“Style is what makes you different; it’s your own stamp, a message about yourself.” – Countess Jacqueline de Ribes.
The Costume Institute’s Fall 2015 exhibition, Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, focuses on the internationally renowned style icon Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, whose originality and elegance established her as one of the most celebrated fashion personas of the 20th century.
“A close study of de Ribes’s life of creative expression yields illuminating insights into her strategies of style,” said Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, who organized the exhibition. “Her approach to dress as a statement of individuality can be seen as a kind of performance art. When she established her own fashion house, her friend Yves Saint Laurent gave his blessing to the venture as a welcome projection of her elegance.”
The press preview for Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, was a somber affair. The guest of honor and the exhibition’s subject, Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, was not in attendance for obvious reasons. The Costume Institute released the following statement:
“Following the tragic events in Paris, Jacqueline de Ribes has canceled her trip to New York for the opening of Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. She would like to express her gratitude to all her friends at the Met with whom she has collaborated for so many months, and hopes that they will understand her decision.
Comtesse de Ribes also knows how much Americans share the deep sadness felt in France, which confirms the enduring bond between the two countries. She hopes the exhibition will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.”
As reported by Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times, the planned dinner on Wednesday, hosted by the House of Dior, in honor of the exhibition was downgraded to a cocktail reception in business dress.
While I was looking forward to seeing the Countess in person (having read so much about her in magazines and newspapers since the early 1980’s), I must also say that, even without her there, the exhibition fully represented her far-reaching talents, self-assuredness and strong belief in her own sense of what works for her and how her public life (and charitable works) changed the world around her. In a time when “style icons” are anointed based on the work of their Svengali-like stylists who tell them what to wear (usually obscenely expensive designer dresses borrowed for the night, including the jewelery AND the shoes), where to wear them (most often than not to red-carpet events) and how to wear them, the Countess is the REAL DEAL. Most everyone else is a pale imitation.
“Elegance. It’s an attitude. A frame of mind. An intuition, a refusal, a rigor, a research, a knowledge. The attitude of elegance is also a way of behaving.”
Countess Jacqueline de Ribes (born 1929 in Paris to aristocratic parents) is seen by many as the ultimate personification of Parisian elegance. She was, with the American and Italian beauties Gloria Vanderbilt and Marella Agnelli, among the small flock of “Swans” photographed by Richard Avedon and written about by Truman Capote in 1959.
Married at age 19 to the late Édouard, Vicomte de Ribes (he became the Count de Ribes upon the death of his father in 1981), the traditions of her in-laws precluded her from becoming a career woman. However, as an independent spirit, she channeled her creativity into a series of ventures linked by fashion, theater, and style. In 1956, de Ribes was nominated for Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed List. At the time, she had only a handful of couture dresses, as most of her wardrobe was comprised of her own designs, which she made herself or with a dressmaker. Four more nominations followed, and resulted in her induction into the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1962.
“When I was a small child, there were two women I admired. One was a friend of my mother’s who was an ambassadress. The other was Coco Chanel. It seems I always wanted to be a designer.”
Photographed by the world’s leading talents including Slim Aarons, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Cecil Beaton, Robert Doisneau, Horst, Jean Baptiste Mondino, Irving Penn, Francesco Scavullo, Victor Skrebneski, and Juergen Teller, her image came to define an effortless elegance and a sophisticated glamour, something you cannot say about so many of the women today that defines the term, “modern style icons.” As Carolina Herrera recently remarked in a newspaper interview (and I am paraphrasing here), “How can someone be a style icon when they are not wearing any clothes?” in reference to the trio of music and Hollywood stars who attended the recent Met Ball in “dresses” that left almost nothing to the imagination. And Mrs. Herrera is right. If you want to see what a TRUE style icon is, run, don’t walk, to The Met to see Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style.”
“You must remember that you’re never going to be sexy for everyone. You are sexy for someone and for someone else you are not. Being totally nude is not sexy. The art of being sexy is to suggest. To let people have fantasy.”
