Fashion Culture | Battle of Versailles: ‘This Was the Real America, An America They Haven’t Seen’

A passionate declaration from Bill Cunningham, American fashion photographer of the New York Times, who remembers that the Black fashion models at the Battle of Versailles fashion show brought together a cultural movement that not only marked a new era in fashion, but was a defining moment in racial equality.

There are moments in history that change the course of history.  The Battle of Versailles [BoV] Fashion Show, 1973, hosted by France’s Palace of Versailles, was that moment.  It changed the course of American fashion, signaling its place in global fashion in comparison to the French, who owned fashion at the time.  BoV changed the runway show with improv, music, movement, and freedom.  Out of 36 models, 10 were African American.  It reframed the narrative of beauty, that it is not one standard.  A marker in time that validated this notion was in 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first Black supermodel on the cover of American Vogue.  The “battle” was five French designers: Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy pitted against five American designers: Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and African American designer, Stephen Burrows.  Exposing Black talent, Stephen Burrows and the models, was notable and unusual for the times, and arguably was the basis for this game changing historical moment.

BoV, created by Eleanor Lambert, an American fashion publicist, founder of New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Met Gala, and Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp; was a fundraiser for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles in Versailles, France.  It was a high-profile ‘A’ list of 650 guests, including royalty such as Princess Grace of Monaco, while Jacqueline de Ribes, Gloria Guinness, and Andy Warhol were among the attendees from both European and American socialite, arts, and entertainment circles.  The event became legendary in many respects with Joséphine Baker as the opening act for the French show and Liza Minnelli, coming off her Oscar win for Cabaret, as the opening and closing act for the Americans.

What a turning point it was in American fashion particularly within the social context of race.  It reflected the times – post civil-rights era, the end of President Nixon and the Vietnam war, in the trenches of the second-wave of women’s rights – when freedom–social, sexual, and otherwise–was at the forefront.  Black was beautiful; women were liberated; art, music, celebrity, society, and fashion converged.  This was the groovy disco-era and nightclubs were the ‘go to’ for this convergence.

New York City was at the heart of creativity and the New York garment district was the center of American fashion.  Up until this point, American fashion was considered “copiers of French” fashion.  Eleanor Lambert, considered the ‘mother’ of the industry, with her influence and control was out to change that.  Paris was IT and French fashion was considered sacred – haute couture, known for its famous design houses.  But couture was fading, while ready-to-wear [RTW] was gaining in popularity and part of pop-culture.  RTW was American fashion – pragmatic, a sense of sportiness, femininity, and glamour.

In this friendly competitive space, Americans triumphed.  For the first time American fashion stood on its own, with a dramatic presentation of relaxed and modern clothes, that the French had never seen, choreographed by Kay Thompson, to the music of iconic 70’s.

What is remembered and honored are the Black models that represented the diversity of American fashion and their contribution to the American designers’ success.  Billy Blair, Jennifer Brice, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Charlene Dash, Norma Jean Darden, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, Ramona Saunders, and Amina Warsuma projected their personal charisma, dance-performance movements, and enlivenment that electrified the audience.  Oscar de la Renta remembers, “the models made the presentation be the magic that it was”¹.  Because of their contribution to fashion history, the Black models have been honored in numerous ways in more recent press, to name a few: Huffington Post Game Changer Awards, a tribute luncheon by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Deborah Riley’s film documentary Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, and Made to Measure [M2M] film documentary Battle At Versailles: The Competition that Shook the Fashion Industry.

The American runway in the show was a display of seduction with ease and freedom against a minimal stage design, in contrast to the grandeur French traditional, elaborate sets, and theatrical-style presentation.  The American’s contemporary and fresh approach moved the audience to a standing ovation.  In an interview with 92nd St Y, Bill Cunningham recalls after Liza Minnelli’s closing act when the models came out, “the programs were thrown up in the air.  In that moment in the Royal Opera House of Louis XIV, the programs were flying in the air, people were going mad.  They had just seen a revolution, the end of couture and beginning of RTW.”

