor, the high-ranked General Dwight D. Eisenhower—Kennedy visually communicated his veteran status to the American public by rotating through a collection of mil-spec flight jackets. His jacket of choice was the well-insulated G-1 that had long been issued to U.S. Naval Aviators. (Yep, the Top Gun jacket!)
This fur-collared leather bomber jacket can trace its origins to the late 1930s before the Navy standardized it as the M-422A in 1940. Like most military garb, it underwent a series of modifications and improvements until settling into its current form in the early 1950s, when the Navy began designating the garment “G-1”. These waist-length jackets are characterized by a durable dark brown goatskin leather shell and a mouton fur collar (modern versions are typically cowhide and synthetic fur, respectively.) Beyond the fur collar, the G-1 otherwise resembles the contemporary A-2 jacket associated with the Army Air Force with its zip-up front, patch hip pockets with button-down flaps, half-belted back, and ribbed-knit cuffs and hem.
One of Kennedy’s many G-1 jackets was auctioned in 2018, with the Nate D. Sanders listing explaining that the auctioned jacket was one of three purchased for the president by White House Supply and Logistics Officer Lt. Henry E. Hirschy in December 1962, which would have made it four months late to have appeared in the famous photos aboard the Manitou but was certainly worn aboard his other yacht, the Honey Fitz. The auctioned jacket label includes the description “Bureau of Aeronautics USN Flight Jacket, Intermediate, G-1,” produced by L.W. Sportswear Co., Inc. in a size 44. The additional designation “MIL-J-7823 (AER)” tells us that it was produced between 1951 and 1961—likely closer to the latter date, given when it was ordered and who for.
Kennedy adorned his G-1 jackets with only a single patch over the left breast, a blue circle with the Coat of Arms of the President of the United States (as found on the presidential seal) with the ring of 50 white stars encircling a paleways shield in red, white, and blue, and that familiar American eagle, gripping an olive branch in his right talon, a bundle of 13 arrows in his left, and a scroll unraveling from his peak inscribed “E pluribus unum”.
- Buzz Rickson's Type G-1 Spec 55J-14 A.Pritzker Brown (Clutch Cafe, $2,150)
- Cockpit USA G-1 Flight Jacket with Removable Collar Z2108M (Cockpit USA, $630)
- Cockpit USA G-1 Flight Jacket with Removable Collar (LONG) Z2108ML (Cockpit USA, $690)
- Cockpit USA U.S. Navy Issue Mil Spec G-1 Jacket Z2108 (Cockpit USA, $570)
- Cockpit USA U.S. Navy Issue Mil Spec G-1 Jacket (Long) Z2108L (Cockpit USA, $630)
- Landing Leathers Navy G-1 Leather Flight Bomber Jacket (Amazon, $249.99)
During both the August 12 Maine cruise and the August 26-27 Newport cruise, Kennedy wore a French blue jersey-knit cotton polo shirt, similar to what the sporty president may have favored while golfing. The top of the shirt has a two-button placket, and the short sleeves emphasize his athleticism while also showing off his elegant wristwatch.
The gold tank watch seen aboard Manitou appears to be the 18-karat Omega Ultra Thin ref. OT3980 that then-Senator Kennedy had been gifted by his friend Grant Stockdale during the lead-up to the November 1960 presidential election, as confirmed by Omega. Stockdale had the watch prophetically engraved “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant” on the back of the gold case.
Strapped to a black scaled leather bracelet, this slim watch features a minimal off-white square dial with only the Omega logo at center and 12 simple dark lines serving as hour markers. Well-documented to be a favorite watch of his—and much appreciated by his wife Jackie—Jack frequently wore the “Stockdale” watch during his presidency, including at his January 1961 inauguration. You can read more about it at Watches by SJX and Wrist Enthusiast.
- Banana Republic Linen Polo in "heather blue" linen flax (Banana Republic, $70)
- Coastaoro All Day Pique Short Sleeve Polo Shirt in "true navy" cotton (Nordstrom Rack, $29.97)
- Gap Lived-In Polo Shirt in "blue electra" cotton (Gap Factory, $17.49)
- J. Crew Garment-dyed slub cotton polo shirt in "Amalfi blue" cotton (J. Crew, $45)
- Also available in slim fit (J. Crew, $45)
- prAna Men's Classic Fit Short Sleeve Polo in "denim heather" jersey cotton/poly (Nordstrom, $45)
- Scott Barber Men's Tech Polo Shirt in "marine" jersey-knit polyester blend (Nordstrom, $69.98)
- Todd Snyder Slub Jersey Montauk Polo in "bleached indigo" (Todd Snyder, $128)
- Vince Regular Fit Garment Dyed Cotton Polo Shirt in "washed brisk" blue (Nordstrom, $110)
A Navy man like Kennedy would have also been very comfortable with white trousers at sea, a tradition he maintained during the presidency with the cream-colored flat-front chinos he often wore for summer cruises aboard the Manitou. His untucked shirt hem doesn’t show much of the top of these trousers, but we can assume they have belt loops. They do have side pockets, back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms.
