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, and the Imperial nose—allowed her to rival the professional models of her day. Oleg Cassini would say: “Her aristocratic face would have fit perfectly in ancient Egypt or a royal court in the seventeenth century." And none other than the world-renown photographer Richard Avedon, who photographed more than his share of great beauties, claimed: "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 Saint Laurent, Valentino and Ungaro—with those seen on the streets of Paris. In the '50s, she flaunted fashion dictates. She might substitute, for example,  a turtleneck for the original haute couture blouse or a  pair of knee-high boots for a pair of traditional pumps. 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.

The Glamour Capital of the World

Nowadays, one often gets the feeling that fashion is about spectacle for the sake of spectacle, but the Countess thought 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 glamorous, but places where people go are glamorous. 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 surely 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, with spotlights creating light and shadows. The effect is stunning.


The Duchess of Guermantes

For de Ribes, fashion was a serious business. As was an invitation to a ball. "Balls were not for one's amusement, they were for being ravishing." And that she was! 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 being that everyone was familiar with Proust's writings. 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—which she did. Her aristocratic beauty and elegant gown dovetailed perfectly with the ball's theme. Blending historical details with contemporary aesthetics, the gown was a compelling re-imagining of the past.  Faithful to the spirit of the Belle Époque, it likewise incorporated the sleek lines of the '70s. Her mixing and matching is much in vogue nowadays. As for her portrayal of the Duchess of Guermantes, Proust would have approved.

The exhibition at the Met features 60 ensembles of haute couture and ready-to-wear, primarily from de Ribes' personal collection, dating from 1962 to the present. Very much a 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? If inspiration fails, add a silk scarf, perhaps a colorful Hermes with the soft rolled edges.

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?

I wish the Countess de Ribes would explain to those in charge at the Met why that water cart is not glamorous. In 'the glamour capital of the world,' doesn't our world-class Metropolitan Museum of Art deserve better? The proliferation of those tacky carts on Fifth Avenue has prompted a lawsuit from the neighbors across the street. No wonder.

With the new year in mind, have you made any resolutions? I've been neglectful in that area, but that's no reason we can't have a toast. Here's to you, here's to me: All the best in the forthcoming year. Hope to see you next week, when I'll have the coffee ready. Au revoir mes amis...