FYI Book Club readers found fun, suspense and significance in “The Battle of Versailles,” Robin Givhan’s debut book about an industry-altering fashion show that helped put American designers in the global spotlight.
Givhan, the Washington Post’s fashion critic and a Pulitzer Prize winner, made a telephone appearance at the book club’s recent gathering, held at Birdies lingerie boutique in the Crossroads.
“The Battle of Versailles” reveals the struggles of well-known American designers while chronicling the development of the American fashion industry.
But for all the consequence of the book’s main event, a French and American fashion show on a chilly Parisian night in November 1973, none of the book club participants had been aware of it. That made the book more suspenseful and enjoyable, they said.
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“It was fun to meet all these fashion people — the designers, models, saleswomen and journalists in print — and put these names to household brands,” said Mel Neet of Kansas City.
Neet compared the book with Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”
“The 1960s and 1970s were a great time for writers, artists and designers to reinvent themselves and their world,” Neet said.
Birdies owner Peregrine Honig agreed.
“When we think of what the 1970s look like, we see women having a louder voice,” Honig said. “Consider that what you wear is your narration. We see this in the American designers and models who participated in this fashion show.
“In fact, the backstage action is even more glamorous than the runway show,” she said. “The images and stories in the book are almost selfies, which makes the book feel contemporary.”
Lora Vogt of Kansas City was fascinated with the way Givhan wove the culture of the time into one moment.
“It’s amazing how she pulled out the roles that race and gender identity play in fashion,” Vogt said, “how significant they were for this historic event, and also showed the enduring spirit of American fashion and culture. We still see these elements in today’s designs and runway looks.”
“That’s part of the charm,” said Crystal Faris of Kansas City. “All the press was focused on the French designers. The American designers felt free to experiment. They knew they could be creative and stretch their ideas and wait for a reaction. Their clothes made history and their models’ presentation changed an industry, but it wasn’t deliberate.”
Laura Isaac of Mission said she shared the book with her 11-year-old son, who enjoyed it.
“It’s worthwhile to look at the historical context and importance to the discussion around fashion,” Isaac said. “Givhan has given this subject importance and made it interesting, too.”
Joann Blackburn of Gladstone recalled seeing photos and drawings of runway outfits and patterns in newspaper style sections of the time.
“At first I thought this was a niche book for people in the fashion industry, but then I thought, ‘Why am I enjoying it so much?’” she said. “It must not be a niche book.”
When Givhan called in, readers asked how the U.S. models fared later, the women who were so important to the American success at the fashion event.
“None of them became supermodels and as hard as they all worked, none became millionaires,” Givhan said. “Quite a few struggled financially. They were very young when they started and didn’t always receive good financial advice.”
For Honig, an artist and fashion designer, the book touched on many themes about art and culture.
“Fashion is art that is supposed to be worn,” she said. “And it’s art that changes every time it’s on display since only one person can wear it at a time.
“It’s great to have a book that talks about how intelligent you have to be in the fashion industry,” Honig said. “This book is also about desire, how an idea propels creativity. And it’s humorous, because when glamour messes up, it’s really funny.”
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Watch for the next selection, “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi, to be introduced in FYI.