Style Icon Jacqueline de Ribes Celebrated in New MET Exhibition

November 23, 2015 Updated: December 6, 2015

It took eight years to bring to fruition the Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Costume Institute. It opened on Nov. 19 amid much commotion as Countess de Ribes herself was due to attend.

However, Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute announced with regret that she would not be coming due to the recent tragic events in Paris.

“Her feeling was that it was unseemly to be celebrated that way, and that she would rather be associated with the families of those that are mourning in Paris,” said Koda.

However in her message, she expressed her hopes that the exhibition will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.

Destined for Style

Born in 1929 and married to Count Edouard de Ribes (1923–2013) in 1948, Jacqueline de Ribes has been emulated since the early 1950s when she became a public figure. She was admired not only by her peers, and the public, but fashion designers as well.

“The couturiers admired her so much, that in some instances they would hand over their ateliers to do her designs,” said Koda.

An example of such a unique collaboration is the (Spring/Summer 1969 haute couture) evening ensemble, in ivory silk crepe fringed with ivory silk conceived by Jacqueline de Ribes for the White Ball given in London, and realized by House of Dior, which was headed by Mark Bohan at the time.

The exhibition is a collection of photos of de Ribes through the years, clothing from her personal collection, and clothing of her own design.

But the reason it took eight years to organize was partly due to de Ribes’s reservations about the idea that her clothing would represent her.

Koda recounted that he was able to convince her by explaining that the position the MET would take is the “narrative arc of her creative side”—first as a creative young girl, later as a wearer of haute couture, and finally, as a fashion designer in her own right.

03.Jacqueline de Ribes by Richard Avedon, 1955
Jacqueline de Ribes, 1955 (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Richard Avedon, ©The Richard Avedon Foundation) NOTE: Use of Richard Avedon images is not permitted on social media, including but not limited to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Part of the allure of de Ribes is, of course, her beauty and her svelte elegance. By her mid 20’s she had been initiated to the best dressed list and was photographed by Richard Avedon in 1955.

Meanwhile, American designer Oleg Cassini, a favorite designer of the other famous Jacqueline—Kennedy, that is—declared that de Ribes’s aristocratic face would have fit perfectly in ancient Egypt or a 17th century royal court.

Fashion Was Her Language

The exhibition features approximately 60 ensembles of haute couture and ready-to-wear primarily from de Ribes’s personal archive, dating from 1962 to the present. Also included are her creations for fancy dress balls.

Unfilled by her presence, it’s as though the garments leave a lot to be desired despite their creative merits.

While all the ensembles are certainly elegant, what becomes increasingly clear is that, unlike an exhibition where fashion designs are on display to exemplify a historical theme, trend, or technique, in this case they seem to be missing the magical ingredient—the countess herself, in the sense that she is the theme as well as what made the clothes, in the figurative sense of the word. Unfilled by her presence, it’s as though the garments leave a lot to be desired despite their creative merits.

Judging by the photographs, screen projections, and ephemera showing de Ribes in her element, clearly she had a penchant for drama and an intuitive, unerring approach to the art of dressing. As a client of haute couture, she was hands on and always made changes. 

The exhibition truly celebrates Jaqueline de Ribes, the woman, the fashion icon, the creative individual who drapes, cuts, mixes and matches with just enough irreverence so as not to be limited by dressmaking techniques, yet guided by a keen sense of elegance and beauty.

Designer at Last

Finally, in the 1980s she fulfilled her desire to become a couture designer. An aristocratic woman does not become a designer. Yet her husband gave her his blessing with the proviso that she raise her own money to start the business. She did just that in New York.

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibition, Gallery View, Evening Wear. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When designing her own creations she would most often be guided by the drape of the fabric. One of the most statuesque and accomplished evening gowns on show is an evening dress from de Ribes’s Spring/Summer 1985 collection in ivory silk charmeuse, with sculptural draping and a crisscrossing front bodice. It is timelessly elegant and shows de Ribes’s refined sense of proportion and keen affinity with her material.

What Remains

At the ripe old age of 86, photographers no longer flock to shoot de Ribes in famous profile, clad in the latest haute couture. Her legacy as aristocrat, fashion icon, designer, producer, and philanthropist is impressive to say the least, but for us as audience to the exhibition, there are many things worth taking away. 

Koda mentioned that de Ribes questioned the relevance of the exhibition asking, “Does anybody want to be elegant rather than sexy” these days? So at the very least, Koda is hoping that the exhibition will raise these issues.

“Her style is so strong that no matter what the period, she was always in fashion but she was not following every trend. She had filtered that fashion moment to conform to Jaqueline de Ribes’s own identity,” he said.

The exhibition is on view in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center through Feb. 21, 2016.