Saturday, January 16, 2016
Jacqueline de Ribes at the Met
More than sixty years ago, the young Viscountess de Ribes, née Jacqueline Bonnin de La Bonninière de Beaumont, stood on the balcony of a friend’s Venetian palazzo. She was twenty-two, and only a few years out of her convent boarding school. The social life of a married woman was still a bit daunting. There was a cool formality to her new husband’s world, and she was intimidated by its sophistication. She was growing into her role as a châtelaine, but running a house wasn’t quite enough for her. So she had started to design her own clothes.
The journey from Paris to Venice then involved a first-class train or a chauffeured car accompanied by a large steamer trunk. Mme. de Ribes needed changes of toilette for every occasion. That afternoon, she was wearing a white piqué waistcoat with a tartan skirt. A stranger admired the outfit, and asked what couturier had made it. “No one whom you would have heard of,” she replied. She didn’t dare tell him that she’d made it herself.
“Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style” is a new show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum which celebrates the young woman on the balcony and the grande dame she became. Those of an age to remember Grace Kelly’s wedding, Truman Capote’s Black-and-White Ball, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit will recall pictures of the Countess in her heyday: vertiginous cheekbones, eyes with a feline slant, the nose of an Egyptian queen. Yves Saint Laurent described her as “an ivory unicorn,” and Richard Avedon photographed her for Vogue.
At twenty-eight, she was named to the International Best-Dressed List, and six years later, in 1962, she was inducted into its Hall of Fame. Other members of the pantheon then included Mrs. Kennedy and her sister, Princess Radziwill; Audrey Hepburn (a count’s daughter); Mrs. Gianni Agnelli (a principessa by birth); the Duchess of Windsor; fellow-swans C. Z. Guest and Babe Paley; and, at least ex officio, Queen Elizabeth II. There were no eccentrics and no sexpots.
“Good taste without extravagance or ostentation” was, according to the judges, the standard of inclusion.
Mme. de Ribes was born on Bastille Day in 1929, into a family of the noblesse d’épée, and upon her marriage she entered a house even more Old Guard than her own; her father-in-law once forced her to cancel a dinner party because it fell on the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution. Babies born on the original Bastille Day, the first generation of Romantics, claimed a revolutionary right: to reinvent themselves. But in some respects, the Countess’s Bastille—a prison of codified behavior—never fell. Harold Koda, who curated the Met show, notes in the catalogue that “the de Ribes family had strict proscriptions on the public and private aspects of their life.” This doesn’t leave many others.
The Countess, now eighty-seven, lives in Paris, and last week I phoned her there. It was late, but we spoke for an hour. “I’m a night owl,” she said. She wasn’t coming to New York, she told me: “I simply can’t face the opening.” Only a few days had passed since the terrorist attacks, and like most of her compatriots she was in mourning. She was also wary of the flashbulbs, the fuss, the apotheosis—“the display of ego.” Dressing was her performance art, and like any virtuoso she knew what feats she could risk without risking self-exposure. I asked de Ribes how her style had evolved. “Very slowly,” she replied. “Style is innate, while confidence isn’t.”
Jacqueline was a dreamy child who spent the happiest years of her girlhood living with her maternal grandparents. (Her father, an Olympic marksman, and her mother, a writer, were not, one infers, dedicated to parenthood.) “I always loved games of dress-up,” she told me. “I loved the room in their house where the maids worked on my grandmother’s couture. I never learned to sew myself, but I absorbed all their techniques. And I used to make costumes of whatever they would lend me—shawls, nightgowns, boas, an old bathrobe. I even borrowed the clothes of my English nanny.”
De Ribes never outgrew her love of improvised finery, or of a grand entrance. She was notorious for arriving hours late at the masked balls that enlivened the social season in the mid-century. Months of planning and millions of dollars went into their preparation; they were, in essence, sartorial tournaments. No one out-jousted de Ribes, and three of her costumes are in the show at the Met. Like Scarlett O’Hara, she used what she had at hand.
She took scissors to a lamé evening coat, by Guy Laroche, to make a tunic; she repurposed a chiffon gown, by Jean Dessès, as a flowing veil; she blithely cannibalized a sable cape, a gift from the Marquis de Cuevas, to trim a turban. She also rustled up some discount tulle for the harem pants that completed her outfit. With too much nerve, you are a fashion victim; without enough, you’re a frump. It takes perfect pitch to strike the right note.
Dessès, it happens, was that stranger on the Venetian balcony. He invited de Ribes to his atelier, and he was the first of many masters who dressed her. A discriminating buyer, she often asked for modifications to a design, and had a gift for what Koda calls “fashion collage.” A decade before rich bohemians mixed street or vintage fashion with couture, she threw a puffer coat over her sequins. Dior, under Marc Bohan and Saint Laurent, then Saint Laurent on his own, were her preferred couturiers, partly because they accommodated her change orders. “When I went for a fitting, I would ask the première to modify the proportions, or I proposed a different fabric,” she said. The houses she patronized were happy to oblige her: whatever she wore inspired emulation. “I was always timid about going to Chanel, though,” she said. “I was afraid she wouldn’t agree to my meddling.”
