It took eight years for curator Harold Koda and his team to pull together the latest exhibition at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating Countess Jacqueline de Ribes and her inimitable sense of style.
Koda says a lot of that time was spent convincing de Ribes to agree to let him do a show about her in the first place.
But, as the press gathered for a sneak peek earlier this week, he announced that the lady of the hour had sent her regrets.
In the wake of the tragic terror attacks in Paris, the Parisian icon had decided to stay in France to support the city and the grieving families rather than attend the unveiling.
“She did say in her note to us that she hopes that this exhibition will introduce some joy into this moment of provocation, and that what she feels this collection represents is the freedom of creativity,” Koda said in his opening remarks.
A celebration of the freedom of creativity is exactly what Koda and his team—with the assistance of de Ribes, who is now 86—have assembled.
The over 65 pieces displayed from the Countess’s unimaginably well-appointed closet paint a portrait of someone with both an extraordinary eye for fashion and an incredible talent of her own. But “Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style” is also a testament to the originality, inventiveness, and spirit of the French that de Ribes so vividly encapsulates.
On first glance at the overwhelming assembly of couture that has taken over the main Costume Institute gallery, de Ribes’s life seems to be an epic fairy tale. (It’s hard to imagine the size of her closet.)
There’s over five decades of Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Guy Laroche, Jean Paul Gaultier, and the House of Dior (one of de Ribes’s favorite couture houses) represented, not to mention a smattering of non-French designers including Bill Blass, Valentino, and Armani.
De Ribes acquired her title through marriage, but she was born into an aristocratic family. In addition to being a member of the elite, she was also blessed with good looks and a stunning physique that could pull off almost any silhouette and that made her a beloved subject of the glossies.
She wined and dined with the best of society and was admired for her grace and glamour. Truman Capote named her one of his “swans,” his ideal ladies who exhibited the ultimate in elegance; she was frequently photographed by legendary photographer Richard Avedon; she was besties with many of the leading couturiers of the day; and she was invited to all the best parties and balls.
But de Ribes wasn’t just happy floating along in the world of the aristocracy. In fact, Koda told FashionREDEF’s Adam Wray that she didn’t like being one of Capote’s revered swan—she found the designation to be “reductive” and that it ignored the women’s accomplishments.
Since she was a young girl, de Ribes had an eye for design and a sense of style.
An adorable black-and-white photo at the beginning of the exhibit shows the result of one of her earliest works: she and her sister pose in hula skirts the budding designer made out of shredded burlap bags.
De Ribes eventually became a designer in her own right, but even before she officially constructed looks for her own label, she made each and every outfit she wore her own.
She mixed high and low to great effect. Take one of the first looks that opens the exhibition. De Ribes pairs an incredible, multi-colored, printed Yves Saint Laurant coat with a cashmere sweater from Banana Republic.
Or her interpretation of a little black dress: a 1968 Yves Saint Laurent buckskin and silk jersey tunic over a slim skirt that she had the designer create long, black sequined sleeves for rather than his original gold.
While elegance was her guiding principle (“Elegance is never out of style,” she says), she also wasn’t afraid to take risks and push some boundaries.
In 2002, Yves Saint Laurent was the first to introduce a see-through dress with strategically placed panels of sequins to the world of haute couture. A 73-year-old de Ribes wore the midnight blue version to the ballet, styled with a chinchilla wrap for modesty.
There’s also the 1967 silk chiffon Dior rainbow dress with a neck embroidered with crystals that is a loud and sultry statement, giving a hint of the body’s shadow beneath its panels of color. De Ribes was one of only four women who boldly acquired the look (another was Princess Grace of Monaco).
And then there’s the “evening cocoon pajama ensemble” by Ungara that manages to be relaxed, chic, and luxurious (with its embroidery of crystals and garnish of jewels) all at the same time.
“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,” de Ribes says.
And she has this attitude in spades.
Despite the fact that aristocratic women were expected to limit their activities to volunteering, socializing, and looking good, de Ribes wanted to launch her own line. So she found the money to fund it and she did, popular opinion be damned.
Her designs are some of the most interesting in the exhibition and more than hold their own beside the haute couture that she loved to wear.
In one dress from her autumn/winter 1983-84 collection, she plays with the idea of a men’s tuxedo and makes a svelte, asymmetrical black velvet and silk women’s dress, with tuxedo buttons running down it’s length.
Another purple taffeta gown from autumn/winter 1987-88 features a plunging back with a cascade of ruffles descending to the floor. It recalls the bustles of fashion past, but is a modern, sleek look that was wholly her own.
One of her most stunning looks is the one she wore on the cover of the October 1983 issue of Town & Country.
The photograph shows her from behind, highlighting her aquiline profile, in a very pink dress that leaves her back entirely bare. The one-shouldered neckline manages a masterful swooping of fabric that shows an almost dangerous amount of skin, yet it is sexy and glamorous and not at all suggestive of immodesty.
In addition to creating her own evening and day wear, de Ribes also collaborated with other designers on fancy dress for costume balls, on display at the show’s end.
At the Bal Oriental in 1969, the Countess wore a stunning pink-and-gold concoction that was all about opulence, volume, and more than a little glittering bling. Wanting to avoid dressing the same way as everyone else (“bare tummies with jewels”), she turned to fur, added touches of the material to the gown and using it as the predominant focus of the headpiece.
“There’s not a button of my costume that I did not design myself. Imagine how a Victorian would picture a Mongol princess. That’s my costume,” she said.
De Ribes’ 20th-century Paris of masked balls and everyday couture may be largely gone, glamour having gone out the window in the hustle of modern life.
But in the playful innovation and unbounded freedom of de Ribes’s life and work, there is a celebration of all who embrace their individuality and follow their creative vision, wherever it may lead.
As the Countess has said: “Style is what makes you different; it’s your own stamp, a message about yourself.”
May we all follow her lead.