Pitting French designers against a team of American upstarts, the first Paris Fashion Week took place 42 years ago and proved to be notable for a number of reasons. In our latest #HSTBT, we explore that legendary night.
The inaugural Paris Fashion Week took place on a chilly night in 1973 and was dubbed “The Battle of Versailles.” Organized as a publicity stunt, the show pitted the old masters of French design like Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent, against a team of bold U.S. upstarts – including Halston (Roy Halston Frowick), Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows and Oscar de la Renta. Some people remarked that it was a “prize fight with high heels instead of boxing gloves.”
“The Battle of Versailles” was set up by the founder of New York Fashion Week, Eleanor Lambert, along with Versailles curator, Gerald Van der Kemp. Their goal was to not only showcase fashion, but to also restore the legendary palace which was in need of a $60 million USD renovation that the French government simply couldn’t provide. Plans/restorations would include Marie Antoinette’s dressing room, the rooms where the children of Louis XV played, and the magnificent ceremonial staircase designed by Gabriel that had begun in 1722 but had never been completed.
The show was to be presented at the Royal French Chateau outside Paris which boasted gilded, blue velvet seats, fleurs-de-lis hanging from embroidered curtains, and decadent chandeliers. In the world’s eyes, the French would not only dazzle those in attendance, but they would also crush the aspirations of the Americans under the weight of elaborately planned stage sets which included a limo-length Bugatti for YSL, a Cinderella pumpkin coach for Dior, a rocket ship for Cardin, a flower bower for Givenchy, and a rhinoceros pulling a gypsy caravan for Ungaro. Additionally, they would be using models who were believed to be the epitome of beauty and grace. However, the Americans had something up their bespoke sleeves.
Each designer submitted eight designs for consideration. Early complications plagued the American effort – as their sets were designed in inches, not centimeters, so they didn’t fit. Fashion illustrator Joe Eula improvised with a roll of seamless paper, sketching an Eiffel Tower using a broom handle and black stove polish. Nearly 50 years later, Oscar de la Renta recalls, “It was a show that was bound for disaster, and it turned out to be absolutely extraordinary.”
Prior to the runway shows, Lisa Minelli performed for the Americans, singing “Bonjour, Paris,” while U.S. expat Josephine Baker performed for the French. The French portion of the show lasted two hours and featured a full orchestra that belted out music from Sleeping Beauty. The American portion of the show lasted only 30 minutes and featured taped music from the likes of Barry White, Cole Porter and Al Green. But the music could have have been “nails on a chalkboard” and no one would have noticed. It was the models the American designers used that were stealing the show.
“To actually have an exhibition with 12 African-American models at one time, in one show, in a palace in France, representing the United States and representing our fashion industry, is legendary — it’s historical,” said Riley Draper, a documentary filmmaker who chronicled the night in her film, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution.
As The New York Times noted, “Ultimately, it would be the Americans who stunned the crowd that night — less with their craftsmanship than with their success in capturing the spirit of the modern woman through both their clothes and the pure energy they poured into the show.”
African-American model Pat Cleveland whirled downstage in a billowing Stephen Burrows creation. Billie Blair served as de la Renta’s muse. Alva Chinn let a Halston feather boa slip to reveal a bare breast. The crowd went absolutely wild.
Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic for The Washington Post, wrote a book on the evening appropriately titled, The Battle of Versailles. In it, she asserted two major impacts the night had on the fashion world: it gave American designers a newfound legitimacy for their ready-to-wear designs that were previously looked down upon by the French who favored glamorous couture. More importantly, Stephen Burrows’ designs and the African American models gracing the runway – who were paid $300 USD for their time – weren’t seen as a novelty. “I walked like I defied the French,” Bethann Hardison told ABC. “I walked like, they are going down.” Norma Jean Darden, another model, remembered, “We had a beat, and we came out with all that pizzazz and just floored everybody.”
“What made our show different was that in Paris no one had ever seen a black model on a runway,” de la Renta told The New York Times in 2011. After the event, the French designers embraced change. Givenchy said that he went to California to find black models for his Paris shows; “I [tried to] make a cabine with only black models, but some of the clients refused to wear the [ensembles] presented by these models. But I still continued.”
Billie Blair also recalled the Versailles show with fond memories. “I realize that that was my time in history. I was this skinny black girl, taller than Jesus, with no boobs and no booty, but for the first time I was really proud of what I was and where I came from. I was recognized.”
A year after the show, Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue. On January 24, 2011, the American models and designers gathered again at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate their accomplishment decades ago.