Valentino once declared her, “The Last Queen of Paris”. Yves Saint Laurent described her as, “An ivory unicorn”. Emilio Pucci called her, “‘Giraffina,’ baby giraffe.” Her austere aristocratic father-in-law said she was a “cross between a Russian Princess and a girl of the Folies Bergère.” Jackie Kennedy designer, Oleg Cassini, found her “elegant to the point of distraction.” She was compared to Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. And famously by Truman Capote, to a swan. Women wanted to look like her; and dress like her.
She is Jacqueline de Ribes.
Fashion designer and muse, socialite, and French aristocrat, de Ribes, now 86, was the subject of a recent show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in New York, Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style.
ELEGANCE IS NEVER OUT OF STYLE
In this age of social media starlets and over-sharing, it took Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, a remarkable eight years to convince the Countess de Ribes to let him mount a show about her. He not only had to overcome her innate aristocratic sense of reserve and closely guarded privacy, but also her fear that such a personal focus, such a “display of ego” would be tasteless. “Jacqueline was really ambivalent about the idea that this clothing would represent her,” he says.
She did not want to be branded as a Fashion Icon either—a word bandied about so often and so indiscriminately as to be almost meaningless and in many cases, laughable when applied to the It-Girl of the moment. Rather, de Ribes finds the whole notion a stereotype that she described to Koda as lifeless and démodé.
She even wondered: Would young girls be interested? The Art of Style garnered the second-highest attendance figures for a Fall show at The Costume Institute, so I’d say the answer was a resounding Yes!
She also asked Koda: Does anybody want to be elegant rather than sexy? She disagrees with Christian Dior who once said that a woman could not be elegant and sexy at the same time. Her reply—No. It is just more difficult, that’s all.
To be both elegant and sexy is to be, as de Ribes herself puts it, Astonishing without creating astonishment. A distinction modern pop celebrities (the current role models now on the cover of Vogue), fail to make, or understand. And who are in fact the cult emblems of anti-elegance and are replacing their lack of style with overt exhibitionism.
In an interview for Vogue (Nov. 2015), Jacqueline defined SEXY:
You’re never sexy for everyone, anyway. And I think you’re not sexy because you undress, because you show everything – no. I think it’s more subtle than that. It’s in the way the body moves, and I would say it’s even the way you smile, the way you look, the way your eyes move.
And if you are wondering just what elegance and sexiness looks like, here is de Ribes (below) showing just how alluring a halo of pink satin can be around bare skin.
It’s an attitude. A frame of mind. An intuition, a refusal, a rigor, a research, a knowledge. The attitude of elegance is also a way of behaving.
Style is what makes you different; it’s your own stamp, a message about yourself.
You can be elegant and chic by being yourself
Jacqueline de Ribes is refreshingly authentic and original. She inspires us to create our own, art of style.
THE FAMOUS PHOTO
In the early 1950s, Jacqueline and her husband traveled to New York to attend the Paris Ball at The Waldorf Astoria. She was spotted one day by the legendary Diana Vreeland while having lunch in a New York restaurant. The sharp-eyed fashion editor was so taken with the young woman’s unusual and exotic beauty that she arranged to have her photographed the next day at Richard Avedon’s studio.
Here is how de Ribes recounts the story:
The next day I went to the hairdresser. I got false eyelashes, curled my hair. When I showed up at the studio, Diana said, ‘I want you to be how you were yesterday!’ She peeled off the eyelashes, combed out my hair. And she made me a braid! Diana Vreeland helped me be authentic. She taught me confidence. And the picture became famous.
Jacqueline learnt a very important lesson from the then fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, a piece of fashion / style / life advice that she took to heart: Be Yourself.
At that time I was not so secure. Diana did help me. She told me, ‘Jacqueline, don’t be afraid. Whatever you do, just remember: Follow your instincts and you’ll never be wrong.
Avedon’s iconic portrait of Jacqueline, like a regal profile on a cameo or an ancient coin, was eventually published in Life. The photographer wrote that the Vicomtesse de Ribes had a perfect nose, adding,
I feel sorry for near-beauties with small noses.
Born in Paris on Bastille Day in 1929, eldest child of the Count and Countess Jean de Beaumont, Jacqueline’s childhood was shadowed by unhappiness and war. In 1948, at the age of 19, and with only two dresses to her name, she became a Viscountess when she married Édouard, Vicomte de Ribes (who became Count de Ribes in 1981), a war hero and successful banker, with whom she had two children—and daughter and a son—and to whom she remained married for 65 years until his death in 2013 at age 90.
Like five generations of her husband’s ancestors before them, they lived in a wing of the de Ribes’ 1868 town house in the Eighth Arrondissement. It was an aristocratic but ultra-conservative household. Living with Édouard’s parents meant that formality and tradition were upheld; every evening, dinner was a black tie affair; Jacqueline was forced to cancel a party she had planned on January 21 because her father-in-law considered the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI a day a mourning; and when his renegade daughter in-law invited the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, old Count de Ribes protested that “we’ve never had a divorced couple in this house!” (FYI: The count lived to be 98, [1904-2002]).
