A proverb, paraphrased from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” states, “the clothes make the man.” If so, what sorts of clothes made Lee Oswald? Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Lee’s Aunt Lillian Murret made some observations about her nephew’s style of dress. “What struck me as odd that was that Lee didn’t seem to have anything to wear. I told him, “Lee, you don’t look too presentable. I am going to buy you some clothes…” He said that’s all right, but all he had on at the time was a T-shirt and pants, and I think he had only about two T-shirts with him.”1 Murret stated within her Warren Commission testimony that Lee had no suit coat and one pair of shoes. The wardrobe of Lee Oswald reflected his lifestyle and income level. His clothing would have been very typical of an American laborer of the 1960s. What is not typical, however, is the attention that some of his pieces of clothing have attracted since his life was shortened over fifty years ago. Images of Lee Oswald being photographed in the police station, wearing a white t-shirt, and the stark film footage of the accused being shot in a dark sweater are a part of the national consciousness. His clothing, basic and oftentimes drab, tells a story that is far removed from “basic” and “drab.”
Most of Oswald’s clothing was found in his rented room at the Beckley St. boardinghouse on November 22nd, 1963. The clothing collected from Beckley would have been representative of what a young man would have worn in a Texas autumn. Within his dresser were found a tan sport shirt, one undershirt, three white T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of gray slacks (one pair torn), four pairs of socks, two sweaters: one green with long sleeves, one tan with no sleeves, and three pairs of shoes: a pair of brown loafers, a pair of black loafers, and one pair of thong-style “flip flop” shower shoes. Lee seemed to bring the items which were most useful to him to this residence, tending to leave many of his belongings (souvenirs, letters, books, photographs, important papers, etc.) at the Paine residence. However, no articles of Lee’s clothing were recovered there. Evidently, some of Lee’s possessions were overlooked during the initial searches of the home, for in his Warren Commission testimony, Robert recalls that he had picked up all of the clothes that Lee had left there in December.2 On January 30, 1964, Robert turned 20 pieces of apparel over to the FBI, including Lee’s Marine overcoat, trousers, and fatigue jacket, as well as, a pair of jeans, five khaki colored long sleeve shirts, one beige long sleeved shirt, and a pair of Russian winter boots.3 Among the clothing items listed in Oswald’s arrest inventory were several pieces of clothing that were stated to have been on his person at the time of his arrest. However, some of the items clearly were not worn by Oswald that day, including two belts and a necktie. These entries may have been a clerical error. The clothes may have been brought to Lee at the police headquarters by Robert the afternoon of the assassination. Nonetheless, the exact origin of these items is unclear.
One thing that most people agreed upon concerning Lee Oswald was that he was a casual dresser. Ruth Paine stated “his normal attire was T-shirt, cotton slacks, sometimes the T-shirt covered by a shirt, flannel or cotton shirt.” Despite his aunt recalling that Lee did not own a suit coat, Louisiana labor department employee, John Rachal, noted that Oswald appeared in his office “neatly dressed with a suit, dress shirt, and tie on the occasion of our initial interview (April 29, 1963),” but, “on July 22, 1963, he was more casually dressed.” Photographs of Oswald recorded his simple tastes. In images taken of him at the 1962 Thanksgiving dinner at his brother’s home, he is seen wearing a tan sleeveless sweater and a white button down shirt. In the “Backyard photos,” he is seen wearing a dark polo shirt, while other images taken of him from the early 1960s show him in flannel work shirts. During her Warren Commission testimony, Marina Oswald was shown numerous articles of Lee’s clothing for verification purposes. Of particular interest to consul Lee Rankin, who was questioning her, was what Lee had been wearing on the day of the assassination. Indeed, many other witnesses, from housekeeper Earlene Roberts, to witness Linnie Mae Randle, to bus driver Cecil McWatters, were asked about Oswald’s choice of attire for that historic day. Understandably, most witnesses were unclear or vague; after all, they were questioned several months after the fact. However, one witness, Oswald’s former landlady, Mary Bledsoe, provided the most detailed testimony.
Bledsoe was riding the bus, returning home after witnessing the Presidential motorcade in downtown Dallas. Oswald was leaving the scene of the crime. Traveling west on Elm St., Bledsoe recalled “And, after we got past Akard, at Murphy—I figured it out. Let’s see. I don’t know for sure. Oswald got on. He looks like a maniac. His sleeve was out here [indicating]. His shirt was undone.” The shirt was crucial to her description, describing Oswald as appearing disheveled and irrational. “(The shirt had) a hole in it, hole, and he was dirty, and I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to know I even seen him, and I just looked off, and then about that time the motorman said the President had been shot… I didn’t look at him. That is—I was just—he looked so bad in his face, and his face was so distorted.” She described his shirt as being brown, long sleeved, with a torn elbow and missing buttons. She examined Commission Exhibit 150, a shirt that Marina verified as being owned by Oswald. Paul Stombaugh, a special agent assigned to the Hair and Fiber Unit of the FBI Laboratory, examined fibers taken from the shirt and conclusively linked the threads to material that was found in the crevices of the assassination rifle. The fiber evidence would become a crucial piece of the puzzle. A bus transfer, evidently given to Oswald during his escape from the assassination scene, was found in the shirt pocket during the 4 PM search of Oswald. This discovery reinforced Bledsoe’s testimony, and proved, in the opinion of the Warren Commission, that he had been wearing Commission Exhibit 150 at work that day. Five pistol rounds were also found in the pocket of the pants he was wearing. Oswald, a man who had just pulled a pistol on a police officer, was not searched while in custody, sitting with live ammunition in his pocket for almost two hours. The case against him was picking up some serious momentum. Lee Oswald was on a collision course with swift justice.
1 Warren Commission, Testimony of Lillian Murret
2 Warren Commission, Testimony of Robert Oswald
3 “FBI Inventory of Property Acquired as Evidence, File 105-82555.” Dated 7 Aug. 1964.