The thematic exhibition features approximately 60 ensembles of haute couture and ready-to-wear primarily from de Ribes’s personal archive, dating from 1962 to the present. Also included are her creations for fancy dress balls, which she often made by cutting up and cannibalizing her haute couture gowns to create unexpected, thematic, and conceptually nuanced expressions of her aesthetic. These, along with photographs, video, and ephemera, tell the story of how her interest in fashion developed over decades, from childhood “dress-up” to the epitome of international style.
A muse to haute couture designers, they placed at her disposal their drapers, cutters, and fitters in acknowledgment of their esteem for her taste and originality. Ultimately, she used this talent and experience to create her own successful design business, which she directed from 1982 to 1995.
“My mirror, my only truthful advisor.”
While the exhibition explores her taste and style methodology, extensive documentation from her personal archives illustrates the range and depth of her professional life, including her roles as theatrical impresario, television producer, interior designer, and director and organizer of international charity events.
Designers in the exhibition include Giorgio Armani, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Marc Bohan for House of Dior, Roberto Cavalli, Jacqueline de Ribes, John Galliano, Madame Grès (Alix Barton), Valentino Garavani, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Norma Kamali, Guy Laroche, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Fernando Sanchez for Révillon Frères, and Emanuel Ungaro.
In 1999, Jean Paul Gaultier dedicated his haute couture collection to her with the title “Divine Jacqueline,” and in 2010, she received the Légion d’Honneur from then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy for her philanthropic and cultural contributions to France.
Because I am a true fan and very much appreciate “classic” clothing (My #1 favorite New York Fashion Week collection was, and remains to this day, Michael Kors’ “Palm Bitch” collection), this exhibition spoke to me. I enjoyed seeing how she—a woman well before her time—paired “high” with “low”, how she didn’t allow her clothes to “wear” her. An excellent example of this is the pairing of a Pierre Balmain autumn/winter 1962–63 haute couture ensemble (suit of beige wool herringbone tweed; cape of beige wool herringbone tweed trimmed with lynx fur) with a (ready-to-wear) Black, brown, and cream printed silk- cashmere knit turtleneck from Roberto Cavalli from 1995. She also paired Banana Republic with Yves Saint Laurent autumn/winter 1969–70 haute couture.
“The Pierre Balmain ensemble still reflects the postwar femininity of the elegant woman who likes fur even with the tweed. The outfit has nothing really sporty about it, but it has a kind of Hollywood glamour which had reached Paris by that time,” said Countess de Ribes
De Ribes is well known as an early advocate of mixing up her couture runway looks. For example, she was emphatic in rejecting the styling of a traditional loden cloth coat with another earlier garment, a culotte suit by Christian Dior. “Impossible!” she declared when she saw the conventional coordination done by her staff, later explaining that she ultimately “wore it [the culotte suit] with a Portuguese peasant’s cape.” This ensemble from the mid-1960s, however, is something of an exception to her approach to styling. Only the incorporation of her own sweater, stockings, and other accessories personalize the effect of an outfit essentially worn as the designer, Balmain, intended.
Everywhere you looked, in every room, you saw the vision of a woman who really knew herself. You saw the marvelous end result, but not the effort that went into it. Everyone should take the time to visit The Met and see this exhibition. It’s an education.
“I totally disagree with Christian Dior, who once said that one could never look sexy and be elegant at the same time. It is just more difficult, that’s all.”
Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style is on view in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center from November 19, 2015 through February 21, 2016. The exhibition’s catalog is available at The Met store. With text by Harold Koda; forward by Diane von Furstenberg; art direction by Jacqueline de Ribes; and photographs by Patricia Canino, this book catalogs the “eye” of one of the 20th century’s most photographed women of style through a selection of her couture collection, personal designs, fashion “collages,” and fancy dress costumes. Featuring striking photographs specially commissioned for this publication, it illustrates the tremendous sartorial creativity of a woman who has come to embody the notion of French elegance. The catalog is only found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.