The Countess Who Flew From Her Gilded Cage

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The famous photo of her, taken by Avedon

Countess Jacqueline de Ribes didn’t wear outfits. She wore costumes. She made these fantasies by hand and drew audible gasps when entering a room. It wasn’t because she was classically beautiful, but because she was creative. She made parties famous simply by attending them, even if only for a few minutes.

Her fashions are currently being showcased at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 21st at the Anna Wintour Costume Center.

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Wintour isn’t the only Vogue editor that had fallen under her spell. Diana Vreeland spotted the countess at a party and scrambled to have her photographed the very next day by Avedon. Thinking that she needed to dress up, de Ribes went to a salon for false eyelashes and to have her hair curled, only to have Vreeland (then editor of Harper’s Bazaar) insist  she change back to the more natural creature she saw the day before. The eyelashes came off, her hair was put into a braid and the photo became famous.

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Though already a countess at birth and accustomed to some formalities, Jacqueline felt caged in my her titled but conservative husband and in-laws. Living with this extended family on a lavish estate, the stern and emotionally distant extended family were oppressive figures for Jacqueline, who longed for a creative outlet. She lived her adult life going against the tide, carefully choosing where and when to steal small freedoms. She refused to be a well-dressed wife and mother in a gilded cage. These always made the most boring of socialites.

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Once when trying to hold her husband’s hand as they were strolling Champs-Elyssses, he shook her off and told her to stop acting so “common.” Since divorce was out of the question, she weathered the cold in her marriage. Perhaps her difficult childhood helped to manage her expectations for future happiness. Jacqueline had a harrowing childhood. Her mother kissed her but once and often admonished her for her large nose and giraffe-like physique. He grandfather raised her, but died of cancer when she was but a small girl. Desperate to keep her grandfather alive, she even dressed as a nurse, a child pretending to work alongside the team of medical professionals who tended to him.

After he passed away, WWII broke out. She grew up parentless with a nanny on a remote property in France. They holed up in the cramped concierge’s quarters when the Gestapo took over the main house. They bricked in Jacqueline’s bedroom window to construct a torture chamber, and the young girl spent years hearing prisoners’ screams of agony. Not to mention seeing truck beds filled with prostitutes arrive every weekend for the Nazi soldiers.

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One of her most famous handmade costumes, from Le Bal Oriental

She was married soon after, fulfilling the role of loyal wife and loving mother. And not without providing disappointments to her in-laws with small acts of independence. Her dramatic creations for costume balls got her invited to all les grand bals, pulling her into the stratosphere of the European jet set. But perhaps the most upsetting news to her in-laws was the fact that she liked to work.

She collaborated with Pucci, was a ghost designer for Oleg Cassini and even hired a very young and penniless Italian to sketch her designs. That Italian was Valentino. She produced TV segments and created UNICEF variety shows that featured the likes of Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She even took over the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas – fulfilling her life-long love for the ballet (something her mother wanted her to take no part of).

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We can tell which one is the Countess by her air of regality

Once Jacqueline’s father-in-law passed away, she took advantage of it. There was a lift in the old-fashioned and oppressive atmosphere at the de Ribes estate. The Countess sat her family down and told them she was going to do something that was long overdue. At 53 years old, she was striking out on her own as a fashion designer, and no one would talk her out of it. Her debut fashion show was a resounding success, Women’s Wear Daily adored her. Saks Fifth Avenue immediately signed up for her collections. Dignitaries, celebrities and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan wore her designs. Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was instructed to fashion her persona after the Countess de Ribes.

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Wearing one of her own designs, in the 1980s

Vanity Fair has described her as the Last Queen of Paris. But her reign is still current. If it weren’t for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Countess de Ribes would have made the opening at the Met. This show is not to be missed, and will be gone in less than a month.

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