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The Impeccable Hauteur of Jacqueline de Ribes
By Rozsa Gaston for The Westchester Guardian, Dec. 10, 2015

“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.”—Jacqueline de Ribes

Jacqueline de Ribes by Victor Skrebneski, 1983

Jacqueline de Ribes in her own desgin, 1983. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Victor Skrebneski, ©Skrebneski Photograph, 1983

Gift yourself this holiday season with a visit to see Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s latest exhibit. The impeccable hauteur of Parisian designer Jacqueline de Ribes is on display now through February 21, 2016 in a dazzling exhibit featuring 60 haute couture and ready-to-wear ensembles from her personal archive, dating from 1962 on. The clothes are gorgeous, unfussy, and vibrantly colorful. But the exhibit’s focus on Jacqueline de Ribes’ life and imprint on the zeitgeist of international fashion is the takeaway that will make a permanent impression on those with a thirst for refinement of both spirit and manners.

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Jacqueline de Ribes, in Christian Dior,  1959, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Roloff Beny

There are Jacquelines, then there are Jacquelines. A notable few are known for their style, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But the ne plus ultra of style goes to Jacqueline de Ribes, a Frenchwoman who defines grace and chic for all times. Unflappable sangfroid? she has it; the rest of us want it.

One can see the “intellect, rigor, and discipline that went into creating each dress,” exhibit curator and Costume Institute director Harold Koda observed in his remarks at the exhibit’s press opening on November 17.

One can also see these qualities in the ramrod straight posture and firm upward thrust of the chin of international style icon Jacqueline de Ribes in the exhibit’s many photos and photo montage show.

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Gallery View, Evening Wear © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Designer, fashion leader, theater director, television and movie producer, patron of the arts, wife and mother, she was also a crack sportswoman in her younger years. A French aristocrat, de Ribes exercises discipline to present the best version of herself to the world at all times– qualities also seen in the top echelon of blue-blooded American society.

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Photo montage from Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jacqueline, Countess de Ribe’s long-limbed litheness provides the framework for the carefully thought out performance art she exhibits in every public appearance. Born on Bastille Day, July 14, 1929, she grew up in the highest circles of French society. Upon exiting convent school, she married Vicomte Édouard de Ribes in 1948 and emerged as an international style icon during the 1950s. In 1956 she came to the attention of the international stage by making the International Best Dressed List; in 1962 de Ribes was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, where she remains.

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Gallery View, Evening Wear ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

After years of wearing haute couture by favorite designers Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Balmain, Jacqueline de Ribes began her own line in 1982. She found little support among her own social circle, with her family objecting that “an aristocratic woman doesn’t enter commerce.” Her husband finally gave his blessing, but said, “you have to raise your own money.”

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Press clipping from Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

She came to New York and did. Why was she able to succeed in New York and not in Paris?

Jacqueline de Ribes’ “biggest support was in America: that was because her lines were very clean. There is a lucidity, a clarity about what she does,” explains Koda, who spent the past year working with Countess de Ribes on her Met exhibit. The flow and lack of fuss of the clothes on display in the exhibit are notable. Her mindset was modern. She chose daytime outfits she could work in. “I am not a lady who lunches. My suits have to move. My clothes have to be comfortable. I have to be able to work,” she says.

Certain photos of Jacqueline de Ribes in one-on-one encounters with celebrities captured in the photo montage at the exhibit’s entrance are worth the visit alone. Marlon Brando appears bedazzled by Countess de Ribes as she warmly greets him. Richard Burton looks captivated as she offers him an embracing smile atop a sharply jutting chin while Elizabeth Taylor peers helplessly on; the mix of alarm and envy on her face: priceless.

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Gallery View, Black and White for Night © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“As a person she’s incredibly seductive,” Koda remarks, describing how she leans in toward her conversation partner, speaks in a soft silvery voice, and touches her throat from time to time in an “it’s just the two of us” gesture. Again, Jacqueline Onassis comes to mind.

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Gallery View, Black and White for Night © Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Does anyone want to be elegant rather than sexy?” Jacqueline de Ribes fretted to Koda while they worked together on preparing the exhibit. Most emphatically, yes. In Countess de Ribes’ own words, “The art of being sexy is to suggest. To let people have fantasy.” So timelessly true.

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Tour Eiffel, photo by Rozsa Gaston

Jacqueline de Ribes reflects the indomitable hauteur of Paris: shaken, but not stirred. Run, do not walk, to see Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. You will come away with straighter posture, a higher tilt to your chin, and a heightened sense of self-possession after immersing yourself in the life and clothing design choices of this exquisite woman.

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View of Paris from the Tour Eiffel, Photograph by Rozsa Gaston

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibition is on view from now through February 21, 2016 at the Anna Wintour Costume Center of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at E. 82nd Street, New York, New York 10028.
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Rozsa Gaston is a Bronxville author who writes playful books on serious matters. Women getting what they want out of life is one of them. Her novel Black is Not a Color is the story of Manhattan woman Ava Fodor’s quest to balance a new U.N. job and new French boyfriend while caring for her ailing Hungarian father in the final year of his life. Midwest Book Review calls Black is Not a Color “A compelling, entertaining, and deftly crafted read from first page to last.” Black is Not a Color is available on amazon.com in paperback, eBook, or audiobook editions.

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