How A 1970s Fashion Faceoff Put American Designers In The Spotlight

How A 1970s Fashion Faceoff Put American Designers In The Spotlight

9:06pm Mar 31, 2015
Models show designs by Oscar de la Renta at the 1973 Versailles show. De la Renta was one of the first American designers to sign on for the catwalk competition.
Models show designs by Oscar de la Renta at the 1973 Versailles show. De la Renta was one of the first American designers to sign on for the catwalk competition.
Daniel Simon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On Nov. 28, 1973, France's Versailles Palace hosted an impossibly glamorous moment in fashion: a competition between five French couture designers and five up-and-coming Americans. The event was a fundraiser to help restore the palace, but it also made for a groundbreaking runway show.

In The Battle of Versailles, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan recounts the story of that faceoff. She tells NPR's Renee Montagne that up until Versailles, "Paris was everything. ... Whatever the French designers said was fashion, that is what the Americans said: 'OK, that's fashion.' "


Interview Highlights

On the scene at Versailles

It was snowing that night, just to add to the sort of storybook feeling. And, you know, there are men in like the full livery with the white wigs and the uniforms. And people are arriving, and they are the jetset of the time. And the theater where this took place is gilded and filled with blue velvet seats and fleurs-de-lis, you know, embroidered on the curtains and chandeliers. And it was just absolutely breathtaking. One writer at the time sort of described the scene as they all took their seats as peacocks sitting in this giant theater.

On how the show's American portion compared with the French one

Well, to begin, the French portion of the show lasted about two hours; the American portion of the show lasted about 30 minutes. The French portion — the backdrops were constantly changing. Pierre Cardin had a rocket ship that was supposed to sort of faux launch at some point. The American set was really just a sketch of the Eiffel Tower.

Beyond that, the French used a full orchestra, and some of the music included the introduction to Sleeping Beauty. The Americans were using Barry White and Al Green — taped music, so that every single moment had to be perfectly orchestrated because it was one seamless tape that also included blank spaces for transitions. So if the transition was off by a few seconds, it could throw the entire thing into disarray. And [model] Billie Blair describes one situation which, literally, as she's coming off stage they're pulling the dress off of the arm that is already backstage while the rest of her body is still onstage because they've got to get her in and out of her clothes so quickly.

On how the crowd reacted to the Americans, and what changed after the show

It was a predominantly French crowd and they went bonkers for them. ... I think what changed was the way that the American industry saw itself. And their success at Versailles, I think, convinced them that no, what they were producing wasn't less than; it was different, but it was just as good, and in many ways was more relevant to the way that women lived their lives.

On how black models contributed to the American designers' success

There was a context of black chic that made the models particularly attractive. It was cool, it was progressive to use black models. I mean, there was one model in particular ... Billie Blair — she really encapsulated so much of what made the black models stand out on the runway, which was her ability to just transform. You know, she was this scrawny sort of awkward kid who, you know, was not a so-called classic beauty. But on the runway she became extremely elegant and graceful, and she could just mesmerize you. I mean she was in many ways a bit of a dancer on the runway.

On the dress — designed by Stephen Burrows, the night's youngest and only African-American designer — that exemplified what the Americans did that night

It would be one of his jersey dresses in multicolor, because he worked predominantly in jersey — the kind that is typically used for, say, a nightgown. It hid nothing. And it really spoke to sort of a dance club; it spoke to sexual freedom; it spoke to the way that women were becoming much more comfortable in their own body and with their own place in the culture. And I think it also really exemplified the way that fashion was becoming less and less about what designers dictated from the top down and more and more about what designers could absorb from the street.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's look back at a pivotal, impossibly glamorous moment in fashion. Our guide is Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

She's out with a history of a groundbreaking runway show more than 40 years ago.

MONTAGNE: It took place at the Palace of Versailles, once home to fashion plate Marie Antoinette.

INSKEEP: The event was a fundraiser to help restore Versailles.

MONTAGNE: But also a competition - five French couture designers versus five up-and-coming Americans. Robin Givhan's book is called "The Battle Of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into The Spotlight And Made History."

