1973. Fashion designer Stephen Burrows and friends discuss the “Battle of Versailles in the Fire Island Pines.
The Pines was a hotbed of creativity in the 1970’s as many from every creative field were flocking to this haven of privacy and beauty. Beauty of the people and surroundings. The many from Fashion were no exception. Fashion designers like Stephen Burrows, Halston, Calvin Klein, and Perry Ellis found their way here. It was a pivatol time in both fashion and the Pines. Out of that comes the story that changed the face of fashion.
1968. Model Naomi Simms in Stephen Burrows design on Fire Island.
The subject of a book ” The battle of Versailles” by Robin Givhan, and a documentary “Versailles 73: An American Runway Revolution” by Deborah Riley Draper. Both available on Amazon.com.
The “Battle of Versailles” was an event created by Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kamp. Held in Paris where the top american designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass , Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows were pitted against the top French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. A benefit for the crumbling Palace of Versailles it created history in the fashion industry. Their goal was to not only showcase fashion, but to also restore the legendary palace which was in need of a $60 million USD renovation that the French government simply couldn’t provide. Plans/restorations would include Marie Antoinette’s dressing room, the rooms where the children of Louis XV played, and the magnificent ceremonial staircase designed by Gabriel that had begun in 1722 but had never been completed.
With a guest list of 700 and notables such as Princess Grace, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Jacqueline de Ribes, Gloria Guinness, Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli, the event became legendary.Each designer was to submit eight designs for consideration.
The Parisian designers viewed their competition as mere sportswear designers.The American designers used an unprecedented number (eleven) of Black models from the era. The American designers and their models stole the show.
Here is some press from the event:
Harpers Bazzar by Kristen Bateman
Fashion world taken by storm in ‘Battle of Versailles’
On a late November night during 1973, five American fashion designers—Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows—gathered at the Palace of Versailles to show against the five French designers considered the best in the world: Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. The star-studded room included everyone from Andy Warhol to Josephine Baker and the Princess of Monaco. While the French came with their elaborate sets, the Americans arrived with Liza Minnelli and 36 models in tow. As Robin Givhan, who wrote The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History explains, “That particular show could not have happened at that particular time, in any other way.”
Robin Givhan: It featured five French and five American designers and took place during a time when the French fashion industry was really overwhelmingly dominant—not only because the French set the trends and really dressed the most influential women, but because the American fashion industry quite literally copied French designs. It wasn’t secretive, it wasn’t on the fly. It was done in a way that was completely condoned by the French fashion industry. American companies paid a fee for the right to copy French designers. For five American designers to be invited to show on a stage alongside the French was really notable for Americans. It was also notable because the Americans brought 36 models with them, and 10 of them were black, which was also unusual. So much of what happened at Versailles was really a reflection of the times. It was a reflection of what was going on politically and socially in terms of race relations. The Americans emphasized ready-to-wear, sportswear and fashion as a kind of entertainment and a women’s freedom to choose her own style of dress.
It was very much a product of the ’70s in its approach to models, dancing, sets and music. Many who attended remember it as the day American fashion changed as a whole, both in its approach to design as well as in its international perception. Below, BAZAAR sat down to talk to author, renown fashion critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan about her book and the fashion show’s impact.
The show was to be presented at the Royal French Chateau outside Paris which boasted gilded, blue velvet seats, fleurs-de-lis hanging from embroidered curtains, and decadent chandeliers. In the world’s eyes, the French would not only dazzle those in attendance, but they would also crush the aspirations of the Americans under the weight of elaborately planned stage sets which included a limo-length Bugatti for YSL, a Cinderella pumpkin coach for Dior, a rocket ship for Cardin, a flower bower for Givenchy, and a rhinoceros pulling a gypsy caravan for Ungaro. Additionally, they would be using models who were believed to be the epitome of beauty and grace. However, the Americans had something up their bespoke sleeves.
Each designer submitted eight designs for consideration. Early complications plagued the American effort – as their sets were designed in inches, not centimeters, so they didn’t fit. Fashion illustrator Joe Eula improvised with a roll of seamless paper, sketching an Eiffel Tower using a broom handle and black stove polish. Nearly 50 years later, Oscar de la Renta recalls, “It was a show that was bound for disaster, and it turned out to be absolutely extraordinary.”
“To actually have an exhibition with 12 African-American models at one time, in one show, in a palace in France, representing the United States and representing our fashion industry, is legendary — it’s historical,” said Riley Draper, a documentary filmmaker who chronicled the night in her film,Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution.
African-American model Pat Cleveland whirled downstage in a billowing Stephen Burrows creation.
Two major impacts the night had on the fashion world: it gave American designers a newfound legitimacy for their ready-to-wear designs that were previously looked down upon by the French who favored glamorous couture. More importantly, Stephen Burrows’ designs and the African American models gracing the runway – who were paid $300 USD for their time – weren’t seen as a novelty. “I walked like I defied the French,” Bethann Hardison told ABC “I walked like, they are going down.” Norma Jean Darden, another model, remembered, “We had a beat, and we came out with all that pizzazz and just floored everybody.”
Harper’s BAZAAR: Why was the show so important to the history of American fashion?
HB: What were the dynamic roles of the models involved?
RG: For the most part, particularly in couture, models were attached to a specific design house and they were rarefied creatures with these long, elegant limbs. They moved with a kind of grace and reserve. While there might have been music at a fashion show, they weren’t really attuned to that music. The music was background. At a house like Balenciaga, when he was still alive, fashion was very serious and those shows took place in silence. So for the Americans coming into their own in the 70s, it was a time when music was a powerful expression of sexual freedom and independence and the models in general were encouraged to be much more emotive on the runway. The performance of the black models really brought a kind of personality to the runway that had not been there in that kind of abundance before.
