After fifteen years at the helm of The Met’s famed Costume Institute, Curator Harold Koda is on the cusp of retirement. His final show, Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, will open on November 19th. In his curatorial practice, Koda’s examined the world of fashion from a great many angles, but remained consistent in his approach, never repeating himself and finding novel ways to put the present in conversation with the past. We spoke with Koda about Jacqueline de Ribes as both a fashion plate and a designer, what it takes to be a fashion icon, the steady rise of the costume exhibition, and why he loves Thom Browne’s suits. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Header photograph by Francesco Scavullo, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What is it about Mademoiselle de Ribes that makes her such a fascinating subject?
Jacqueline de Ribes is one of a handful of women that was designated as a “swan” by Richard Avedon and Truman Capote in their book Observations. The Countess herself bridles at this designation because she says it was so reductive, and it was just beautiful, wealthy women, and it doesn’t focus at all on the fact that many of them were quite accomplished professionally. So, she doesn’t like to be categorized like that. But, really, the Costume Institute looks at Western high-fashion from all kinds of different angles, and one of the reason why she’s interesting to us is specifically because of the strong presence, the vivid presence she had as a fashion personality from the 1950s onward.
The other thing that’s so compelling about her, perhaps more so than some of the other women that were on that list, is the way that she has moved from the New Look in the 1940s and ‘50s, through the mod ‘60s, the hippie, disco ‘70s, and then came into her own as a designer in the 1980s when she finally took a stand and said, “I want to do this.” She had worked behind the scenes in theatre and fashion, but she said, “I want my own design house.” It’s fascinating to see how her style in each period is seen as being so distinctive and yet so of its time.
Whatever strategy she had to create this kind of consistency of being at the forefront of fashion and yet never a victim of fashion, I think is what the exhibition is going to try to tease out. It’s difficult to do, but I wanted to deconstruct her approach to personal style with the idea that it might yield certain ideas about timelessness and elegance, which is completely contrary to the notion of seasonal and annual change in fashion.
That’s fascinating. So, she’s almost a one-woman retrospective of the latter half of the 20th century.
The sad thing is, up until the mid-1960s, she gave all her couture dresses to charity. She later gave many pieces to couture houses who were beginning to accumulate their own archives, but before that, she gave them to charity, so we can’t really locate them. The representation of her in the ‘50s up until the early ‘60s is going to be primarily through photographs, and also through magazines that we have from the Irene Lewis Costume Reference Library.
My understanding is that she not only that she gave away a lot of her couture pieces, but she also modified her own. Is that accurate?
Yes. Well, you know, every couture client, if they have a privileged relationship with the house, is able to modify, somewhat, a design. For example, there was a woman in New York named Mildred Hilson who had really remarkable bracelets, so all of her Givenchy dresses — she was very loyal to Givenchy — would always have bracelet-length sleeves, no matter what the length. If there were sleeveless dresses, she had sleeves put on that were bracelet-length. With couture, you can modify it somewhat.
What is so distinctive about the relationship Jacqueline had with the contour houses is many of the designers respected her eye so much that in certain instances — we have one piece in which Marc Bohan instructs his atelier to create a design of Jacqueline’s in the Dior atelier. That is unprecedented. I don’t know of any client that is given access to a couture atelier to create one of her designs. It’s both about the the generosity of Bohan and about his respect for her taste.
Could you tell me a bit more about her as a designer?
When I first saw her collection, she had shown me several racks of her own work and I realized that, with the absence of some of the early pieces, the most interesting narrative that I could construct would be of her as a child and young woman who really was DIY. She really created costumes for herself as a young, married Parisienne. She worked with a dressmaker, and when she was first elected to the international best-dressed list she only had a handful of couture garments, and yet she was already — and this is the mid-1950s — cutting such a wide swath through fashion circles that she was noticed. Up until that point, she was really creating her own stuff. But it comes full circle in the ‘80s when she’s able to have her own design house, and I thought it would be easier for the public to see her selective eye from the time that she became a client of couture. And I don’t doubt that being a client really refined her technique and her understanding of fit, shaping, and draping. She has this photographic memory about construction that is really remarkable. She already had her aesthetic in place, but by being a client of couture, she’s able to refine her abilities as a creator of couture.
