Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style

Long before Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift, there was the Countess Jacqueline de Ribes. Lacking the advantages of social media that today’s stars enjoy, the Countess, a well-born aristocrat, had a sense of style that enabled her to establish herself as one of the leading fashion icons of the 20th century.

The Model and the Muse

It all began in the 1950s. Her sleek good looks—the tall, lean, lithe body, the Cleopatra eyes, the Imperial nose—allowed her to rival the professional models of her day.  Of her Oleg Cassini said:  “her aristocratic face …would have fit perfectly in ancient Egypt or a royal court in the seventeenth century."  And none other than Richard Avedon, who photographed many of the world’s great beauties, said of her: “She has a perfect nose. I feel sorry for the near-beauties with small noses."

But more important than her beauty and elegance, the Countess had a fashion sense that early on had her mixing and matching articles from some of her favorite fashion houses—Dior, Yves St Laurent, Valentino and Ungaro—with those seen on the streets of Paris.  This mingling of high and low, of mass market and haute couture, can be seen in the current exhibition, “Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style,” at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 21, 2016.

In the Beginning

In the 50s, she flaunted fashion dictates substituting, in this case, an orange turtleneck for the original blouse and a pair of knee-high boots for the more traditional pumps. As seen on the mannequin to the right, the boots matched the color of the hat.

Nowadays one often gets the feeling that fashion is about spectacle for the sake of spectacle. But the Countess thinks it should be otherwise.

“Glamorous people bring something to others. They are seductive, attractive—and it has nothing to do with frivolity. "Glamour sticks to people. An object is not glamourous, but places where people go are glamourous. That’s why New York is the glamour capital of the world.”

"Clothes, like good architecture, have to correspond to the rhythm of life. You can't be elegant without being graceful, and you can't be graceful if you're not at ease."  A sentiment with which her idol, Coco Chanel, would have agreed.

The Art of Style

"I am not a lady who lunches. My suits have to move. My clothes have to be comfortable. I have to be able to work." And work she did, creating her own fashion house in 1982.

What's lovely is how the exhibit has been mounted to highlight the ensembles -- the rooms dimly lit, the walls and mannequins a jet black, and the spotlights creating both light and shadows. The effect is stunning.

For de Ribes, fashion was, and is,  aserious business. So, too, was an invitation to a ball.   "Balls werenot for one's amusement, they were for being ravishing."  And that she was.

The Duchess of Guermantes

In 1971, when the Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild sent out invitations to a ball at their Chateau de Ferrieres, they stipulated a dress code of white tie for men. As for the women, they were to dress as a character from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. The assumption that everyone was familiar with Proust's writings is instructive. So who would the Countess portray? In a way, the decision had been made for her.

"Years before, the Italian director Luchino Visconti had suggested that de Ribes play Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes-- a character from the novel; her aristocratic beauty, therefore, fit perfectly with the ball's theme."

And so she did. Blending historical details with contemporary aesthetics, the gownwas a compelling reimagining of the past.  Faithful to the spirit of the Belle Epoque, it incorporated the sleek lines of the '70s. Her mixing and matching is vogue nowadays.  And as for her portrayal of the Duchess of Guermantes, Proust would have been delighted.

The exhibition features 60 ensembles of haute couture and ready-to-wear primarily from de Ribes's personal collection, dating from 1962 to the present. Ever the working woman, the Countess helped curate the current show.

Welcoming 2016 in Style

So before you leave the house today, remembering all we have learned from the Countess,  why not add a witty touch to your attire-- something old or something new. If all else fails, pull out a scarf. Perhaps a colorful Hermes with the soft rolled edges.

With 2016 in mind, have you made any resolutions you''d like to share?  I've been neglectful in that area.  But let's have a toast: Here's to you, here's to me:  All the best in 2016! Hope to see you next week. I'll have the coffee ready...

Exiting the museum, I looked back over my shoulder. Do you think the Countess might be able to improve the "street style" at the entrance to the Met? Any suggestions for the trustees? And let's start the New Year right: Remember sharing is caring...