HB: How did Liza Minnelli influence the show?
RG: She was connecting the piece throughout the American show. Each designer had their own time on stage. She opened it and she closed it. She had just come off a big Oscar win for Cabaret and she really brought a kind of Broadway performance and energy to the show, so she had added energy to the show in the sense that the Americans were really putting on a contemporary form of entertainment. The French had a lot going on onstage but it was much more rooted in tradition and in history. They were aiming for something Marie Antoinette would have recognized. The American style of presentation was very, very contemporary—to a large degree, pretty spare. There weren’t elaborate sets and they pretty much relied on the performance of the people.
HB: Do you think there’s a specific moment or garment that epitomized a new genre of American fashion?
RG: Based on conversations with people who were lucky enough to have been there, Stephen Burrows really stood out to them. That was because Anne Klein was doing fairly straightforward sportswear that a woman could wear in her work life. Halston also was a designer who was very much connected to contemporary nightlife, society and celebrity. While his clothes and presentation were great, he didn’t use many models. As Oscar de la Renta said, a lot of people in Versailles didn’t recognize the people who were coming down the runway for him. So, sometimes the impact was lost. One of the women in his show was Jane Holzer who was in Andy Warhol’s crew. Having her come down a runway in New York would have had a tremendous impact, but if you don’t recognize her, it’s not going to make you go “wow.” It was really Stephen who had a lot of the models who were among the most dramatic. He had a collection that was completely divorced from French fashion. He had not worked in the shadows of some 7th avenue manufacturer for years and years. He really started his business by opening a downtown boutique with a friend from school. He was very much born out of the 1970s. He hung out on Fire Island, he went dancing, he was blurring gender with his clothes and he was such a product of the era that he had the biggest impact on those who were there. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to him having the kind of longevity in business that you might have expected.
HB: Is there any one designer who benefited most from the show?
RG: Psychologically it was incredibly gratifying for all of them, but I actually feel like it was the generation that came after the designers who were at Versailles that benefitted the most, because so much of the stress of Versailles for people like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass was this feeling that they had to prove themselves worthy of Paris. I think for the designers who came after them, they were freed of that pressure. One of the things Bill Blass said was that his great regret was he had not apprenticed in Paris. I don’t think that’s something designers today like Michael Kors or the guys from Proenza Schouler fret about. I think they are so freed of that and they have such a sense of pride of the importance of an American point of view. I think one of the reasons Alexander Wang can work at Balenciaga is because of the kind of weight the Versailles show lifted from the American fashion industry, but also the transformation that happened on the French side in terms of the respect for what the Americans were doing, which was sportswear and selling clothes in a much more commercial way.
HB: What is an American point of view in fashion?
RG: I think if you look at the five designers who were there, they each represented a piece of American aesthetic. Stephen Burrows represented a sense that fashion inspiration can come from the street. Halston, for better or for worse, brought this celebrity cachet. American fashion, even more than French, is enamored with celebrities. Halston recognized that. Anne Klein represented a pragmatic approach to fashion and fundamentally, American fashion is always aware that it has to function. Some might argue that’s one of the reasons why it isn’t as fanciful and creative as some of the things that might be seen in Paris. Bill Blass brought a kind of ease and sportiness, even to clothes meant to dress women in the higher echelons of society. There’s always a kind of sportiness to American style. You can see it in Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein. With Oscar de la Renta, there was always a sense that he represented the beautiful, feminine and creative aspect of American fashion. All these things define what American fashion is. It’s pretty, it’s pragmatic, it’s sporty, it’s rooted in popular culture and it gets a lot of its fuel from celebrity.
HB: If they were to restage the show today, which American designers would you like to see face off with which French designers?
RG: That’s a difficult question, because back then, French houses had French designers. The obvious choices would be Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs. I was thinking, who would be the Stephen Burrows thrown into that mix? Maybe, it would be someone like Alexander Wang or Shayne Oliver from Hood by Air. On the French side, Chanel, Dior… this is tricky, because Balenciaga? But I’ve got Alexander Wang on the American side. If the nationality of the designer doesn’t matter, Valentino, since they show in Paris, Lanvin and to completely muddy the waters, I’m going to throw in Rick Owens.
HB: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
RG: Going back to the social world of the 1970s. I was fascinated on the one side by the society world of costumes, balls, jet setters, and women who still bought couture. Having that juxtaposed with up-and-coming world of nightclub and disco and Fire Island and using jersey: everyone was using jersey, which was fascinating to me. Halston and Stephen Burrows and Bill Blass: everybody loved jersey. It was this fabric that was so body conscious. This was a really lightweight version that gave you no help at all and it hid nothing. You could barely wear underwear with it, and so many designers used it. To me, that was a fabric that epitomized the 70s. It was slinky, sexy, revealing and everywhere.
HB: If you could own one look from the show, what would it be?
RG: In the bazillion of clips I’ve read from people who covered the show, I’d say that often the description of the clothes would be 10% of the story. They were so much more fixated on the social aspects of it that the clothes almost got lost in it all. But I would probably choose either one of the really beautiful color jersey dresses from Stephen Burrows of one of the glamorous sequined slinky dresses from Halston. I felt like Burrows and Halston were doing such similar work in terms of the mood of it, but Halston had it cleaned up and glammed up from an uptown audience and Burrows left it raw and unfinished for a downtown audience.