She could certainly say what she wanted in terms of how it would look, but how would be made is really something that takes real study. And when you see her — we have some footage of her working as a designer — she really does know how to fit without ever having gone to the Chambre Syndicale school. This is someone who had innate talents that became refined over the course of years. By the time she opens her house in the early 1980s, her collections are really fully-formed. The aesthetic is established, she uses couture fabrics, the way she approaches a design is very rarely front-to-back. She really is concerned with how a woman looks in the round, so, frequently, there is a back interest that is as important as the view from the front. There are certain ideas about self-presentation that come out of her own attitudes as someone who was photographed by all the great photographers of the 20th century.
Interesting that she was DIY from day one. Something you hear about a lot of really great designers is a precocious, advanced for their age–
Yes, but with designers, frequently you hear about them sketching, but what’s interesting about Jacqueline is she’s making. She’s not fantasizing about a dress, what she’s doing is she’s actually getting her bedroom curtains and taking them down and turning them into a medieval costume. She really is very hands-on.
She’s done a book that represents all of the pieces that are in the show. She was styling the mannequins, and when you see her working, you see the perfectionism, the attention to detail, and also the understanding of what fabric can do comes across. Give her pins and she can make fabric do anything she wants.
What a luxury to be able to stage an exhibition on someone who is there to help shape it.
Well, it’s important. She can’t curate it, that has to be me, but when you have the creator present… For example, she showed me a photograph of herself after a dinner with fancy dress. It wasn’t masquerade costume, it was just very festive, and it wasn’t meant to be day clothes, it was fancy dress. She put together this outfit as a woman pirate, as she put it, “a lady corsair.” I saw that and I said, “How often do you do this?” Because it was so incredible. She said, “Well you know, I’ve done several,” and so she’s recreated them. It’s very high-low. It has John Galliano couture stuff mixed in with Ralph Lauren and Roberto Cavalli, and things from this fast fashion place called Cache, which is really cheap stuff but what she does is she takes this white lace blouse and she buys it in two sizes and overlays them, and then they look couture. She has an eye, and she has the confidence of someone who is able to make decisions really based on that sort of visual acuity.
The subtitle of the exhibition is The Art of Style.
Yes, and I have to say, that’s me. That is not Jacqueline. She thinks it’s so prosaic. But the whole reason for this show, for me, is how do you understand a woman’s approach to dressing that is so successful that it transcends all these different years? It’s about style, it’s about an individual approach to dressing that somehow is beyond fashion.
It seems almost like alchemy to me, the way someone like Jacqueline can take getting dressed and really make it something that is… beyond.
I’ve been privileged in my role as a curator to meet a number of these really great women of style. You have to remember, what we get as the public is their public self. This is a public persona. We don’t know what their lives are like. It’s what we see when they’re going out. We don’t see them at an intimate dinner party with their family and friends. We just see a version of red carpet, coming out of the Four Seasons and whatever. It’s a very blindered view of these women.
But what I’ve noticed in actually seeing them and talking to them and knowing them is that it requires real intelligence to be a fashion icon. There’s a conceptual underpinning and understanding of history that is necessary to do it really well. It’s not just following trends. What it is is understanding yourself, so there has to be the kind of self-reflection and knowledge about what is good for you, what to take out of a contemporary trend or phenomenon and apply in a way that makes you au courant without giving up your essential identity. That really takes smarts. We think dressing is just narcissism and play, and it is, I mean, it’s a great joy for these women because it’s creative. Any kind of creative expression is satisfying. But the part that is distinctive about their creative play is that it’s so intelligent.
Which is why I have the hubris to think that I can deconstruct it a little bit. Any of the things that I extract from what I think is her strategy of dressing, she would show me ten things that would probably be exceptions to what I’m saying. But that’s also part of the point. You can’t codify it in such a way because the very idea of a fashion icon is they can’t be codified. They don’t go to the default of what you expect. They are always surprising. The whole thing is, she said, “I never like to be told what to do,” and so her whole approach is a certain kind of resistance. Playing within the rules but pushing self-expression.
