I first heard about the 1973 Versailles fashion show when the late Bill Cunningham described the show as the most ‘exciting fashion show that he ever saw'. Mr. Cunningham was not one to use hyperbole loosely so this statement piqued my interest. I started looking into stories about this event and found that what began as a charity fundraiser to save the Palace of Versailles ended in an event that ushered America as a fashion tour de force and changed the Ready-to-Wear fashion world.
Mr. Cunningham was emotional when he described the collection and the models that made a lasting impact on the European public. What he experienced that November in Paris was more than just about clothes and designers but a political statement about style and individuality summoning a sea-change. After watching Bill’s interview I watched the 2012 documentary titled Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution to get the perspective of the key players in that fashion show.
The documentary provides insight into the spirit of the events leading up to the show and with first person narrative of models, designers and photographers it was easy to be transported into that November in Paris. The American press were trying to build it into a serious competition by calling it the ‘Battle of Versailles’ but the Parisiennes were dismissive of it and saw the idea of 5 French designers against 5 American designers as a non-threat to their traditional fashion throne. Meanwhile, the main benefactor of this event, Eleanor Lambert, was waiting for the day that American fashion could be seen on the same stage as Parisienne fashion because she knew that the American’s had something special and she was ready to showcase their skills and talent.
If you have ever seen any footage of what happens behind any catwalk or perhaps the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ then you get an idea of the chaos, frenzy and drama that transpired leading up to the event and the day of the show. However, when the dust settled, what made this fashion show different and historical was a combination of things both political and creative, even if it was serendipitous.
What gave this show its ‘je ne sais quoi’ was what the Europeans were seeing for the first time and it blew their mind. The 5 Parisienne designers led the fashion show in the traditional French manner and celebrated their deftness at couture for 2.5 hours. The 5 Americans went next and within 30 minutes captured the spirit and energy of the 70’s by showing what women were wearing to work and play in a chic but less formal and less classical way. Bill Cunningham provides his insight by saying that it was Stephen Burrows and his crew of African American models that most impressed the Europeans because around that period “the Europeans were used to seeing the race riots in Watts, CA and in New Jersey”. The American fashion presentation had energy and spirit, it showed ready-to-wear collections that made the French presentation look outdated. The African American models brought a ‘freshness and a different way of moving, a happy and dancing quality’ and this ‘presence of black models was shocking, but in the best way’.
What is apparent after watching people evoke that day is that it was a period of metamorphosis not so much by design but mostly because the American’s were not afraid of being themselves. The American’s didn’t try to recreate French couture but set themselves apart by presenting Sportswear and ready-to-wear fashion. The African-American models didn’t shy away from being themselves either and brought their attitude to their walk. To sum up what made this event memorable and the models unique is best described by Mikki Taylor the former editor of Essence magazine – “The walk was one of affirmation, that you own from your soul-what you bring to the clothes”.