Let us go back in history just for a moment. How much did the French dominate the fashion world up to that year, 1973? Because you write a shift in hemlines in the Paris ateliers reverberated throughout the retail world like an encyclical from the Vatican.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Oh absolutely. Paris was everything essentially. And particularly when you compared it to the American industry, they took their marching orders from what the Parisian designers did. Whatever the French designers said was fashion, that is what the Americans said, OK, that's fashion.

MONTAGNE: Change was coming. American designer Halston's work had already made the cover of Newsweek. He was on the list for the throw-down at Versailles. The other Americans - Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass - both known for dressing socialites - plus Anne Klein, who designed for working women and Stephen Burrows, a master of youthful color. Key to the American success were their models, 10 of whom were black.

GIVHAN: There was a context of black chic that made the models particularly attractive. It was cool. It was progressive to use black models. I mean, there was one model in particular - a woman named Billie Blair - she really encapsulated so much of what made the black models stand out on the runway, which was her ability to just transform. You know, she was this scrawny, sort of awkward kid who, you know, was not a so-called classic beauty. But on the runway, she became extremely elegant and graceful. And she could just mesmerize you. I mean, she was, in many ways, a bit of a dancer on the runway.

MONTAGNE: Maybe it's worth mentioning, though, too, in terms of the times and the just all that - the youngest designer, Stephen Burrows, was himself African-American.

GIVHAN: Yes. He was the only African-American designer who participated. And he was kind of the ringleader in terms of encouraging them to really let loose and to let their personality shine.

MONTAGNE: Set the scene for us - November 28, 1973, the Palace of Versailles, glamour, guests - as they're described to you - dripping in jewels.

GIVHAN: Yeah, it was - it was snowing that night, just to add to this sort of storybook feeling. And, you know, there are men in, like, full livery with the white wigs and the uniforms. And people are arriving, and they are the jet set of the time. And the theater where this took place is gilded and filled with blue velvet seats and fleur-de-lis, you know, embroidered on the curtains and chandeliers. And it was just absolutely breathtaking. One writer at the time sort of described the scene as they all took their seats as peacocks sitting in this giant theater.

MONTAGNE: Well, compare and contrast how the show unfolded - the French in a sense pitted against the American sensibility.

GIVHAN: Well, to begin, the French portion of the show lasted about two hours. The American portion of the show lasted about 30 minutes.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

GIVHAN: The French portion, the backdrops were constantly changing. Pierre Cardin had a rocket ship that was supposed to sort of faux launch at some point. The American set was really just a sketch of the Eiffel Tower. Beyond that, the French used a full orchestra and some of the music included the introduction to "Sleeping Beauty." The Americans were using Barry White and Al Green (laughter) taped music, so that every single moment had to be perfectly orchestrated because it was one scene was taped that also included blank spaces for transitions. So if a transition was off by a few seconds, it could throw the entire thing into disarray. And Billie Blair describes one situation which literally - as she's coming off stage, they're pulling the dress off of the arm that is already backstage while the rest of her body is still on stage because they've got to get her in and out of her clothes so quickly.

MONTAGNE: When it comes to the fashions, if you had one look, one dress that would exemplify what the Americans did that night, what would you choose?

GIVHAN: Well, I would probably choose one of the looks from Stephen Burrows's presentation, and it would be one of his jersey dresses in multicolors because he worked predominantly in jersey, the kind that is typically used for, say, a nightgown. It hid nothing, and it really spoke to sort of a dance club; it spoke to sexual freedom; it spoke to the way that women were becoming much more comfortable in their own body and in - with their own place in the culture. And I think it also really exemplified the way that fashion was becoming less and less about what designers dictated from the top down and more and more about what designers could absorb from the street.

MONTAGNE: How did the rather formal and wealthy - how did that crowd react to the Americans?

GIVHAN: Well, it was a predominantly French crowd, and they went bonkers for them.

MONTAGNE: Well, after that night, what changed?

GIVHAN: You know, I think what changed was the way that the American industry saw itself. And their success at Versailles, I think convinced them that no, what they were producing wasn't less than, it was different, but it was just as good and in many ways was more relevant to the way that women lived their lives.

MONTAGNE: Fashion critic Robin Givhan. Her new book on a key moment in American fashion is called "The Battle Of Versailles." Thanks very much for joining us.

GIVHAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Love and happiness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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