The premier cultural event of the New York season is at the Metropolitan Museum, and I am happy to report that it has neither relevance nor redeeming social value. Hallelujah!
This event is a display of clothing of Comtesse Jacqueline De Ribes, the grande dame French fashion icon of the past six decades. The show is occupying the Costume Institute space at the Met – now called something like the “Anna Wintour Wing,” which, while not quite what it was when it was the “Diana Vreeland Wing”, is still the most amusing part of the august Metropolitan.
There was to have been a black-tie dinner in the museum on November 18th celebrating the opening of the exhibit. The Paris terror attacks five days earlier scotched that event, with the Comtesse deciding it would not have been fitting to leave the city at such a time. What people don’t know, because it has not been reported in the press, was that a clandestine dinner went ahead that evening in the Jean-Georges restaurant in the Mark Hotel. It was presided over by the son of de Ribes, and attended by 60 swells, who had earlier taken a peek at the costumery. Jacqueline was unable to fly to New York, but she didn’t want her old pals to go unfed, and they did not. (We hear that at the dinner, her son expressed his mother’s regrets for her absence, and a guest replied, “No problem. A saint does not attend her own beatification.”)
Bergotte has had mixed reactions to the shows in the Costume Institute over the last few years. They have ranged from “rapturous” – the display of funeral garb from the 19th Century, which was fashion history at its best (and the mourning evening gowns of Queen Alexandra were so fabulous that one wanted, literally, to die) and “spectacular” – the show devoted to the American mid-century designer Charles James, which could have been billed as a sculpture exhibit, so structured and layered were the clothes—to the “awful” and the “more awful”.
The latter categories include the recent show on Chinese influence on Western fashion and the Alexander McQueen tribute. I must be terribly wrong for loathing both, because they were among the highest attended shows in Met history; nevertheless, they were, indeed, awful.
The China show was commercial and glitzy and put together for no discernible (to me) reason. In the word of Marlene Dietrich: quatsch. The only parts I liked were the film clips from “The World of Suzy Wong”. The McQueen show was ghastly, misogynistic, morbid – and yes, very inventive. The evening I went I noticed the highest percentage of gaysians I have ever encountered. McQueen was not for me, but I’m not everyone.
The de Ribes show is another story entirely. Pure French decadent folly, on a level so sublime as to make other, more “serious” shows, seem dowdy and didactic and dull. Bergotte has a particular interest in the Proustian connection to the Comtesse: though the maitre is mentioned numerous times in the descriptive and provenance notes of the show, not once is the most important fact revealed: it was in the salon of Count Etienne De Beaumont, the aesthete and ball giver who was Jacqueline’s uncle, that Proust caught the cold that killed him. Research, people!
The 60-piece exhibition is an amalgam of couture clothing by great designers (including Pierre Balmain, Fernando Sanchez, Norma Kamali, and Ralph Rucci) and designs by Mme. de Ribes herself. The most interesting items are a combination of the two: gowns designed by a couturier, but modified with instructions from de Ribes. She knew what worked for her, and the other designers knew she was right – or perhaps just wanted to see her wearing their creations, however modified.
In fact, many of the dresses are truly hideous, and could have been worn only by the creature herself at a very special event where they would not look at all ridiculous. Some of the items from the ‘60s – well!
But the final room, with three fancy dress costume ball gowns, attains a level of decadence hitherto unknown at the Costume Institute, or anywhere else for that matter. You will never be the same after seeing these get-ups. Bergotte had to repair to his chaise lounge for the rest of the day.
I have been fascinated by the Vicomtesse since beginning to read of That World in the mid ‘70s. (And by the way – why is she referred to sometimes as a “Comtesse” and sometimes as a “Vicomtesse?” Is it because she was born the daughter of a Comte, and then married a Vicomte, who was then elevated to Comte himself upon the demise of his father? And how sad – and sick – is it that not only does no one know the answer, but that I feel the need to know.) Whatever title she sports, her stunning appearance and otherworldly aura are indelible and unforgettable.
The finery of Jacqueline de Ribes is at the Metropolitan Museum, for your edification and delectation, until February 21st. Bring your smelling salts.