The brilliant colors, signature lettuce-leaf hem, and uninhibited body-conscious designs of Stephen Burrows, stunned the French, as well.  In the M2M documentary, he expressed how thrilled he was to get a nod of approval from Yves Saint Laurent, “he said I made beautiful clothes”.⁴ Burrows captured the zeitgeist of the times by the use of color and jersey fabric.  Because he was independent and not part of the 7th Avenue garment district crowd, he had a sense of freedom to create in his own way through his love of art, color, and music.  How was Stephen chosen for the show?  Tom Fallon, former Halston assistant and former Bill Blass executive recalls Eleanor Lambert manipulating her choice of designers for her own interests, “she was aware of the PR value of putting a young Black designer against Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy in Paris.  It was genius.”³

Freedom and the fusion of culture and fashion was one creative statement collectively from all the American designers – an independence sought for so long from French dominance.  As narrated by Stanley Tucci in the M2M documentary, “the French were humbled by their admiration of the American show”.⁴

Very little was documented in the press at the time, but oral history recounts this historical moment.  From the words of BoV participants:

Versailles was the birth of what I consider American Fashion. – Donna Karan, assistant to Anne Klein at the time¹

The French were just astonished because they have been the king of the heap in fashion for all these many years and here was an American style, an American grace and energy that was so new. – Norma Jean Darden³

Some of us are lucky enough to meet the creative people who actually have ideas that weren’t from before, but move us ahead, and Stephen was one of those.  – Alva Chinn³

What was the greatest thing for me, besides my walk?  Mr. Saint Laurent said that Stephen Burrows was the only American designer, and that meant everything to me. – Bethann Hardison⁴

We just went out and did a simple show and I think the French really got it and really appreciated it, especially with Stephen.  I don’t think it hit us on how big it was, or how important it was until it was over. – Charles Tracy, African American photographer³

It was about the clothes and the presentation of simplicity. Just beautiful clothes on good looking people moving across the stage.  No props. – Alva Chinn³

It was like a magician story . . . and all these girls were magicians. At the very end of the show there was a standing ovation because for the first time, in Paris, they were looking at all these extraordinary girls moving in the most unbelievable way to extraordinary music. – Oscar de la Renta¹

The French throwing their programs in the air, I thought, oh god, what’s wrong, but they loved it. – Stephen Burrows¹

At the end when those girls were on the stage doing their poses and everything, searchlights all over them, the impact sent the audience into a frenzy.  And all these beautiful Black girls were just too much for the French.  They started screaming, stomping, yelling, throwing their programs up in the air. . . – Charles Tracy³

It was the greatest fashion show I’ve ever seen and it was due to what America does best, not imitate, but the simplicity, the honesty of the clothes – that’s what we’ve got to get back, that’s what made America great and made the fashion world great. – Bill Cunningham²

We won. – Stephen Burrows¹

A Brief History, Mod New York Fashion Takes a Trip, Museum of the City of New York and the Monacelli Press, © 2017, 23
A Brief History, Mod New York Fashion Takes a Trip, Museum of the City of New York and the Monacelli Press, © 2017, 23

Battle of Versailles: ‘This Was the Real America, An America They Haven’t Seen’, changed the course in American fashion historyAs part of A Study of Eight, this Study of African Americans’ contribution to fashion history is bold and uncontested.  America won ‘the battle’ and Black people put American fashion on the international map.  It was a game changer: for American fashion, for African American models, and the African American designer, Stephen Burrows. Fashion was on the front stage, literally, and fashion and the Black models transformed the perception of American fashion and American Black culture, not only to Americans but to those outside of America.  In retrospect, a similar outcome that W.E.B. Du Bois had with the “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris Expo in 1900, fashion changed the perception of Black in America.

Footnotes, sources, suggested further study:

¹ Youtube, The Models of Versailles 1973 Tribute Luncheon at The Met, 2011

² 92Y Youtube, Bill Cunningham Recalls the Greatest Fashion Show He’s Ever Seen, 2014

³ Riley, Deborah, filmmaker of documentary, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, 2012

M2M Youtube, Battle At Versailles: The Competition that Shook the Fashion Industry, 2018

Givhan, Robin (2016-01-01). The Battle of Versailles: the night American fashion stumbled into the spotlight and made history.

Harper’s Bazaar interview with Robin Givhan, 2015

Huffington Post Game Changer Awards honored the African American models of Versailles with the Style Award, 2011

Image credit:  Battle At Versailles: The Competition that Shook the Fashion Industry | M2M Youtube documentary screenshot.

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor