In New York on March 5, the Fashion Institute of Technology hosted a special screening of Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, a documentary by Deborah Riley Draper. It focuses on the night of November 28, 1973 at Versailles when, in an effort to restore the palace, a legendary benefit fashion show took place.
Five French designers – Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro – and five American designers – Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows were selected to represent their countries, and the highly competitive event soon became known as “The Battle of Versailles.” At the time, the French had relatively little to lose, with the event on their turf as well as their unquestioned domination of the fashion world. For the Americans, it was more of a gamble, both financially and in terms of the recognition they desperately wanted for themselves, having long languished in the shadow of the French couturiers.
It was a fraught evening in every sense, with ego-fueled bitchiness erupting and the Americans complaining about unfair treatment which kept them waiting around for hours for the French to finish their rehearsals, without benefit of rest, food or even toilet paper.
However, when show time arrived, it was soon apparent that the Americans had triumphed. The French presentation – although filled with beautiful garments – was stiff and old-fashioned, relying heavily on all sorts of gimmickry, like opulent, heavy sets, onstage rockets going off and guest stars ranging from Rudolf Nureyev and ZiZi Jeanmaire to a 67-year-old Josephine Baker. The Americans, who had to go on without a set due to a technical miscommunication about inches vs. meters resulting in a backdrop the size of a postage stamp, simply showed the clothes.
And what clothes they were! From Bill Blass’s elegant “great Gatsby” retro glam to Halston’s trademark clean, sweeping lines to the joyous color and verve of tyro Stephen Burrows’ youthful concepts, a breath of fresh air swept through the Royal Opera House. It is also safe to say that the carefully selected models, strutting their gorgeous stuff to the strains of Barry White, were largely instrumental for the clothes’ ecstatic reception, with the crème de la crème of international café society, led by Princess Grace, herself, going mad with joy, tossing their costly programs in the air like sport fans.
Draper’s exhaustively researched, irresistibly lively doc captures the drama and excitement of the night and throws a special spotlight on those models, specifically the gorgeous black girls who, in one night, literally changed the face of fashion history. At F.I.T., the screening was blessed with the presence of seven of them: Pat Cleveland (dubbed the greatest runway model of them all), Alva Chin, Norma Jean Darden, Billie Blair, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson and Bethann Hardison. One by one, they took to the stage for a q&a afterwards, and it was thrilling to hear the cheers erupting from the crowd of largely minority fashion students for whom these still stunning, ageless models were like rock stars.
Through their verbal reminiscences, that night, which took place forty years ago, came vibrantly to life again, as we heard how Bethann Hardison stopped the show when she stalked right to the edge of the stage, looked straight out at the audience with the dramatic fierceness she was known for, and defiantly threw the train of her yellow Stephen Burrows dress down. (“I knew I was representing, not just Stephen, but America, and we had to win!” she recalled.) This was then followed by the final model, Cleveland, who pranced out in a white gown with an even longer, seemingly endless train, driving the audience into further frenzies. Cleveland had also delivered goose bumps when she entered, spinning non-stop in a chiffon dress so fast that everyone thought she’d topple right into the orchestra pit, although, of course, she magically stopped right at the edge of the stage.
Besides helping to finally put American fashion on the map, these models – each one with their own singular, dazzling personality – really broke the color line in fashion then and, starting with Givenchy who adored the black girls, they began to dominate runways. In this current age of cookie-cutter, sometimes barely adolescent white scarecrows robotically marching down the catwalk, an ethnic presence is definitely lacking. However, Alva Chin brought up the fact that today black models have far more opportunities besides the runway, appearing in a myriad of print ads, campaigns and even scoring lucrative cosmetic contracts, which were never possible before. They have all indeed come a long way from the time in the 1960s when, joined by legendary fashionista in-the-house Audrey Smaltz who led the movement, they picketed the offices of Harper’s Bazaar to have their pages finally reflect multiculturalism.
Here’s my FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL review of the film
with Alva Chin
Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Pat Cleveland hanging in the Green Room
with Audrey Smaltz, former model and founder of Ground Crew and star of THE DEVOTION PROJECT. She recently came out and married Olympic basketball star Gail Marquis. Their wedding was prominently featured in THE NEW YORK TIMES
Bethann Harison, agency owner and mother of actor Kadeem, holds court
with Norma Jean Darden, who has her own successful food business, Spoon Bread
with Deborah Riley Draper, lover all things 1970s and director of VERSAILLES ’73
Pat Cleveland, still beautifully striking a pose
with Barbara Jackson
the panel at Fashion Institute of Technology