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  1. Suzy Menkes
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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

Is Elegance Refusal?

A Life in Clothes for Jacqueline de Ribes

19 Ноября 2015

Jacqueline de Ribes on a beach with her sister in the first dress she designed - made from cutting up a potato sack! From the "Jacqueline de Ribes — The Art of Style" show at the Met Museum in New York

I have always been dubious about Coco Chanel's claim that "elegance is refusal". Coming from a woman who collected strings of jewels along with a Russian lover, the quote seems more metaphoric than real.

But as I walked around the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum, I understood Coco's phrase in relation to Jacqueline de Ribes.

The French aristocrat was on the International Best-Dressed List in her early 20s and launched her passion for fashion by ripping up a potato sack at age 10. From then on, her dress code was just one single, dashing stroke for each and every outfit.

That might be a dress, designed in her own couture studio in the 1980s — plain until she turned to reveal a bared back; or a Dior dress as simple as a kaftan — except for its vivid colours: pink, yellow, orange.

Jacqueline de Ribes designed this kaftan with jewelled collar and cuffs in the 1980s

"It's a visual essay on the essence of elegance," said curator Harold Koda, who is ending a lifetime career at the Met with this show that was six years in the making.

"In her way, she is unique," said Koda, standing beside the display of almost entirely evening dresses, each with a focus, if not a statement. For example, there might be dramatic colour to frame the long de Ribes neck; or a sweep at one shoulder to mimic her Nefertiti profile.

Celebrated for her long neck and "Nefertiti" profile, de Ribes often favoured an off-the-shoulder or open neckline to frame her famous silhouette

I give Koda full marks for bringing what could have been a stuffy exhibition to vibrant life. This is done with small gestures — such as putting a jewelled brooch in a single ear of the sculptural black mannequins — and also by the liberal use of films and photographs, including an aristocratic family album projected at the entrance.

Jacqueline, who cancelled her New York visit because of the atrocities in Paris, is one of the last of the "grandes dames" whose social position required a certain kind of dress. You didn't hang these gowns on the office coat stand, have a blow dry in your lunch break and slip into the outfit at the end of a working day.

For the Red Ball in 1981 Yves Saint Laurent made this dashing dress for Jacqueline

In the small exhibition space, Koda enlarges the background with images that catch the Comtesse's body, long and lithe, on the ski slopes; or dressed in costume party clothes with her aristocratic friends; or staging her own fashion shows in the 1980s.

A Victor Skrebneski photo of de Ribes and speed skier Leo Gasperl on a glacier in Cervinia, Italy, in the late 1950s

Born into the French aristocracy, the de Ribes lifestyle often seems impossibly grand. The final room, displaying the dress for the "Proust Ball" held by Baron Guy and Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild at the Château de Ferrières in December 1971, is supposed to show Jacqueline's skill in creating something sumptuous out of stuff in the attic. I too might be able to produce a masterpiece, if faced with an orange silk Valentino couture gown to chop up. (Jacqueline Kennedy had the same gown in green.)

For the famous Proust ball, de Ribes cut up existing clothes - including a Valentino dress that she and Jacqueline Kennedy both chose - Jackie’s green and Jacqueline’s orange

This section could have done with some interviews to explain the lure of costume parties and the allure of their guests.

But maybe it is tough, with today's female emancipation and success in the work place, to make much of galas where sex-pot film star Brigitte Bardot faced off social dynamo Marie-Hélène.

Countess Jacqueline de Ribes concocted this gown for the Bal Oriental in 1969

Harold Koda succeeds in telling a story through clothes: the lonely, loveless childhood of Jacqueline de Ribes, whose first demand for beauty was to insist that her nanny give her a more attractive bowl to throw up in during a boat trip.

By the end of the show, which starts in the middle of her cosseted life, it is easy to feel that the clothes on display are her dear friends. The timeless chic is proved by a line-up of three almost identical draped dresses by Yves Saint Laurent. The original was made in 1983, the others at the start of the new millennium. I could barely tell the charming trio apart.


De Ribes preparing the catwalk show for her own fashion line

De Ribes has been quoted as saying, "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." Which they doubtless do - but with glamour

Watercolour by Alexandre Serebriakoff of Jacqueline de Ribes at the Bal Oriental in 1969

"Very early on, before it was generally done, I liked to mix my ensembles" de Ribes says

Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes getting ready for a party in Paris, 1962. Photograph by Richard Avedon, Courtesy of the Richard Avedon Foundation

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in the front row at Jacqueline de Ribes’ fashion show for her own label

The famous "Nefertiti" profile on the cover of Town and Country magazine. The dress is from Jacqueline de Ribes’ own label

From a selection of evening gowns on display at the de Ribes exhibition at the Met

From a selection of evening gowns on display at the de Ribes exhibition at the Met

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