Even on its silky chiffon surface, the Grand Divertissement à Versailles fashion show of 1973 had all the trappings of a gilded society smack down. Essentially a publicity stunt disguised as architectural philanthropy to benefit the restoration of Versailles, the runway show pitted American ready-to-wear designers against their French haute couture counterparts.
But underneath all of that exquisite stitching was the kind of cultural and societal clash that could have only have occurred in the early ’70s with Liza Minnelli serving as its Halston-clad cheerleader.
In the American corner was the larger-than-life Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, sportswear queen Anne Klein, and downtown wunderkind Stephen Burrows. Representing France was Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, and Pierre Cardin.
But as told by Robin Givhan in “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History,” the frocks created by the American designers were not the history-making element that ignited a chilly November evening in the Paris suburbs. Rather it was the spirit exhibited by the Americans.
The drama unfolded before a crowd of more than 800 doyennes, dignitaries, and celebrities including Princess Grace of Monaco and Andy Warhol. Runway models sauntered across a massive stage as news outlets on both continents frantically relayed the events. The night was never officially planned as a fashion war, but that didn’t stop the press from billing it as such.
Through her meticulously-researched work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Givhan sheds light on a period when American fashion was more than red carpet recaps and Kanye West sneaker collaborations. At that time, American designers were both trying to get their clothes on the backs of celebrities and connecting (or at least attempting to connect) to the seismic social shifts. This was represented in Klein’s effortless sportswear, which coincided with second-wave feminism. Halston’s “Love Boat”-ready tunics supplied Jerry Hall with a 1970s Studio 54 wardrobe and a served as a beacon for the era’s hedonism.
The French, with hundreds of years of couture tradition to uphold, were less willing to make these concessions to the middle class. Despite the youth quake that came with the 1968 Paris student riots, the old guard mostly held firm, with Cardin orbiting them from his space-age perspective and St. Laurent pushing boundaries with reinvented tuxedos and safari suits.
As she sets up the saga of the legendary Versailles show, Givhan miraculously gives enough history and back story to paint a backdrop for the action in her swiftly-moving tale without burdening the plot with unnecessary details. After introducing the American and French designers, she tosses another ingredient into the Franco-American sartorial melee: the models.
This is where Givhan starts building her case for diversity in fashion and where her book zips past the society wives and rarefied showrooms into the gravitas behind the battle. The Versailles show overlapped with an unprecedented moment when the industry realized it was time to reach beyond its fascination with chilly, porcelain runway models. After race riots, the Kerner report, and the ensuing “Black is beautiful” movement, US fashion found new energy with African-American models. Of the 36 American models at Versailles, 10 were African American. That’s more than the number of black runway models you’re likely to count during the entire span of New York Fashion Week.
It was the models and their charisma that helped propel the Americans to their Versailles victory. The French had the clothes and Rudolph Nureyev, but they lacked energy — and Minnelli.
Most of the designers have since died, most recently de la Renta in 2014, but Givhan brings the story together by plunging deep into magazine and newspaper archives and interviewing those in attendance, including a young Donna Karan, who was Klein’s assistant. She extensively quotes Burrows, who was the youngest designer in the show, and also the only African-American one. More importantly for the purposes of “The Battle of Versailles,” she talks to the models who spun, danced, and defeated the staid French and their milquetoast presentation.
To her credit, Givhan has crafted multiple books under the same cover. It’s about moneyed society, French couture history, and the evolution of American fashion, all beneath the umbrella of a grudge match. She does get overly ambitious with the scope, and the main event occasionally gets obscured. But her enthusiasm is understandable. This was a critical, and often forgotten, moment in fashion worthy of careful reexamination.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.