Versailles '73: An American Revolution

My coffee table is currently packed with September Editions.  Come mid-August, the year’s largest issues of Fashion magazines arrive, announcing the end of summer, but providing pages full of lust-worthy items for the fall and winter months.  

They arrive, and I make my way through each one, reading and flagging pages as I go.  I’ve been indulging in this ritual since my early teens.  

Today the covers are devoid of models known by name, and instead feature celebrities.  I, for one, miss the *Model moment*.

So it was a treat to sit back and take in Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution a documentary about the Famed Fashion show “The Battle of Versailles.”

The story goes: Not many moments in life change the course of history; break the mold; shatter the status quo and usher in a paradigm shift. But on a chilly night in November 1973, such a moment took place. For the second time in history, the Americans stormed France in an epic battle. This battle, however, would pit the lions of French haute couture— Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro against bold, innovative American designers—Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston, in a runway rumble for industry dominance.  Versailles ‘73:  American Runway Revolution is a funny, extraordinary and often poignant collection of memories shared by the models, designers, journalists, patrons and others lucky enough to witness the night that forever changed fashion.

The film does a good job bringing details not previously widely-known, by using personal accounts, bringing to life the state of race relations of the time, the then fashion hierarchy, and fashion history.  Despite having very little film footage of the event, it’s not hard to visualize the whole scene.  

They make good use of existing video, still photography and first hand accounts. Director Deborah Riley Draper managed to frame what has become a historic fashion event, as more of a happenstance, peeling back the glamour to reveal some less than stellar conditions, and more than a few outsized egos, which made bringing the event together difficult.  

Having seen what feels like every fashion documentary available, I wondered if this one had anything new to tell me.  But I enjoyed the film immensely.  I found myself laughing and commenting quite often while viewing.  

When you ask a large group of people to recall an event, everyone has their perspective.  It’s those perspectives that make the film so appealing .

Of the American designers who participated, only two are still living; Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows.  Burrows was the only participating designer featured in the film.  Most of the interviewees helping to tell the story were assistants to the key players and/or models, at the time.  There’s an honesty in their perspective, because you feel they have nothing to lose.  

While I really wished to hear accounts from Oscar de la Renta, Liza Minelli (who performed at the event), and Donna Karan who was Anne Klein’s assistant at the time, I felt this film was a great find, overall.  For the fashion fan this will be a real treat, giving a glimpse into what could arguable be labeled as an event that changed American Fashion’s perception internationally and on American soil!

You see, while American Ready-to-Wear had its moment on the International Fashion scene, several women of color came to Versailles to model, and as they say . . . they showed up and showed out!  Bethann Hardison, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Billie Blair, Charlene Dash, Amina Warsuma, Barbara Jackson, and Ramona Saunders let the world know they were here!  Black models used in these numbers were rare at the time, and especially in France, which I found interesting, given the list of black artists that found success there.  As a matter of fact, an older Josephine Baker figures into the events.  

The models first hand accounts were honest, funny and moving at times.  I was particularly struck by Bethann Hardison’s description of her place in the industry, stating “I was the alternative girl… certain people you just didn’t work for… I was selected last.”  As I listened to them tell their stories, specifically Bethann, I realized that not much has really changed since then.  But I was uplifted to hear them recall their triumphs.  I had to laugh as they personally recounted their own fierceness, and then hear their accounts backed up by others.  

As a matter of fact, on January 24, 2011, they were honored with a luncheon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hosted by Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows.  Coverage of this event prompted Deborah Riley Draper to make this film.  And while the film was about the event itself, just like in the actual show, Black American Designer Stephen Burrows and the black models telling their stories, shifted the focus.  It became more than just the story of American joie de vivre toppling French Haute Couture.  It became the story of how a group of black models shined an international light on black beauty, and made strides in shifting the paradigm on runways.

I learned new names while watching.  Many of the models featured didn’t become household names, like Pat Cleveland; so it was great to hear their names and of their triumphs.   It made me wish for a documentary specifically on black models.  The retrospective photos of models in the industry are great, but hearing their stories is so much more rewarding.

Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution is now on DVD and VOD See it if you can!

Follow the film on Facebook HERE.

Here’s the trailer: