Descending down one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s grand staircases, we entered as a group into the dimly lit entry of the Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibition. With the walls painted in a dark, sensuous tone and a repetitive refrain of classical music masking the buzz of the exhibition’s visitors, I possessed the distinct impression of entering a boudoir, intimate in its almost seductive, elegant exploration of one woman’s sense of style. Ushered by the architecture of the exhibition space through a rough chronology of the Countess’s life via a series of mannequins adorned in ready to wear and couture garments from de Ribes’s personal archive, visitors engaged visually with this woman’s sense of identity and its evolution from 1962 to the present.
To me, the curation of the exhibition was nothing short of impeccable since it sought, and achieved, to elicit an elusive sense of style. While certain criticisms of the wall text littered our discussion of the exhibition later that evening, I felt personally that the exhibition was a success as a visual experience for the average viewer. I will detail below the curatorial elements I believe make the exhibition a success by creating a cohesive narrative of style.
Firstly, the arrangement of the mannequins and the series of ensembles they adorned achieved a sense of individuality for each look, but also managed to subsume that individuality into a larger narrative of de Ribes’s style. Even the poses of the individual mannequins, which varied greatly in slight details such as the pose of the wrists, angle of the neck, or even orientation of the torso, reiterated the aura of uniqueness of each look, while the persistent use of black, featureless mannequins both shifted the viewer’s focus to the garments and created a sense of cohesion between the often disparate aesthetics. In sections of the exhibition with large collections of mannequins on one platform all adorned in ‘Evening Wear,’ for example, the curation clearly conveyed to the viewer the sense that each of the ensembles were moments in the lifetime of the subject. Such an approach differs from the all too common archetypal objects included in fashion and dress history exhibitions, which curators use in an attempt to allude to an entire trend, or genre, of garment making and the specific cultural and historical context from which said garment emerged. Given the darkness of the exhibition space, the curators’ decision to place the mannequins on removed platforms painted in highly luminescent silver and lit strategically from the ceiling created an ethereal, shimmering, three-dimensional background space through which the mannequins moved. Other arrangements placed the garments within specific contexts of digitized ephemera presented on a background wall composed entirely of screens. As a whole the curation created an aesthetic experience as opposed to a highly educational and informative one, which I believe is the subject of a lot of its criticism. But for the average museum visitor, I wonder if such an approach to curation is not the more successful tactic.
Ultimately, my favorite collection of objects in the exhibition composed the series entitled “Black and White for Night.” The arrangement of gorgeous black and white evening wear spanning several decades resonated not only with my academic and critical sensibilities, but also with my personal style. To me that sense of resonance underlines the exhibition’s success because the exhibition captures the often elusive concept of style and translates it into a lived visual experience for the museum visitor.