Black Fashion History: The Battle of Versailles
By Anu Kehinde
Remember, remember the 28th of November, “a forgotten moment in fashion history.”
To set the scene; on the night of November 28th 1973, five of the best French designers came head-to-head with five of the top designers from America. The spectacle was only privy to and witnessed by the world’s social elite. The likes of the Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol and Princess Grace of Monaco were amongst the viewers of the fashion show. What they saw that night at the runway show in Château de Versailles transformed the fashion industry forever.
In an era where Paris was the fashion hub of the world, Eleanor Lambert (founder of New York Fashion Week) invited the idea of new talent discovery, transforming the influence of fashion. The night saw American designers – Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Halston and Oscar de la Renta – entering the theatre after days of arguing over choreography and music. At that very moment, they just wanted the night to end with their dignity intact regardless of the outcome of the Fashion showdown. Amongst the designers, they shared 10 African American models they had booked at low costs, models included Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland and Billie Blair. Amid their anxieties about the night, the designers also shared collective worries about how well the African American models would perform on runway. Representation in the early 70s was a rarity in Europe, much less in America. However, the inclusion of black models in the runway showdown, spoke volumes, pushing against the grain of the socio-political climate of the 70s.
The French designers, considered the best in the world included: Emanuel Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Gardin, Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. They presented a two hour and a half static show, filled with tradition. Their production was big and extravagant… Yet, it was overshadowed by the American’s five collections display. The Americans stole the hearts of the viewers with a high energy and flamboyant production lasting 30 minutes. The performances of the 10 black models dissipated all qualms the American designers held. The models performances arguably paved the way for other black models and black women in fashion in the later years.
By the next morning of the battle, the results were in. The American fashion designers were pronounced the winners of the Battle of Versailles, shifting the paradigm of fashion as society knew it. The front-page headline for WWD on the 30th November 1973 declared, “Americans came, they sewed, they conquered.”