Nearly all of the sixty ensembles at the Met are evening gowns, and their installation is suitably nocturnal: the basement galleries, painted black, have the atmosphere of a glossy boîte. Sadly, the early clothes for which de Ribes earned her entrance to the Hall of Fame are not part of the show. “My husband and I shared a wing of his parents’ mansion,” she explained. “It was a very strict household.” (The old Count de Ribes once objected to receiving the Duke and Duchess of Windsor because she had been divorced.) Her in-laws told her that, if a gown had been sitting in her closet for a few years, she had to give it to charity. So her couture went to the Association d’Entraide de la Noblesse Française, an organization that supported impecunious aristocrats.
“In that way, a young girl who could not afford good clothes would have a beautiful dress for her début,” she said. “I was saddest to let go of my Balenciagas. I kept two Diors, but almost nothing else from the fifties or sixties.”
In 1983, some forty years after her encounter with Dessès, the Countess launched her own ready-to-wear business, and it flourished for twelve years. Why, I asked de Ribes, did she wait until middle age to embrace a métier she had always loved? For one thing, she explained, her relations were horrified by the notion of a working woman in the family. “Trade” carried the stigma of commonness. (Under the Bourbons, courtiers were forbidden to practice a profession, other than that of war; they found an outlet, as their scions have, in exclusive sports and refined frivolity.)
To some extent, she circumvented the “proscriptions” by doing unpaid creative work. “For two years,” she said, “I wrote a column for Marie-Claire, under a pseudonym. I gave women advice on dressing chicly for a dollar.” She was a patron of the arts, and an impresario who helped with the décor and costumes for theatrical productions. When her friend the Marquis de Cuevas died, in 1961, she managed his ballet company for a few years, “so I had a focus for my energies.” Yet these ephemeral activities left her unsatisfied, and at the age of fifty, fed up with her “lack of courage,” she announced her intention of going pro.
Her husband gave his grudging consent, but told her that she was “on her own”—she would have to raise her own capital. And in a long letter, Saint Laurent begged her to reconsider. “He told me I would suffer too much.”
At the Met—alongside the Diors, Saint Laurents, and Valentinos, and a bit hard to distinguish from them—are thirty evening gowns of opulent dignity that bear the label “Jacqueline de Ribes.” The prestige of her name and the princess fantasy that it represented appealed to an aspirational clientele, particularly in America during the Reagan era.
Her style influenced the costumes of “Dynasty,” and Joan Collins was married in a de Ribes. Nancy Reagan was a fan, and so, more surprisingly, was Cher, who perhaps saw de Ribes as a fellow-Nefertiti. If there is none of de Ribes’s daywear in the show—one glimpses it in a film clip—it’s for good reason. Dallas, apparently, got the better of Paris, in the fussy silhouettes and linebackers’ shoulders. But Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus did very well by the Countess: they knew their customer.
She was a soignée matron, game for some electric color or the flash of a gam, but nothing inappropriate to her age or status. Elegance, as the Countess defines it, is “the art of being astonishing without creating astonishment.”
The dazzle, in her case, emanated from the woman, and it couldn’t be packaged. Photographers loved de Ribes’s profile, and many of the gowns—her own and others’—were designed to flatter it. She favored one-shouldered necklines, asymmetrical draping, feathery ruffs, and flamboyant bows. Her back was exquisite, and she liked to bare it. “The Art of Style” is also, in its way, a portrait in profile—a studied best angle.
The limits that de Ribes imposed on the curators, or their gallantry in respecting them, have the paradoxical effect of enshrining the Countess as a fashion icon—a stereotype that she described to Koda as “lifeless and démodé.”
Fancy clothes, however, are fun to ogle, and to judge. Not everything that de Ribes dug out of her closet belongs in a museum: three versions of a ruched sheath, in Crayola colors; several examples of a staid tuxedo dress; a perfectly lovely tiered skirt, by Armani, worn with a bodysuit; a deluxe hippie outfit—patchwork skirt, denim jacket—that might catch your eye in a Williamsburg resale shop.
And it’s no revelation that Saint Laurent knew what he was doing. But the pièce de résistance is by the Countess herself, and it reminds you that a dress can convey a mysterious emotion. This creation is an austere column of ice-pink satin with a ruffle in the shape of a question mark which wraps around the torso on a diagonal. It raises the question of what, with unfettered ambition, de Ribes might have achieved.
In a recent interview with the Times, Pierre Bergé, the partner of Saint Laurent, asserted that high fashion as we know it is “completely over.” The old arbiters of style, in his opinion, are losing their authority to online marketing moguls, celebrity stylists, reality-television stars, mass merchandisers like H&M, and Instagram.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked de Ribes if she agreed with her friend Bergé. I expected a nostalgic lament, or a tirade against the barbarians at the gate, but I didn’t get one. “Of course it’s not the same,” she said. “The poor designers have to do eight collections a year, so much of their work is farmed out to assistants.” But the real change, in her view, has come from the liberation of women from “the frustrations of the old system”: they don’t, in other words, want her life. “Modern girls like my granddaughter aspire to be lawyers or bankers,” she continued. “The artistically inclined work in galleries. The ones who love fashion study to design it. And they all shop on the Internet. Because who has hours or days to spend searching for the perfect whatever? And thank goodness for that.”
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