Jacqueline de Ribes once said, “Elegance is an attitude, a frame of mind. The attitude of elegance is also a way of behaving.”
When it comes to elegance the Comtesse de Ribes, whose clothes can now be seen at The Metropolitan Museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, is in a class by herself. She was already a legend known on both sides of the Atlantic for her originality and sense of style while still in her thirties. The elegance that she epitomized scarcely exists today.
Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Center, said that de Ribes was worried that young women today were more interested in looking sexy than elegant. De Ribes, had once said she disagreed with Christian Dior’s remark that a woman could never look sexy and elegant at the same time. “It is just more difficult, that’s all,” De Ribes declared.
Several of her creations are definitely sexy especially the sheer navy blue silk organza dress she concocted with Yves St. Laurent. It has long sleeves and a mini skirt and is see-through except at the top and bottom where something resembling a two piece bathing suit has been embroidered in navy sequins. When she first wore the dress to an opening night at the ballet, she modestly wrapped herself in a chinchilla coat. After all, “the art of being sexy is to suggest. To let people have fantasy.”
The Met is exhibiting some 60 examples of her clothes dating from 1962 to the present mostly from de Ribes’s personal collection. Her interest in fashion began when she was only six and watched her grandmother having fittings with her dressmakers.
She was a young wife in her 20’s when she was elected to the International Best Dressed List when that distinction meant something. At the time she had very few couture garments but wore mostly her own designs, realized by a dressmaker. (In those days everyone in Paris had a “little dressmaker” who could run up fantastic creations just from a sketch.) Because she couldn’t draw, de Ribes asked the designer Jean Dessès to recommend someone to illustrate her ideas. He suggested a young assistant, Valentino Garavani.
Even when she was getting her clothes from the greatest couturiers of the day, she always added her own changes of color or fabric. Many of these designers so admired her they would allow her to work with their drapers, cutters and fitters to realize her ideas. Although her creations look deceptively simple, in fact their construction is intricate with cleverly placed seams to produce the drape and fit she wanted. Unlike most clothes, which are made to be seen from either the front or the back, de Ribes’ designs were made to be seen from the sides as well.
The evening dresses that were her forte make up much of the show. Many are evidence of her wonderful sense of color. For one particularly dramatic dress in scarlet taffeta the skirt has been gathered up in tiers each secured by a bow. A long dress in apricot crèpe has a huge collar of orange feathers that are also used on the hem. She had a fondness for lavish fabrics – lace, velvet and brocade, embroidery and appliqué. Many designs are embellished with beads, sequins and glitter.
De Ribes was married at 19 to Édouard, Vicomte (later Conte ) de Ribes. Because tradition decreed that no member of the aristocracy could be in business, her dream of becoming a professional designer came to naught. Eventually after 30 years her husband allowed her to start a business although he refused to invest in it. Determined to succeed, she came to New York where she raised the money to start what became the successful design enterprise she directed from 1982 to 1995.
De Ribes cancelled her plans to come to the opening of the Met’s exhibition after last week’s tragedy in Paris. She sent a message saying. “ Comtesse de Ribes knows how much Americans share the deep sadness felt in France, which confirms the enduring bond between the two countries. She hopes the exhibition will represent the joy associated with the freedom of creation.”