Sounds like you’re describing a great horn player or something.
Well, she’s been described by one of her friends is a fashion DJ because of all of her risks, and sampling, and mixing it all up.
Do you think she has a modern-day equivalent?
I thought about that, and there are, but we’re in a whole different world now. Now, it’s really about celebrity, and what we follow in terms of a vividly-ascribed idea of fashion are the most extreme examples of fashion, because it’s runway stuff, and it’s red carpet, and it’s celebrities. Where I think you might find people who are like Jacqueline are the ones that are photographed by people like Bill Cunningham or Scott Schuman or Tommy Ton. And of those, it’s a handful, because there a lot of people I would consider fashion followers. They look great, but they’re dressing in fashion.
But there are, in that group, a number of women and men who have an independent look, who concede to fashion but never drown in fashion, which is the big risk. I think it exists, but the whole idea of elegance even seems like… Does any young woman want to be elegant? I don’t know. I don’t think so.
The touchstones are different. During your tenure at the costume Institute, it seems like fashion has become not necessarily a more visible part of popular culture, but maybe a more valued part of popular culture. People seem to appreciate it more — I’m thinking of the success of China: Through the Looking Glass. To what do you attribute this growth and interest?
Maybe to the outside world it seems like it’s only been in the last few years, but it’s been happening since the ‘70s and the ‘80s. I think in the ‘70s, there was a sense that costume shows could generate a lot of public interest, but it’s in the 1980s when you start to have gallerists who are wearing Chanel suits, artists who were going to Comme des Garçons, that there was this kind of crossover, with some artists actually using fashion and identity in their practice.
Basquiat walking in Comme des Garçons.
If you think about the 1950s and New York Abstract Expressionists, they would have found fashion anathema. But by the 1980s, it wasn’t so siloed. The definitions of creative expression had eroded conventional ideas about what constitutes high art or applied art. As long as it was conceptually driven, it was interesting. You can have somebody like Rei Kawakubo or Martin Margiela by the end of the decade that had real validity to traditional art people.
Even photography until relatively recently, the last four decades, was not really considered an art form. As the definitions expanded, I think we’ve benefited. By the 1990s, a lot of other institutions, seeing the success of what was happening in New York both at FIT and at the Met, began to take more interest in fashion. The design museums have always had it. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Palais Galliera, which is part of the Paris Musées, always had an extraordinary costume collection and program, as the Victoria and Albert always did. But in terms of fine art museums, it really ramped up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The curator, both the profession and the word, is enjoying some pop-culture notoriety.
I know, you go into any boutique and it’s curated.
Do you have any thoughts as to why this might be? Why we have, as a culture, have seized on it?
I think that it’s great. What it implies is a greater self-consciousness in the decisions we make about our environment and our physical world. That those experiences are edited and selected, and also that there is a conceptual underpinning to those selections, not just purely aesthetic. That what we’re doing is surrounding ourselves with a kind of physical narrative about our lives. So, I think all of that is good. For me, what it really is is another way of saying that people are now more interested in connoisseurship, looking at the quality of things. I think it’s great. Self-consciousness about those kinds of decisions is actually helpful in terms of creating a more visually interesting world, I think. As long as everybody doesn’t subscribe to the same curatorial practices.
Looking back at your work at the Costume Institute, do you feel that there’s been a central thread that’s run through the exhibitions you’ve curated? Is there a quintessential quality to a Harold Koda exhibition?
One thing is we try not to repeat ourselves. The great thing about our particular field is, unlike some of the other art areas, is that we’re not encumbered by a methodology or overriding practice. We can change it around a lot. We’re an art museum, so it ultimately has to be about the design, but we can take an approach that’s more social history, we can look at technique and construction, we can look at prevailing aesthetics, period forms. We can play around with a lot. That’s what sort of characterizes it.
