The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York commences its autumn exhibition on November 18, 2015 with a display based on the iconic international style of the so-called ‘Last Queen of Paris’* Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes (b.1929-) renowned for her natural grace.
Now 86, she is reported as remembering her grandmother telling her ‘Have your portrait done either when you’re very young or very old – the worst is the middle!’
Considered one of the great fashion personas of the 20th century in Europe, the show starting November 19 – February 21, 2016, will feature sixty of Countess Jacqueline’s haute couture costumes, ready-to-wear garments and stunning fancy-dress creations, many dating back to the late fifties.
Photographs and ephemera will aid in telling the story of how her interest in fashion grew and evolved over the decades from “dress-up” games as a child to her becoming considered the epitome of international style.
On view in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, her own pieces will be showcased alongside gowns by such luminary names in the world of fashion as Giorgio Armani, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Marc Bohan for Dior, Roberto Cavalli, John Galliano, Madame Grès, Valetino, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Guy Laroche, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro.
In 1999, Jean Paul Gaultier dedicated his haute couture collection to her with the title “Divine Jacqueline”
The eldest child of the Count and Countess Jean de Beaumont, Jacqueline made her entrance to the world on Bastille Day 1929, the anniversary of the day when many of her ancestors had lost their heads in the French revolution.
This incident seems to have been prophetic and was revisited in 2010 as Countess Jacqueline received the Légion d’Honneur from French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he gave thanks to the lady, who with her philanthropic and cultural contributions to France, had stirred up a little revolution of her own.
Elegant and controversial, Countess Jacqueline has been throughout her lifetime recorded for posterity by such great artists as Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon among other great photographers.
During the German occupation of France in World War II she and her siblings suffered greatly under the Nazi occupation of France until they were liberated by the Americans.
She met Christian Dior shortly after he opened his first salon in 1947, taken by her uncle to visit his friend. This was the year she also met her husband, who came from a family of financiers.
Married in February 1948, Jacqueline recorded that she only owned two dresses, had never worn makeup, gone to a hairdresser, or worn heels,”.
Having been unhappy as a child she was hoping marriage would change all that.
However it seems her husband was so bound down by formality and tradition and although it would prove to be difficult, it has proved enduring.
As many women of her age, traditions attached to both her families status when she married, precluded Countess Jacqueline from becoming a career woman.
An independent spirit, she channelled her energy and creativity into a series of ventures, which were linked by fashion, theatre, and style and included organizing international charity events.
Travelling to New York for the Paris Ball, at the Waldorf-Astoria in the early 50’s when staying at the Sherry-Netherland while her husband Édouard attended a meeting on Wall Street, Countess Jacqueline lunched tête-à-tête with Charles de Beistegui.
He was an eccentric multi-millionaire art collector and interior decorator and one of the most flamboyant characters of mid-20th-century European life, his own lifestyle and lavish parties aligned with that of the ‘Count of Monte Cristo’
Diana Vreeland the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar at the time came over from a nearby table to greet her friend and to meet his youthful sphinx-like companion with the impossibly long neck and exaggerated almond eyes.
‘We’d like Avedon to take your photo tomorrow’ she asked the Countess.
The next morning Jacqueline went to the hairdresser, added false eyelashes and curled her hair but Diana was not happy.
She wanted her newly found star to be how she had been the day before and so peeled off the eyelashes, combed out the hair and made her a huge braid and the picture became famous in the fashion world.
Countess Jacqueline attributed Vreeland as teaching her confidence and helping her to become authentic.
A renowned philanthropist Countess Jacqueline swam, skated, skied, danced and was considered by friends a born actress, making her friends parties famous with the stylish ‘entrances’ she made.
Her husband was often unhappy about her ‘extracurricular activities’
The Countess has been a theatrical impresario, television producer and interior designer.
Her own fancy dress creations became famous for their originality and were often made by cannibalizing haute couture gowns to create unexpected expressions of her own aesthetic.
“When everyone still cared about the way they dressed,” said Jayne Wrightsman, “everyone wanted to dress like Jacqueline and look like her.”
Countess Jacqueline has in her lifetime been a known muse to many haute couture designers.
So much so they placed their drapers, cutters, and fitters at her disposal, as an acknowledgment of their esteem and respect for her own taste and originality.
After appearing on the International Best-Dressed List five times she was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Ultimately, Countess Jacqueline used her own talent and experience to create her own successful design business. At her first season fashion show Yves Saint Laurent, Ungaro and Valentino were all sitting in the front row, at a time when designers did not attend each other’s shows.
Her collection was a critical and commercial hit and Saks Fifth Avenue signed her to a three-year exclusive contract. They suited the era that loved opulent, dignified glamour. In 1983 she was voted the ‘Most Stylish Woman in the World’ by Town and Country.
“Her evening dresses are spectacularly beautiful,” Bernadine Morris wrote in The New York Times in 1986. “ … Their shapes are lean and willowy, like the designer herself.”
She directed her design house from 1982 to 1995 when during a period of difficulty the subsequent stress rendered her exhausted and extremely ill. To complicate matters, she not only fell victim to celiac disease but also was unable to walk for over two years and was forced to dissolve the company.
When receiving her award in 2010 in a toast her husband Edouard joked that when he met Jacqueline she had only two dresses, but that “life improved a little for her, because she now has 200.” Although it is known now that it is more than double that figure.
Jacqueline began conserving her purchases back in the 70s.
Her collection hangs on industrial rolling racks with each garment enclosed in a custom-made zippered bag, equipped with a plastic-windowed pocket into which a snapshot of the outfit has been inserted.
Affixed to each garment bag are colored stickers inscribed with numbers, making it easier for the curator Harold Koda to make his choices for The Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective.
Her accessories including a fabulous family diamond tiara and other jewellery, as well as bags, belts and shoes are all integral to The Costume Institute show. Her vintage Hermés crocodile purse has a tiny coronet as its clasp, reflecting her aristocratic heritage despite such titles not being appointed in France during the last 220 years.
Jacqueline de Ribes stunning costumes have been worn in the most sensational of settings in the world, including, the Palazzo Labia a Baroque palace at Venice, The White House in Washington DC, the ruins of Baalbek, the Rothschild palace Ferrière, Alexis de Redé’s glorious Hôtel Lambert, and more recently at the Colosseum in Rome for the couture Valentino’s well-documented farewell dinner.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Anna Wintour Costume Centre,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,