TWO WOMEN AND their very different styles are the subjects of exhibitions at the Palais Galliera in Paris and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fashion Regained: The Treasured Dresses of Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, and Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style reveal the fascinating allure of two unsung icons of 19th-and 20th-century fashion, celebrating their remarkable lives and characters through their personal couture collections.
Immortalised by Marcel Proust as the Duchess of Guermantes in his seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952) was the cousin of Robert de Montesquiou and a key figure in Parisian society at the turn of the 20th century. A patron of important artistic figures such as Wagner and Diaghilev and a supporter of Marie Curie's groundbreaking scientific research, the countess welcomed the crème de la crème of Paris in her salon, delighting guests with her highly choreographed appearances, which often involved layers upon layers of tulle and feather, and exquisite kimono jackets or velvet coats by the likes of Mariano Fortuny, Charles Worth and Jeanne Lanvin, displayed in the Galliera show.
Also a Parisian, de Ribes, who later moved to New York, was part of the coterie of “swans” celebrated by Truman Capote in 1959. One of the best-dressed women of her generation, she was close to designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and was fond of cutting up her haute couture gowns, turning them into one-of-akind creations that stole the show at the fancydress balls she often attended. De Ribes even founded her own short-lived fashion house in the '80s and was photographed by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. The exhibition features creations by designers such as Pierre Balmain, Valentino Garavani and Jean-Paul Gaultier, who actually dedicated to her an entire couture collection, aptly named “Divine Jacqueline”, in 1999.
A far cry from recent blockbuster exhibitions mounted to attract large crowds, these two shows quietly shed light on two remarkable figures who defy the over-used stereotype of “fashion icon”.