If you look at the shows that I’ve done since 2000, there’s very little repetition. Even when we’ve done shows about contemporary designers, they’re paired with the historical. That’s the second aspect. I like to do shows where history is being given a kind of contemporary relevance. I want people who are not that interested in what happened in the 18th century to somehow get sucked into it because we’ve presented it in a way that really resonates with them today. With contemporary designers, what we really like to do is to underscore the fact that they’re part of a continuing narrative of history. That there are precedents, that they’re either in concordance with or reacting against historical precedent. We try to anchor the present in the past and pull the past into the present.
One thing that I learned about you when I was researching for this interview was that you took some time away from the art world to study landscape architecture.
Yes, I had a midlife crisis! I had been doing this for so long, and when was in my late ‘40s I thought I could have a whole other career, because I feel like the arc of a career can really happen in 15 years. If you’re reasonably competent at anything, you can have a very successful arc of a career in 15 years.
I like a variety of things. I like science. I like biology, especially. I like environmental things, I like, of course, aesthetics, and I’m engaged by history. So, I thought if I took landscape architecture, I could make things, first of all. It’s not a study that’s only about reading and researching, it’s also about making things, and drawing things, and learning CAD. So, I thought that would be fun, but my application of all of that was anchored in what I had been doing. I thought I could take my curatorial background with an understanding of issues related to landscape and environment and apply it to historic sites.
Well, it didn’t happen. I came back here.
Did what you studied when you were occupied with landscape architecture somehow impacted the way you approached your work as a curator?
Somebody else externally might say so, but I really don’t think so. What you bring to everything you do is yourself. I existed before my study in landscape architecture, and landscape architecture became stuff I learned, but I remained the same person. So, I can’t really parse out those things that changed in terms of my approach. When I came back, I was enriched by the experience but I don’t know if it informed the way I approached costume studies. If anything, I think how I existed before as a costume curator filtered my learning as a landscape architect.
I’m not somebody who came into the program as a 24 year-old. I was older than the director of the program. I take my three years as the GSD as the longest, most expensive vacation I’ve ever had. Because for me, the most self-indulgent thing is to pursue studies of something that interests you. I think that’s the greatest luxury.
Some would say experiences are the only true luxury, so, you picked a good one. One very final question: I also read recently that you tend to favor Thom Browne suits. I’m wondering what about them speaks to you.
I love Thom Browne suits when they’re on Thom Browne people. They’re tall, they’re thin, there is a kind of subversive aspect to the fit, because they’re all shrunken in terms of proportions. So, I love that, but I’m, very, very conservative sartorially. I’m boring in the way I dress. I love grey suits. Of course, I have other components in my wardrobe, but for work, it’s very much a repetitive theme. The irony is I go to Thom Browne, who does such a provocative kind of menswear, but because of my proportions, I put on the suits and they’re not short on me! They just fit. So, part of the reason why I adore his clothes is that there is this impression of a transgressive address of masculinity, but on me, they just look like really well-fitted grey suits. So, I’m getting it both ways, right? I get the association with wearing Thom Browne, which is edgy, and yet I’m getting to be myself, which is really anonymous.
What more can you ask for from a designer?
Well, you know, a friend has actually become creative director of Gieves & Hawkes in London and I’ve ordered some bespoke suits and… It’s remarkable. I really don’t need suits, but to go through the process… I love construction. That’s my big love in terms of fashion. All the other stuff is fine, but what I really love are those designers who have addressed the making of the object. Madeleine Vionnet, Balenciaga, those are the designers that are my gods. I’ve had suits fitted on me, but it’s very different when you’re working with a tailor who is actually making the pattern for you. It’s been just such an eye-opener.
Which brings me back to Jacqueline de Ribes. If you’re attentive and you have some understanding already of the issues involved in taking something two-dimensional, taking a textile and making it three-dimensional to fit the body, to have something bespoke or something contour, it’s just transcendent in terms of the process. It looks so different, it feels so different. It really is great.
Well, that feels like a perfect note to end on. Harold, thank you so much for your time.