The glittery elite came for the extravagant idea of it, a fashion show fundraiser to help restore the Palace of Versailles, right there in the grand theater of Louis XIV’s faded masterpiece outside Paris.
Five French masters and five successful American designers displayed their latest offerings at one of 1973’s most glamorous gatherings.
Society’s beautiful people certainly got their party: The French portion featured Josephine Baker in sequins and feathers and ballet’s Rudolf Nureyev. The Americans had Liza Minnelli.
But was it only that, a great party? In “The Battle of Versailles,” the current selection of the FYI Book Club, Robin Givhan tells the character-rich tale in the context of the history and culture of the 1970s.
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When the Versailles audience exploded with applause over the Americans’ portion of the show, a display that oozed energy and excitement and spotlighted 10 black models, something had shifted — in the fashion world and perhaps beyond.
Givhan, fashion critic at the Washington Post and a Pulitzer prize winner, had a few words about the creation of the book. Her comments were edited for length.
Q. Was it a slam dunk that you would someday write a book about the Versailles show?
A. No, I wasn’t really thinking about a book in January of 2011 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a luncheon to celebrate the models of Versailles, through the Costume Institute. It was part of their desire to make people more aware of lost bits of fashion history. It was also in the museum’s Temple of Dendur, and who can resist a luncheon there? It was lovely.
The models were there as were Stephen Burrows and Oscar de la Renta. And I had heard bits and pieces of the Versailles story over the years. About five months later I got a call from a literary agent. He had read about the museum event and thought the Versailles story could be an interesting book. I told him I was also interested in the culture that spawned it and what was going on socially at the time, and he said “exactly.”
Why was it so important to you to set the scene in detail, that time period of the early 1970s?
My fundamental philosophy about covering fashion is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a direct result of the history that surrounds it. Sometimes fashion acts in consort with history and sometimes in opposition to history.
I was a kid in the ’70s. It was a bit of a blur to me. Obviously it was the era of disco, the music and the sexual freedom, but I was also struck by the fact that 1973 was the time of Watergate and the oil crisis. Vietnam War protests were still lingering. Women were straining to make substantive inroads professionally in corporate America.
The fashion industry as part of the economy was held in higher regard than it is today, or it wasn’t looked at with the same degree of cynicism and dismissiveness as it sometimes is today. People believed that as much as film or music said something about us culturally, so did fashion.
So while so many depressing and terrible things were going on, fashion at the time was so loose and free and fun. It was the place people went to find relief. Each of the American designers at Versailles represented a different aspect of what was going on culturally.
Did the designers go to Versailles thinking it was a competition, something to be won?
No. We owe that to the media. It was a fundraiser, a very big, fancy social event. The instigator of it all, Eleanor Lambert, who by the way lived to be 100 years old, was a combination P.T. Barnum, patriot and tyrant. She was a true believer that American fashion should be on the same plane as American art and should receive the respect internationally.
She knew the curator of Versailles, who was in need of a big influx of funds. She suggested the fashion show, five French and five American designers. She saw it as an opportunity to show their work alongside the French, to be elevated by association. (The lineup: Yves St. Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior on the French side. The Americans were Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows.)
Later when the stories were told, and with Women’s Wear Daily interested in writing stories about the designers and the personalities behind the brands, it was elevated to a battle. It sounded so much more exciting that way.
Although this was always more than a runway show, right? Tell a little about what kind of event people were expecting.
Yes, that’s why I describe in the book some of the parties during that time period, the Proust Ball and the Oriental Ball, which included fake Nubian warriors on the backs of papier-mache elephants. The parties that this group of jet-setting socialites attended were over the top. Each was meant to be more dazzling than the last.
The Versailles gala was essentially seen as another in that series, so when the French set about creating their portion of the show, they went all in. They had a full orchestra and these enormous complicated backdrops. They had Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park in a pas-de-deux. They had strippers from the Crazy Horse Saloon. And there was Josephine Baker.
The Americans were limited in part because they were coming across the Atlantic, they had less money to put into it, and over-the-top didn’t make sense with their clothes. They had always planned a much more streamlined production. They always intended to have recorded music. Liza Minnelli was their ace in the hole.
Originally she was supposed to perform only for the segment by Halston, who was a good friend of hers. Oscar de la Renta, who was naturally competitive, called his friend Raquel Welch.
I love that Liza, who had just won an Oscar for “Cabaret,” put her foot down. She said that she was going to sing and dance her heart out, and she knew that as soon as Raquel would walk out, no one would even know she was there. So the designers agreed Liza would be their only celebrity, and she would link the segments together.
How different were the two parts of the show, the French versus the American?
It was the equivalent of live theater that would be fit for Marie Antoinette versus a contemporary film. I describe it as going from a stiff oil painting to action photography.
The French production was meant to be lush, to be a celebration of the French state. It was also the first time these French designers all showed on the same stage. So each designer’s portion of the show was self-contained.
The Americans only had one celebrity, and that alone created cohesion. They only had a single backdrop. Bill Blass had really argued for keeping each designer’s portion short and sweet. So there was a sense of continuity from one collection to the next.
And the Americans had the black models.
Ten out of their 36 models were black. Some of the black models had come out of Ebony Fashion Fair, where fashion was entertainment first. They knew how to perform on stage. Many had taken dance lessons. Their energy was infectious, and it informed the moment for the other American models.
And Stephen Burrows — whose work had been inspired by the street, by dance, by nightclubs and by freedom of movement — encouraged the models to let loose. And they did. It had a very different feel from what the French were doing, much more contemporary.
