In these depressing times, with Paris under siege, this exhibition will remind you of beautiful, chic Paris, and why French women, in particular, are still the embodiment of elegance and style. In the 1950s, when Richard Avedon photographed Jacqueline De Ribes, then in her mid-twenties, France was still the capital of fashion, food, film, literature and culture. And Vicomtesse Jacqueline De Ribes was already recognized as the epitome of French style, one of those impossibly elegant – yet modern – beauties, like Audrey Hepburn, whose swan neck, refined profile and couture clothes were familiar to fashionistas on both sides of the Atlantic. (Top: Portrait by Richard Avedon, 1955)
Jacqueline De Ribes is now in her eighties, still active, still elegant, and still a class act. Sensitive to the tragic events in Paris, she decided to cancel her attendance at the opening of this exhibition. She felt it would appear unseemly to celebrate at a time of such deep sadness in France. But she sent her gratitude to her friends at the Met, and her hope that “the exhibition will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.”
Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute, whose idea it was to create this exhibition, made it clear that it took him eight years to convince De Ribes that doing this show was a worthwhile endeavor. In private, it seems, she is refreshingly modest about her accomplishments. Yet, from childhood on, as family photographs capture, she enjoyed the spotlight and possessed an unerring designer’s eye and flair for self expression through fashion. Growing up, she watched and learned from her grandmother’s dressmaker. Asked to create a costume without spending more than five francs, like Scarlett O’Hara, she “repurposed her bedroom curtains to form a convincing Van Eyck-style high-waisted robe.”
In 1956, just in her mid-20s she was already on the International Best Dressed List, even though most of her clothes were of her own design. And when she purchased and wore couture designs by Saint Laurent, Dior and others, she always altered them to suit her taste.
Her skills and imagination can be seen in many of the ball gowns she designed for special occasions. (“Balls are not for one’s amusement,” said De Rives, “they are for being ravishing.”)
De Rives was especially loyal to Dior and Saint Laurent. When she was asked to place her last order at the House of Saint Laurent, she requeste re-editions of a 20-year-old favorite gown, saying, “Elegance is never out of date.”
Finally, in the 1980s, with money she raised herself, no longer prevented by her aristocratic in-laws from becoming a career woman, she went professional, and officially became a commercial designer.
It is evident from this exhibition that her taste and style were timeless as opposed to trendy. In fact, her clothes are so classic – whether she designed them or simply chose them from the couture houses of others — that it’s hard to tell in which decade they were made. A woman today could step into any one of them and feel exquisitely dressed.
This is a small and manageable exhibition that, indeed, is all about quiet, elegant “style,” and the vanishing world of international “high society,” long presided over by the impeccably turned out Jacqueline De Ribes.
For a fall-winter pick-me-up, do yourself a favor, take a friend and see this show. It’s like a shot of sunshine.
Text and images by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Jaqueline De Ribes: The Art of Style
Costume Institute’s Fall-Winter 2015- 2016 Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum
November 19 – February 21, 2016