“It was a show that was bound for disaster and it turned out to be absolutely extraordinary.”
-Oscar de la Renta (July 22, 1931 – October 20, 2014)
History is filled with stories unfamiliar to the general public, especially when it involves African-Americans. Such is the case with an historical event that occurred on November 28, 1973 known as “The Battle of Versailles”. What started out as a charity event for the restoration of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, ended up an international showdown between the French and American fashion designers. Black women, however, found themselves doing battle on the frontline and inadvertently revolutionized the fashion industry.
Gérald van der Kemp (May 5, 1912 – December 28, 2001) and Eleanor Lambert (August 10, 1903 – October 7, 2003) orchestrated the charity event. Gérald Van Der Kemp was the curator of the Château de Versailles for 35 years and was devoted to returning the principal galleries, apartments, and rooms to the former splendor of the 17th and 18th centuries. He was an art expert and is credited with saving Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from ruin during World War II. Eleanor Lambert Berkson was a legendary publicist and prominent figure in the American fashion industry. During the 1940’s, she founded the International Best Dressed List, the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award, and New York Fashion Week, then called Press Week. In 1962, she organized the Council of Fashion Designers of America and was appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As human nature would have it, egos soon turned this charity event into a competition. France, then the undisputed fashion capital of the world, armed themselves with their best ammunition: Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan (Christian Dior). The American designers, who had little exposure outside of New York, included Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows. Even worse, the French participants were haute couture designers. In France, the term “haute couture” is protected by law; therefore the French designers produced garments that, among other criteria, had to be exclusive, custom, and high-end pieces. The American participants produced ready-to-wear or prêt-à-porter garments often considered inferior.
Although many thought the American designers would be waving their white flag of surrender, something very strange happened. Of the 36 American models chosen for the Château de Versailles, 10 of them were African-American. That alone was considered revolutionary. However, they were not chosen out of the goodness of anyone’s heart. At the time, the American designers could not afford big names and since African-Americans were just beginning to gain acceptance in the industry, the designers could get these models at a bargain price. Stephen Burrows always used African-American models, but not to the exclusion of others. The African-American models that participated in the Battle of Versailles included Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Ramona Saunders, Barbara Jackson, Amina Warsuma, and Jennifer Brice.
On November 28, 1973, the Château de Versailles read like a Who’s Who of the world’s social elite, consisting of royalty, celebrities, tycoons, and politicians. The French had their own bag of tricks with huge set designs, elaborate displays, haute couture modeled in its most traditional manner, a show that lasted about two hours, and a performance by the legendary Josephine Baker. Although Liza Minnelli stirred the audience for the Americans with her rendition of “Bonjour, Paris!”, It was the African-American models who stormed the stage to the music of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra that brought the house down. They sashayed onto the stage with confidence, attitude, and flamboyance.
The French had never seen Black models on the runway before and were totally shocked by their presence, their performance, the manner in which they walked, their energy, their confidence, and the music. The more casual approach to fashion won the audience over. They stomped, cheered, and threw their programs up in the air.
After the Battle of Versailles, American fashion designers were recognized internationally, ready-to-wear or prêt-à-porter garments were legitimized in the eyes of the fashion industry, French and American designers began to change the way their collections were presented on the runway, and the African-American models, who were now in the spotlight, laid the foundation for the careers of their successors. Beverly Johnson became the first African-American model to appear on the cover
of American Vogue in 1974.
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