NEW YORK — However rarified Countess Jacqueline de Ribes is seen for her singular style, the new exhibition about her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute proves repeatedly that she is much more than one of the “swans” Truman Capote first wrote about in 1959.
While it might not be immediately apparent to visitors, many of the 60 or so ensembles in “Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style” were first tweaked or DIY-ed by de Ribes herself years ago. Fearless about fashion and color, she has amassed a collection that includes pieces from Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Marc Bohan for the House of Dior, Madame Grès (Alix Barton), Valentino Garavani and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Married at the age of 19 to Vicomte Édouard de Ribes, who became the Comte de Ribes when his father died in 1981, de Ribes’ life didn’t exactly lend itself to a career in fashion. But she persevered and, with her husband’s blessing, opened her own design company, which she continued to run until 1995. The pink double-faced silk satin gown from her 1983-84 collection is one of her own creations that will be found in the Anna Wintour Costume Center from Thursday through Feb. 21.
Following the violent events in Paris last week, the Met, Dior’s Sidney Toledano and de Ribes decided to cancel Wednesday’s black-tie dinner that was to celebrate the exhibition’s opening and hold a private viewing that night instead. The Met said de Ribes, who is no longer traveling to New York for the opening, “hopes the exhibition will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.”
Having first visited de Ribes in her Right Bank apartment with Andrew Bolton eight years ago, Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, said, “In talking with her, she didn’t want a show about herself. She wanted it to be more about a way of life that is disappearing. If you were in her family’s hôtel particulier you were just kind of immersed in this grandeur — there are these pieces of furniture, these 18th-century prints, there are paintings. But then as we started to work, I thought, even though you see her in all of these situations, she has a very private family life; her children, her husband, the dinner parties with heads of state — none of that is documented. It’s just because they were private. What you see is the public life which led her very seamlessly to becoming a designer.”
Past the opening Richard Avedon portrait, visitors will find several media walls flashing photos of de Ribes, who seems always to be moving and smiling, even in stills. De Ribes started her own fashion line in 1982, breaking with convention from the determinedly more reserved aristocratic life. There she is in photos and videos with pins in her teeth fitting dresses on models; chatting with friends like Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta; at ease with her family, and inevitably dressed impeccably for every occasion. An iron will and commitment to detail even carried over into the planning of the Met exhibition, with de Ribes reminding Koda to align the hem of a two-panel YSL evening dress, or to be sure to show the lining of royal blue YSL Chinese silk pajamas. She also requested black mannequins.
“She hates the idea of being considered ‘a swan.’ She said, ‘You don’t see me working. It was a struggle. It was a constant struggle to express myself through work,'” Koda said. “When she married into the de Ribes family, there was a feeling you could do philanthropy, but it really wasn’t appropriate to be commercial. But by the Eighties, she decided, ‘I just have to do this.’ Her husband said, ‘You do it.’ So she came to New York to raise money for her business. It isn’t just this socialite designer. She wanted to do it so much, she structured the business.”
A childhood photo of de Ribes with her sister wearing rucksack-potato sacks repurposed as hula skirts hints at a design mind yet to blossom. Koda estimated that de Ribes tweaked 80 percent of the designer pieces he reviewed.
Another unforgettable image is of de Ribes in a two-piece suit, waterskiing on one ski and waving energetically with one arm completely overhead. I said to her, “My God, Jacqueline, you’re wearing a turban” and she said, ‘Harold, you know I had no intention of falling in.'”
When she was named to Eleanor Lambert’s Best Dressed List in 1956, de Ribes only had a handful of couture dresses — albeit ones by then up-and-coming Garavani — with the rest of her closet containing her own creations. The Met’s show is almost entirely dedicated to eveningwear. Koda explained, “Her feeling is that in the daytime she was working, and all the creativity in clothing doesn’t really happen until the evening, where you have fantasy and more extreme situations like masked balls.”
She also has given most of her clothes until the mid-Sixties to charity, save for the featured Balmain herringbone suit with a matching lynx-trimmed cape, a YSL printed wool coat from 1969-70 (then “radical for couture”) and a reversible Karakul-lined belted leather coat with mink trim designed by Fernanda Sanchez for Revillion in 1973.
In the Eighties, de Ribes liked Norma Kamali’s “sleeping bag” coat so much that she bought it in multiple colors. With similar assertiveness, when Pierre Bergé encouraged her to place a final order before Saint Laurent’s haute couture business was shuttered, de Ribes requested “reeditions” of a favorite 1983 dress in a new color. Gesturing toward a 1962 Guy Laroche gown in double-faced satin with a folded train, Koda said, ‘The story is that after Oleg Cassini saw Jacqueline in it, he copied it for a dress for Jackie Kennedy for a White House dinner.”
Referring to the pale pink driving veil that once belonged to de Ribes’ grandmother that is displayed with a 1969 Saint Laurent short evening dress, Koda said, “There are so many women of style who just have an acute visual memory. That’s something you don’t learn.”
Abundant as the eveningwear is, the finale, a trio of costumes, magnifies de Ribes’ exactitude, such as what she wore to the Bal Oriental hosted by Baron Alexis de Rede in 1969. Hinting at her work as a theatrical artistic director, she repurposed a Guy Laroche fuchsia satin coat with overlay of a white satin Dior ballgown as a bodice and added sable-trimmed sleeves. “I knew everyone would have bare tummies and veils, so I decided to wear fur!” she explained.
Nearing his retirement from The Met, Koda said this swan song is “sort of full circle,” since the first exhibition he ever worked on at the Costume Institute was “The Glory of Russian Costume” with Diana Vreeland. And it was Vreeland whom de Ribes told Koda gave her the confidence to just be herself, and telling her, “You’re so extraordinary.”
Interestingly, Koda first saw de Ribes coming out of the opening night dinner for “the Glory of Russian Costume” en route to the after party, which he had secured a ticket to, by working on the exhibition. “At that particular moment when I first saw her, I thought, ‘This woman is some sort of transcendent fashion person,’ then life goes on….But she’s offered me a window onto a world that really is about ideas, a civilized way of life and etiquette. It’s sad that this kind of component to society seems to be disappearing, because elegance really infuses it all. And elegance is about making other people feel comfortable and this kind of seamless serenity. It’s really about a mode of behavior, a way of acting — that’s gone.”