In the ’70s, the Palace of Versailles had fallen into disrepair. The centuries-old chateau was plagued by termites and leaks had sprung from its gilded ceilings. In need of money for restoration, Versailles’ head curator, Gérald Van der Kemp, sought the advice of fashion publicist and CFDA founder, Eleanor Lambert, who dreamt up the fundraiser that WWD coined the “Battle of Versailles.”
Fifty years ago, 10 designers engaged in a stylish skirmish that would solidify Stateside couturiers as fashion forces to be reckoned with. As WWD’s former editor in chief, John B. Fairchild, wrote in 1973, “Americans came, they sewed, they conquered.”
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Ahead, a look back at the legendary Battle of Versailles.
Which designers went to “battle?”
The event pitted French and American fashion designers against each other, with Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass and Anne Klein — all of whom happened to be clients of Lambert’s — making up the latter contingent. Together, they took on Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emmanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior’s then-creative director, Marc Bohan.
What happened at the Battle of Versailles?
Each designer came armed with eight unique looks, some of which weren’t completed until the early morning hours of Nov. 28.
Many models featured in the show had never been to Paris before. “They got out of the bus and kissed the ground, they were so happy,” Pat Cleveland said at WWD’s Apparel & Retail CEO Summit earlier this month, recalling a romantic scene of snow-dusted cobblestones outside Versailles.
Inside, however, the scene was anything but romantic — near frigid temperatures left the poorly ventilated palace chilly. The American team’s greeting from the French was albeit chillier.
“There was no toilet paper in the bathroom. It was terrible,” Burrows said at the Apparel & Retail CEO Summit. “They had the girls there working all day long and didn’t feed them.”
The Gallic squad took up most of the daytime rehearsal hours, meaning that the Americans had no choice but to practice late into the evening. This wasn’t the only pre-show faux pas: a measurement mixup resulted in Joe Eula’s hand-painted backdrop being scrapped.
This, among other blunders, nearly led Halston to drop out of the competition. With the zeal of a genuine thespian, the designer’s friend and muse Liza Minnelli, who was tapped to perform during the American segment, convinced him that the show must go on.
The French spared no expense in staging an elaborate, hours-long production, spending approximately $30,000 on sets and props including a pumpkin carriage and a rhinoceros-drawn cart. A 40-piece orchestra, danseur noble Rudolf Nureyev and legendary showgirl Josephine Baker also offered their talents to the team.
The Americans, in contrast, took a pared-down approach, completing their presentation within the span of 30 minutes. Music played off of a cassette tape and bare spotlights illuminated the stage of the Royal Opera.
While the Americans had the help of showbiz multitalent (and Minnelli’s godmother), Kay Thompson, who assisted with choreography, it was the models who needed to sell their designer garments, which were rather simplistic in comparison to their French counterparts.
“We were trying to bring life to the clothes,” Cleveland explained in a 2020 interview with InStyle. “It was bodies moving under the flag of creativity, of design.”
What the Americans might have lacked in pageantry, they made up for in practicality: breezy, unstructured ensembles, like those showcased by Halston and Burrows, marked an innovative shift from the stuffy silhouettes of old. Their liberating approach to dressing women was synonymous with the decade’s evolving attitudes toward feminism and sexuality.
“The French were so in shock of the American clothes,” remembered Donna Karan, who served as Klein’s assistant during the battle. “‘What do you mean you don’t have hooks and eyes and you just throw them on?’ The Americans were just so far into the future. It was about ease of dressing, day to night,” she told WWD in 2020.
It wasn’t just American designers who broke the mold — models transformed from mere mannequins into leading players, twirling across the stage hands-free, unlike many of their catwalk contemporaries, who at the time, typically strutted holding numbered cards.
Who won the Battle of Versailles?
Initially, the possibility of the Americans upstaging the French seemed highly unlikely. “Everyone thought this was a joke,” author Marcellas Reynolds told InStyle in 2020. “They thought it was a lock for the European designers.”
In the end, it was the underdogs who came out victorious. The audience, which included the likes of Grace Kelly and Andy Warhol, could hardly contain their excitement following the American presentation.
“They started screaming and stomping on the floor and throwing their programs in the air and screaming, ‘Bravo!’” Burrows said. “It was mindblowing to have them react the way they did. The French are usually so staid.”
How did the Battle of Versailles change the fashion industry?
The American victory at Versailles became even more apparent in the coming years, as U.S. licensing firms, who had once favored French designers, began capitalizing on local names like de la Renta and Blass.
The battle also raised the profiles of several Black supermodels, including Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, Alva Chinn and Billie Blair.
“That was the beginning of my international career,” Chinn said at the WWD Apparel & Retail CEO Summit in October.
While labels like Courrèges, Ungaro and Saint Laurent had hired Black models since at least the ’60s, they became even more visible post-Versailles. In 1979, Givenchy became “the first couturier to have an all-Black cabine,” WWD’s then-Paris bureau chief, André Leon Talley, reported.
How is the Battle of Versailles still relevant today?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art memorialized the Battle of Versailles in a 1993 exhibition. Two decades later, Tom Ford paid homage to the event at the very same museum, orchestrating a Battle of Versailles-themed gallery during the Costume Institute’s “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” exhibit.
In 2015, former Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan authored a book about the battle subtitled “The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History.”
The iconic showcase has also been the subject of two documentaries, including Deborah Riley Draper’s “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution.” As of 2023, Draper has plans to adapt it into a narrative feature.
Launch Gallery: A Look Back at The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973
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