Appallingly, such strictures also extended to Jacqueline’s wardrobe; she was instructed to donate any clothes to charity that had been in her closet for a few years. 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. I was saddest to let go of my Balenciagas. I kept two Diors, but almost nothing else from the fifties or sixties, de Ribes notes.
The energetic Jacqueline was also forbidden to pursue a career. To be engaged in commerce was considered common in aristocratic circles; and the notion of a “working woman” horrified her relations. So she channeled her creativity into a series of volunteer ventures—writing a Marie-Claire fashion column under a pseudonym for two years (I gave women advice on dressing chicly for a dollar); was a patron of the arts and assisted with the décor and costumes for theatrical productions; and later managed the Ballet de Cuevas and co-produced television shows.
She also managed to exercise her talent for design by being not only a customer of couture, but also a collaborator with the fashion houses she frequented. The Countess created, in effect, a bespoke wardrobe by altering the design, colour, or fabric of the designer’s seasonal sartorial offerings to suit her own tastes. The couturiers complied. There was one fashion designer, however, de Ribes never had the nerve to meddle with: Mademoiselle Chanel.
In the 50s and 60s, de Ribes employed couture dressmakers to make clothing of her own design. She hired Oleg Cassini (famous for dressing Jackie Kennedy, who called him her Secretary of Style) to make gowns from muslin patterns she cut out in her attic, and had the young, then unknown, Valentino draw the sketches to accompany them. Amusingly, there was a constant tussle: Valentino kept putting in bows and frills and de Ribes kept taking them out.
A WOMAN OF A CERTAIN AGE
In 1982, just days after her 53rd birthday, Jacqueline sat her family down to tell them of her decision to go into business as a fashion designer, declaring that nothing they could do or say could stop her. Her husband gave his grudging consent, but refused to contribute any capital to support her enterprise, and despite warnings from her friends Yves St. Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé who “thought she was out of her mind,” she went ahead with her plan. In one courageous stroke, she defied convention to follow her dream.
Her first prêt–à–porter collection was unveiled in the Spring of 1983 in the de Ribes townhouse during Paris Fashion Week. A showing of fashion in a private home (no less one of the most famous in Paris) was unheard of. Just as unprecedented was the attendance of other designers: Yves St. Laurent, Valentino, and Emanuel Ungaro sat in the front row. Using St. Laurent’s models, lighting and sound equipment, and accessorizing with her own real jewellery, the collection was “put together with bits and pieces” according to de Ribes. A case in point signature suit, which went on to become a huge hit and was “endlessly copied”, was, in fact, designed with velvet side inset detailing because de Ribes ran out of tweed. The collection was a critical and commercial success and the new designer signed an exclusive three year deal with Saks Fifth Avenue after the debut.
Famous women began to wear her clothes including Nancy Reagan, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Barbara Walters, Cher, and Joan Collins. Jacqueline de Ribes produced her ready-to-wear collections for 12 years. It was a time when dressing well mattered.
Her evening gowns were sumptuous and sophisticated. Recurring designs motifs were one-shouldered necklines, asymmetrical draping, opulent ruffs, and grandiose bows. The back of a garment was as important as the neckline. Jacqueline de Ribes had long ago learnt that an exit was as important as an entrance.
HER STYLE, HER ART
As a little girl, Jacqueline loved to play dress-up and was forever making costumes and watching the maids working on her grandmother’s couture. Her first creation was a skirt made from a potato sack with a perfect fringe.
She transposed this early improvisational flair into adulthood but on a much much grander scale—making the most elaborate and memorable costumes for the exclusive soirees and bals masqués which were the social events of the day, if not the century.
Her dazzling creations were ingeniously and intricately constructed and sometimes even involved cutting up couture gowns to fulfill her fantastical vision. For the extravaganza she wore to Alexis de Redé’s Bal Oriental in 1969, she added sable from a cape to trim a turban, and cleverly turned a chiffon dress by Jean Dessès into a veil. A sartorial art Harold Koda likens to “fashion collage”.
The brilliant result is nothing short of a work of art: Imagine how a Victorian would picture a Mongol princess. That’s my costume, says the maker. It is little wonder that the aristocratic beauty often elicited gasps from the beau monde when she glided into a room.
Jacqueline de Ribes is often credited with being the first to mix designer pieces together, combine high with low, and juxtapose street and vintage with couture.
HOW HER LOOK EVOLVED Very slowly. Style is innate, while confidence isn’t.
I like clothes either quite crazy or terribly strict. (Vogue, December, 1959)
Hats can never be big enough. (Vogue, December, 1959)
Between 1950 and 1955, I figured out my style. The real change occurred between 1953 and 1954. It had to do with my eye makeup. Everyone said I looked like Nefertiti—I don’t, but that’s how I got the idea.
- She first appeared on The Best Dressed List in 1956 (age 28). Criterion: Good taste without extravagance or ostentation.
- Named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1962
- In 1983, voted The Most Stylish Woman in the World by Town and Country magazine
- In 1999, French designer Jean Paul Gautier dedicated his collection to her
- In 2010, she was named a Chevalier (Knight) of the French Légion d’Honneur
- Jacqueline Ribes: The Art of Style, Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, Nov. 2015-Feb. 2016
Elegance is the only beauty that never fades.
– Friend of Jacqueline de Ribes, Audrey Hepburn