When the newest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute opens celebrating the style of French fashion figure Jacqueline de Ribes, an important guest will be missing: The 86-year-old de Ribes herself.
In the wake of the horrific Paris terror attacks, “she felt it would be unseemly to celebrate,” said the exhibit’s curator, Harold Koda. Despite cancelling her trip, however, de Ribes noted in a statement that she hopes the show “will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.”
De Ribes, born to aristocratic parents in 1929, was a unique figure in fashion for much of the 20th century, beginning in her twenties when she was already landing on best-dressed lists. She was famously photographed by Richard Avedon and termed a “swan” by Truman Capote. Not content to simply wear the designs of others, she often had dressmakers make her own designs for her, and in the 1980s she came to New York and launched her own design business, despite the perception that aristocrats like her (she’s a countess) didn’t get involved in commerce.
In a walk through the exhibit earlier this week, Koda explained that it was hard to find early dresses that de Ribes wore, because she gave clothes to charity through the 1960s. Luckily for the museum, she kept many of her clothes from 1975 onward – both her haute couture gowns, and her own designs. Still, Koda said, “It was hard to convince her to do the show, because there’s a side of her that wanted to keep things private.” Koda convinced her, though, by proposing that the show focus on her creative arc, from a little girl who made costumes, to the haute couture client who always had changes made to garments she bought, to the eventual designer she became.
“She was always making things,” Koda said.
Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style is composed of items from her personal collection, half designed by others – designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Valentino – and half of her own design. After passing by a giant black-and-white Avedon portrait of de Ribes, in profile with a long black braid, visitors will spot a photo of de Ribes and her sister, as little girls, dressed in fringed hula skirts that Jacqueline made from shredded potato sacks.
A daywear section shows de Ribes was an early devotee of the current concept of “mixing high and low,” combining elegant pieces with sporty streetwear, and also mixing designers – some 20 years before it became the norm. She was an aficionado of down winter coats, and there’s a Norma Kamali “sleeping bag coat” on display, in a pinkish red, worn over de Ribes’ self-designed light pink sweater dress and brown sable hat.
Nearby, in the cocktail section, there’s a sparkly summer evening dress by Saint Laurent from 1969 — short, with fringes, beads, pearls and sequins. It’s one of the few items that de Ribes did not change at all – however, she pairs it here with a dramatic “motoring veil,” meant to keep dust out of one’s face. “She remembered that she had it somewhere,” Koda said. “She remembers everything.”
A set of ruffled, Grecian-style gowns in three different colours – orange and two shades of blue – shows she was nothing if not practical. “Saint Laurent was closing the couture atelier, and so she got a call asking if she wanted anything. She finds her favourite dress from 1983 and has it done in two other colours,” Koda said.
De Ribes’ own designs – except for her elaborate costumes for balls, and the like – are simple. “She likes ornament,” Koda said, “but the best description was in Women’s Wear Daily: ‘Spare ribs.’ A kind of simplicity. She loves drama, but in the end she’s very disciplined.”
The show also features a set of casual photos, several showing de Ribes engaging in sports. A photo of her waterskiing on one ski caught the curator’s eye. “Jacqueline,” Koda recalls telling her. “I’m surprised that you’re wearing a turban in that photo!”
“Harold,” she told him. “I had no intention of falling in!”
Koda also said de Ribes feared the show might not have universal appeal. “Will young girls be interested?” he said she asked him. “Does anyone want to be elegant, rather than sexy?”
She might as well have looked back at one of her own quotes, one that’s written on a wall at the exhibit: “I totally disagree with Christian Dior, who once said that one could never look sexy and be elegant at the same time,” the quote reads. “It is just more difficult, that’s all.”