Were the American fashions any better than the French?
I would say no, they were not. The Americans showed that they didn’t have to be better but that different could be equally as good. I think they showed that fashion was not about putting women into uniforms or containing them or defining them, but fashion was a vehicle for women’s freedom. Or at least it should be.
The way the show unfolds, the women, black and white, are really the stars, not the clothes. But I would argue that it was the clothes that gave them the confidence to acknowledge the fact that they could be stars.
What do you think the “Battle of Versailles” means ultimately, including to those not in the fashion world?
I think it was, psychically, extraordinarily freeing for the American designers who were there. It lifted a burden of self-doubt. They had worked for so long in the shadow of the French. I think on that level it was, “We did it!”
For the average person, particularly the average woman, the way American designers were working was all about sportswear, a much more informal way of dressing. It was a way of dressing not rooted in social hierarchies.
And it essentially said to women: This is just as good. You can be more comfortable, you can have a more democratic way of dressing, and that’s been given a seal of approval. You don’t have to aspire to a rarefied kind of fashion in order to participate in the highest levels of our society.
I would also say, perhaps in a negative way, the American production was fashion as entertainment. The clothes were important, but it was the way the clothes were presented that was so dynamic. And I think that, too, has had an impact on the way we engage with fashion. We see it more as a diversion, as pure entertainment. I think that has overshadowed some of the weightier matters more in evidence in fashion in the 1970s.
THE ROBIN GIVHAN FILE
Home: Washington, D.C.; grew up in Detroit.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University, master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan
Work: Fashion critic for The Washington Post
Pulitzer Prize: For distinguished criticism in 2006, the first to a fashion critic
Meet the author: 6:30 p.m. May 21 at the Kansas City Public Library Plaza branch, 4801 Main St. RSVP at kclibrary.org.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History” by Robin Givhan.
If you would like to participate in a discussion of the book, scheduled for 7 p.m. June 3 at Birdies intimate apparel store, 116 W. 18th St., email email@example.com.
From the introduction of “The Battle of Versailles” by Robin Givhan, published by Flatiron Books
At the close of the twentieth century, there was perhaps no brand that better represented the swaggering confidence of American fashion than that of Bill Blass. In his golden decade of the 1980s and into the early ’90s, Blass was a household name synonymous with American style as personified by society dames and tomboyish beauties. He was a smooth gentleman walker, chum to First Lady Nancy Reagan. And he had grown his company to a $500-million-a-year business fueled by licenses for everything from luggage to the Lincoln Continental Mark series of fancy sedans. But it wasn’t always that way. Like most designers of his generation, for much of his career, Blass was nothing more than a workaday guy trying to get a little respect in an industry dominated by the French. He stood in the wings of the industry, waiting for his chance at center stage. When it came, in the late autumn of 1973, he and four of his fellow American designers grabbed it and forever altered the course of fashion history.
Blass was a handsome Midwestern fellow who came of age at a time when Indiana wasn’t just flyover country; it was nowhere. Fresh from the Army, he arrived in New York in the late 1940s wanting to work in fashion and live a glamorous life. With a hint of a fake British accent picked up from the Hollywood films of the day, he found his first job as a sketch artist — a kind of entry-level position once occupied by some of the now great names in the business. But he quickly discovered that fashion, as it was practiced in New York’s Garment District back then, was nothing more than a daily grind of kowtowing to the demands of grim factory bosses, rather than the boldly creative career he had envisioned. When he won his first big promotion, he went from sketching to designing, but designing meant merely producing cheap copies of Balenciaga and Christian Dior dresses for American manufacturers like Anna Miller and Co. and later Maurice Rentner.
Invention didn’t happen in America; it happened in France.
From the days of the French monarchy through World War II, French designers dictated fashion with a confident strut born of fiercely protected tradition, national character, and mythology. A shift in hemlines in the Paris ateliers reverberated throughout the retail world like an encyclical from the Vatican. Whatever Paris said, the wealthiest and most beautiful — and thereby the most influential — women all over the world took heed. Other ladies across social and economic classes then fell in line.
But by the 1960s, society had evolved and world politics had disrupted the fashion system. A handful of prescient retailers in New York and Chicago recognized an opportunity and opened their doors to a new kind of fashion: American. Homegrown designers began slowly crawling from the backrooms of manufacturers and into the light. For the first time, American designers were beginning to find their voices. And what they had to say was being published by the newly prominent trade tabloid Women’s Wear Daily. The American fashion industry had sprung to life.
In 1960, Blass’s name was added to the label at Maurice Rentner; he was now being publicly credited for his work. He continued to claw his way forward. He excelled at the art of socializing. Sexually ambiguous, he made himself indispensable to a group of wealthy women in constant need of going-out companions who posed no threat to their distracted husbands. By 1970, Blass had established himself as a man-about-town with important connections and an eye for jaunty style. He bought out his employer, and Maurice Rentner was renamed Bill Blass Ltd. He was crawling toward the light.
But being seen as a competent businessman and being respected as a titan of imagination, sophistication, and influence are two separate things. It wasn’t until a snowy evening in 1973 that public perception of Blass shifted. On November 28, about an hour outside Paris at the historic Palace of Versailles, Blass, fifty-one, made a play for dignity. By the end of the evening, Blass and four other American designers went from being considered merely savvy industrialists to being thought of as innovative, creative, and significant. And their influence reverberates today.