Showcasing 60 or so ensembles from Countess Jacqueline de Ribes’ wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style visually traces the life of de Ribes, a Parisian-born aristocrat whose sense of style and unconventional approach to dress had captivated the (high) society of her day. Now 87 and living in Paris, most of the gowns on display stem from the Countess’s personal archive and span the early 1960s to the present. These are arranged in a series of tableaux from daywear, eveningwear (the bulk of clothing on display), her own designs, to the exotic costumes she devised for dramatic entrances at masked balls. A devoted client and friend of the couturiers of her time, de Ribes was renowned for asking for specific modifications on the couture gowns she ordered, making her own adjustments, combining ‘high and low’ (although ‘low’ seems an ill-suited term for the ready-to-wear de Ribes purchased), and finally launching her own design business in the early 1980s.
Despite the constraints of an aristocratic milieu in which women’s accomplishments were limited to figuring in ‘Best dressed lists’ – something de Ribes mastered early on, entering Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list in 1956 – the Countess found in fashion a way of channeling her independence and creativity, which would culminate in the launch of her own brand ‘Jacquelines de Ribes’ in 1982. Yves Saint Laurent had encouraged her to re-consider: ‘He told me I would suffer too much.’ Her husband reluctantly consented, yet resisted risking his own money in the venture. If de Ribes had stood as ‘a muse to haute couture designers,’ she exceeded that role on many levels. It is a point that the exhibition seeks to make, emphasizing her unique sense of style, her role as designer, and her different endeavors in theater, television, interior decorating, and charity events.
Yet for all its attempts to convey a more complex portrait of de Ribes, the exhibition falls back at times onto the long-worn tropes that precisely reduce women to the passive role of muse. Introducing her through the lens and pen of Richard Avedon and Truman Capote as one of the ‘swans’ of ‘impeccable elegance,’ the opening panel fails to clearly frame the issues at stake. There is a certain blurriness between her historical characterization and the discourse through which she is ‘advertised’ to the exhibition viewers: the panel notes her ‘precocious sophistication,’ ‘aura of exoticism,’ and ‘innate and self-taught talents,’ seemingly conflating at times her sense of style with an idealized (elite) femininity, and therefore playing to the allure that such discourses arguably retain today. Dramatic lighting effects and a classical music score only further obscure (quite literally) the exhibition’s critical engagement with the material on view. Put forward as a sort of conclusion, quotes from de Ribes that thrive on the classic fashion-elegance-style triumvirate stand as a final blow to a well-intended goal.
It is regrettable that exhibition does not attempt to unpick the loaded implications of de Ribes’ characterizations at the time, but rather ambiguously draws on them. This is despite the exhibition’s focus on de Ribes as a designer, and as a ‘wearer’ – someone who retains agency in asserting a personal identity through fashion, momentarily alleviating the weight of social prescriptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has noted ‘the past contains the resources to much more than the present.’ By addressing that past less obliquely, the Jacqueline de Ribes exhibition could have done more than thrust us back into a time capsule of glamour.
Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Histories of a Feminist Future ,’ Signs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feminisms at a Millennium (Summer, 2000), p. 1019.
Tags: exhibition; glamour; couture; style; Jacqueline de Ribes; MET