Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style

By Yvonna Russell
Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style

By Yvonna Russell

"She is the pearl in the king of Poland's ear, the Queen of Sheba's tallow-drop emerald, Diane de Poitiers' crescent tiara, the Ring of the Nibelungen. She is a castle in Bavaria, a tall, black swan, a royal blue orchid," rhapsodized Yves Saint Laurent. "She" is Jacqueline de Ribes, the subject of an exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Parisian-born Jacqueline Beaumont owned two dresses when she married Édouard, Vicomte de Ribes. Long before that, during the occupation, Jacqueline and her siblings were sent to her grandfather's summer home in Hedaye with a nanny. The Scottish nanny was arrested and sent to a labor camp, and clothes and food were rationed by tickets. The children and a French governess were left to fend for themselves in a cottage, while the Gestapo lived in the main house. After her thirteenth birthday, Jacqueline was sent by her parents, Count and Countess de Beaumont, to the convent Le Oiseaux in Vermiuel.

In 1947, Jacqueline met her husband—a war hero and scion from a noble family of financiers—by chance at a friend's luncheon in Cote Basque. As the newly-married wife of the vicomte, strict rules of decorum were to be followed; work and pursuits outside the home were forbidden. She and Édouard moved in with his parents at their 19th century townhouse in the Eight Arrondissement and soon began a family. The couple had two children, Jean and Elizabeth.

Jacqueline began to push the dangerous and delicious boundaries of high society, tradition, celebrity, and reinvention. Her ascension into the highest of international social circles began when she befriended the Mexican-French heir and art patron, Charles de Bestegui. She was invited to the party of the century, his "Fete des Fetes" ball in Venice. At the time, dress party and masquerade balls of the beau monde had themes, and elaborate costumes where de rigueur.

For the "Fete des Fetes," Jacqueline arrived mysteriously with the Princesses Caetani and Colonnade in a gondola in the style of a Pietro Longhi painting—in white gowns, black masks, and costume jewels, making a stunning entrance. Luminous costumed party guests included Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, and Christian Dior, and the grand event was photographed by Cecil Beaton. Jacqueline designed her "Madwoman of Challiot" costume from shreds of couture gowns from Helene Rochas' "My Fair Lady Ball".

French stylist and socialite, Viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes, wearing evening dress and posing in ornate salon. (Photo by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
French stylist and socialite, Viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes, wearing evening dress and posing in ornate salon. (Photo by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

La grande dame embraced her new role, accepting invitations to balls around the world, including Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball," "The Patiño Ball", "La Dolce Vita Ball," "The Oriental Ball," "Come as You Desire," and the "Proust Ball." The stylish Parisian redefined l'art de vivre in her circle. Her Paris townhouse was the salon for cocktails, candlelight dinners, and an entrancing mix of writers, artists, intellectuals, royalty, celebrity, fashion icons, and government figures. Jacqueline was riding the crest of French culture as the queen of international society.

On a New York trip to attend the "Paris Ball" at The Waldorf Astoria, Jacqueline met her friend Charles de Bestegui for lunch. Her exotic beauty and grace caught the sharp eye of the legendary Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Harper's Bazaar. Vreeland dispatched Jacqueline to a photo shoot at photographer Richard Avedon's studio, where she joined an elite group of beauties: Marella Agnelli, Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley, and Gloria Guinness—photographed by Avedon, which Truman Capote coined "a gathering of swans."

More photo sittings with the best photographers in the world—including Slim Aarons, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Cecil Beaton, Robert Doisneau, and Juergen Teller—would follow, capturing her elegant profile and glamour. In 1956, she was voted to Eleanor Lambert's International Best Dressed List, and after her fourth placing, ascended to the Hall of Fame. Her couturier, Jean Desse, asked her to become his mondaine mannequin. As a much-photographed international socialite, Jacqueline could have been a walking advertisement for Jean Desse couture.

Like a star, her every move was captured at lunches, cocktails, and evenings out. She began a lifelong friendship with Desse's assistant, Valentino, who earned a few francs drawing sketches for her own fashions. Jacqueline made toiles with the help of a seamstress from Balenciaga, after cutting the patterns in the attic of her house. Oleg Cassini, whom she met at "The Knickerbocker Ball," would turn the muslin creations into a finished garment. An avid skier, Jacqueline was a regular at St. Anton, wearing her own chic ski wear. Fellow skier Emilio Pucci took notice, and she became his muse for a short time. Ever the inspiration, Jean Paul Gaultier's 1999 collection paid homage to her style, titled "Divine Jacqueline."

An adorer of the arts, Jacqueline produced ballets for the Marquis de Cuevas, French television shows, and two variety shows for UNICEF, featuring Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. She wrote a column using a non de plume for Marie Claire magazine, and on her 53rd birthday, Jacqueline struck out on her own and informed her husband, children and friend, Yves Saint Laurent, that she would start her own pret-a-porter clothing line. Using models from the house of YSL, she showed her collection of suits, dresses, and cocktail wear in her Paris townhouse. Her show held during Paris Fashion week of Spring 1983 was a critical and commercial success fou. She designed for women like herself, creating tailored suits with details in lace and velvet, dinner suits in pastel satins, cocktail dresses with seductive draping, and long, slim evening gowns with dramatic ruffles, bows, and layers.

"I'm designing for a woman with my sense of elegance," de Ribes said in People Magazine, "someone who is astonishing without creating astonishment." Orders were received from Saks Fifth Avenue, Giorgio's, and Neiman Marcus. Her clothing line was worn by high-profile clients including Barbara Walters, Cher, Joan Collins, and Nancy Reagan. But the pace of designing four collections a year was too taxing on her health, and forced her to close her company in 1985.

In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy presented her with the Légion d'Honneur for her charitable and cultural contribution to France. The award was celebrated at a dinner at her home, surrounded by her husband of 62 years and friends, including Maria Berenson, Arielle Dombasle, Bernadette Chirac, and Valentino. Costume Institute curator Harold Koda collaborated with Countess De Ribes, selecting 60 pieces of her personal wardrobe from Giorgio Armani, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Marc Bohan for House of Dior, Roberto Cavalli, John Galliano, Madame Grès, Valentino Garavani, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Ralph Lauren, Ralph Rucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Fernando Sanchez for Révillon Frères, and Emanuel Ungaro, and from her clothing line, for the exhibit.

"A close study of de Ribes's life of creative expression yields illuminating insights into her strategies of style. Her approach to dress as a statement of individuality can be seen as a kind of performance art," declares Harold Koda.

"Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style" is on view at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from November 19, 2015 through February 21, 2016.

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