As an extra layer against the briny winds, Kennedy occasionally pulled on a weather-beaten sweater of gray Shetland wool, perhaps the most notable vestige of Ivy League style that the Harvard grad incorporated into his seagoing kit. (While Shetland wool is hard to beat when seeking knitwear that balances softness with strength, I don’t know that I’d gamble with wearing mine so close to the water!) Jack’s crew-neck Shetland sweater appears to have raglan sleeves, finished at the cuffs with long ribbing that echoes the waist hem.
Kennedy prepared for his aquatic adventures with a pair of all-white deck sneakers with canvas uppers and thick white rubber outsoles. The siped sole bottoms were pioneered by New England outdoorsman Paul Sperry in the 1930s, inspired by his dog’s paws when looking to engineer footwear that provided more traction when navigating wet decks at sea. This development led to the Sperry Top-Sider, the line of moc-toe boat shoes and deck sneakers specifically designed to be worn on a boat’s top side.
In the nearly three decades that had passed since Sperry’s development, the design was mimicked by fellow shoemakers like Converse, Keds, and Vans, so I can’t discern exactly what type of deck sneakers the president wears in these photos. JFK’s sneakers feature the closed-laced design through five sets of nickel eyelets that characterize the classic Sperry Cloud CVO deck sneaker, though the lack of a navy blue band around the top of each outsole suggests Converse.
Kennedy seems to favor blue socks at sea, whether a pair of pale-blue ribbed cotton socks banded in navy and white around the top (as seen in an above photo) or the royal-blue cable-knit socks that provide a bright contrast breaking up the leg-line between his similarly off-white slacks and sneakers.
Kennedy’s iconic sunglasses have been understandably referred to as both Persols and Ray-Ban Wayfarers, though the most positive identification remains the American Optical “Saratoga” frame.
American Optical was founded in 1869 in the town of Southbridge, located on the southern border of Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts. Apropos its patriotic name, American Optical quietly pioneered many enduring styles of military eyewear, from the first aviator-style frames in the 1930s to the updated semi-rectangular “Flight Goggle 58” two decades later. By the early 1960s, American Optical counted the youthful new president among their customers, as described on the AO Eyewear blog. The “Saratoga” brand name was yet to be established, but JFK’s “demi-amber” marbled tortoiseshell acrylic frames with their slim arms, silver diamond-shaped temple rivets, and polarized lenses are unmistakable.
You can read more about JFK and his AO Eyewear sunglasses in a pair of recommended posts by VintageCool Hunter (parts 1 and 2) as well as an unboxing and review by my friend Pete at From Tailors With Love.
- Izipizi La Trapeze #E sunglasses in tortoise (STAG Provisions, $50)
- J. Crew Tortoise round sunglasses (J. Crew Factory, $19.50)
- Knickerbocker River sunglasses in amber/green (Knickerbocker, $190)
- Persol PO3152S Panto sunglasses in dark havana (Amazon, $261)
- Raen Wiley in matte rootbeer/brown (STAG Provisions, $140)
- Ray-Ban RB2140 Original Wayfarer Classic in tortoise (Ray-Ban, $130)
- Ray-Ban RB4184 in tortoise (Ray-Ban, $130.20)
- Shwood Canby XL in matte brindle/elm burl (Manready Mercantile, $199)
- Vans Spicoli 4 in "cheetah tortoise" (Vans, $12)
How to Get the Look
Just as famous for his style 60 years later as he was when his family introduced their youthful vigor to the White House, JFK was equally stylish while at sea, blending elements informed by his military experience with an insouciant sportiness for an ultimately practical and comfortable kit comprised of a fur-collared flight jacket, layered lightweight knits, off-white chinos, deck sneakers, and the versatile and timeless accessories of his tortoiseshell sunglasses and gold tank watch that were just as appropriate with his suits as with his sailing garb.
- Dark brown leather G-1 naval flight jacket with mouton fur collar, zip-up front, patch pocket with button-down flaps, half-belted back, and ribbed-knit cuffs and hem
- French blue jersey-knit cotton short-sleeved polo shirt with 2-button placket
- Gray Shetland wool crew-neck sweater
- Off-white chino cotton flat front trousers with side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White canvas deck sneakers with 5-eyelet lacing and white rubber outsoles
- Royal-blue cable-knit crew socks
- Gold tank watch with white square dial on black leather strap
- Brown tortoise-framed wayfarer-style sunglasses
Do Yourself a Favor and…
…ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
And check out Robert Dalek’s 2004 biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.
We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.