Battle of Versailles Fashion Show

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It all happened one fabulous night in November 1973, but it started with Eleanor Lambert. 

Eleanor Lambert was often called “the mother of the industry” because of her historic feats as a fashion publicist through the 75-years of her career.

She created most of the best-known fashion shows today such as the Coty Awards, New York Fashion Week, the Met Gala, and the International Best Dressed List.

The Battle of Versailles fashion show soon joined this list after a fateful meeting between Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp.

As the story goes, the curator was in dire need of ways to raise funds for much-needed palace renovations. Lambert, being who she was suggested dinner and a fashion show featuring both American and French designers.

It was meant to be the first of its kind and considered a joke by most who expected nothing striking from the American designers.

The reactions weren’t surprising because, during that time, things were just as Robin Givhan described.

The show, “took place during a time when the French fashion industry was really overwhelmingly dominant—not only because the French set the trends and really dressed the most influential women, but because the American fashion industry quite literally copied French designs.” Robin Givhan, the author of The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History said.

“American companies paid a fee for the right to copy French designers,” she shared. “For five American designers to be invited to show on a stage alongside the French was really notable for Americans.

And so the day came where American designers put their best foot forward with Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows as their representatives.

The French had Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan.

The French came to dominate with large sets of up to $30, 000 each. They also took up all the rehearsal time, leaving less than ideal conditions for the American designers.

Even more, Donna Karen, who worked for Anne Klein, revealed she was the “only designer shunted to the basement of the chilly palace to prepare her segment.”

She shared that Anne “wasn’t exactly welcomed as a woman.”

It got so bad that Halston exploded “He said, ‘That’s it, we’re out. We’re not showing, we’re not doing the show. I want everybody out,’” Dennis Christopher remembered.

“And he left…nobody knew what to do.”

Liza Minnelli saved the day with an encouraging speech for the others.

Battle of Versailles

Long story short, the French put on a flamboyant two-and-a-half-hour performance with everything from an orchestra to a live rhinoceros. However, the focus was more on the sets and props than on the actual clothes or models.

The Americans had none of that, only 36 eager models and their Oscar winner Liza Minnelli. But in their 30-minute performance, “The American segment pulsed with the vibrancy of the groovy disco era, and a more liberated view of femininity,” Women’s Wear Daily described.

Americans won the show and the headline for Women’s Wear Daily read the next day, “Americans came, they sewed, they conquered,”

11 of the models were black. “They had never seen Black girls look so beautiful,” Stephen Burrows said in the 2016 documentary, Battle at Versailles.

In the end, the fashion industry was permanently changed that day and American designers’ sales started to boom abroad.

Read more from I On The Scene: HERE.

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