NEW YORK — She knew her angles. Her best assets were her almond-shape eyes, her lithe figure and her spectacular nose — prominent, with a slight bump and, in profile, rather regal.
She was a leisure-class beauty who devoted her days to philanthropy and culture. And along the way, she mastered the art of creating a public image, capturing the imagination of the fashion establishment and high society. Haute couture was her favored costume, and she accumulated a fine wardrobe of it, delighting in names such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and Balmain.
She loved fashion so much that, after she’d established herself as a fashion icon, she created her own line of clothes.
The résumé of Jacqueline de Ribes, born into an aristocratic family in Paris in 1929, is similar to those of modern fashion stars, the bold-face names who distinguish themselves from the rest of the celebrity pack with well-chosen designer frocks, who build out empires by collecting followers on social media.If there had been reality television in the post-World War II years, de Ribes would have been an irresistible star..
But by at least one key measure, she would have been a ratings disappointment.
Today’s fashion users and abusers are more likely to exploit a fancy party — or the red carpet leading to one — as a personal branding opportunity. A throng of photographers is a free advertising opportunity. A gala makes a great Instagram post.
But de Ribes had a different understanding of what it meant to attend a grand social occasion. Her presence at a gala was in service to the event. She was there to uplift it, not to wait to be entertained. She was there to contribute to the spectacle — not to be one. And with that simple act of generosity, she stands apart from so many of her contemporary counterparts.
“Balls were not for one’s amusement, they were for being ravishing.” — de Ribes
“Jacqueline de Ribes: Art of Style,” at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Feb. 21, explores her public life and fashion savvy and reminds us that beauty has always been invaluable — but in the past, we voyeurs got something out of the exchange.
The Met exhibition includes examples of couture from de Ribes’s favored designers, such as Saint Laurent, Valentino and Emanuel Ungaro. When she chose their pieces for her personal wardrobe, she often altered them. Not just adding a few inches to a hemline, but substantially changing the mood of the clothes. She substituted black sequin sleeves on a Saint Laurent dress that was originally designed with gold ones. She bought the skirt from an Armani Privé ensemble and paired it with her own hip belt and simple turtleneck. She didn’t simply wear the clothes; she didn’t give in to a stylist. She defined and owned her look.
De Ribes, who lives in Paris, had significant input in how the clothes in the exhibition were styled. They were selected by the institute’s curator in charge, Harold Koda, but de Ribes invested them with her personality. She was conscious of appearing too fussy. She loved playing dress-up — mixing high style with mass-market selections. But she did not want to be ostentatious.
“I never throw things out because they are old. I wear my favorite clothes until they are indecent.” – de Ribes
In 1982, de Ribes launched her own collection. It reflected her taste, and the clothes looked especially stylish when she wore them, as they benefited from her elongated posture and keen understanding for what photographed just right. But it is one thing to make changes to an existing gown; it is more challenging to create garments out of whole cloth, as no small number of celebrity designers today have learned. And the de Ribes designs in the exhibition suffer in comparison with the work of her more accomplished colleagues.
“When I was a small child, there were two women I admired. One was a friend of my mother’s who was an ambassadress. The other was Coco Chanel. It seems I always wanted to be a designer.” – de Ribes
De Ribes was considered one of the era’s great beauties in large part because writer Truman Capote, a great admirer of the era’s social swans, declared her to be one. Today, the Internet makes such declarations, and we don’t take them quite so seriously. Still, there remain those women — and men — who are held up as emblematic of a particular moment. And the beauty we herald tells us something about our times.
“Elegance. 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.” — de Ribes
De Ribes was an aristocrat with a striking face. Her profile had personality. She was lean and projected a certain aloof self-confidence. The swans of the Internet — Kim Kardashian, Gigi Hadid, et al. — are not aristocratic, although some of them have emerged from well-to-do families. They have us believe that we have an intimate, best-friend relationship with them. They overshare.
It is easy to look back on de Ribes’s particularly photogenic life — and the exhibition is filled with personal souvenirs of her with famous friends such as director Luchino Visconti and actors Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — and find cultural import. How did this aristocratic woman express herself within her highly codified life? Fashion was her creative outlet. It was also a form of etiquette, a sign of her attentiveness to her surroundings, a nod to dignity and a declaration of social stature.
But more than anything, the exhibition shows us how little our culture has changed since de Ribes’s glory years. Media has magnified celebrity, allowing us to see its flaws, its superficial coarseness. But beauty is still power in our modern culture. It always has been. De Ribes simply wielded hers with more grace.