'battle at versailles' recreates the most fascinating night in fashion history

We speak to director Fritz Mitchell about the enduring relevance of the elaborate 1973 event.

by i-D Staff and Hannah Ongley
07 March 2016, 11:25pm

Alain Dejean/Sygma/Corbis

One night, two countries, 10 designers, 80 looks, and an unprecedented number of black supermodels. It's nearly unthinkable that the 1973 Battle of Versailles Fashion Show, a testament to both American fashion and model diversity, went unnoticed for 40 years. "Only recently have people begun to recognize what a significant effect that evening had," director Fritz Mitchell tells us of his new documentary Battle at Versailles, which debuted on Apple TV's fashion streaming service M2M last night. "That's a great story to tell."

Even those familiar with the landmark event that pitted French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and Christian Dior) against their American contemporaries (Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Anne Klein) will find something new in the M2M original. Mitchell obtained never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews to capture the story and spirit of one of the most captivating nights in fashion history. "[Producer] Wendy Yamano always goes a step further," he says. "She found an NBC news canister that hadn't been seen since 1973. This included footage of Billie Blair as a genie pulling the chiffon handkerchief and Pat Cleveland twirling about." Other times they relied on pictures and memories of those who were in attendance to help shape the story. Where footage could not be obtained, the filmmakers recreated scenes using original clothing and accessories. 

Much of the lingering fascination surrounding the original 1973 event stems from Team America's revolutionary approach to casting. While many of the young women who packed their bags for Paris later went on to become household names, the modest paycheck offered for the work (around $300) meant those who accepted it were wooed rather by the promise of excitement and spectacle. "For this job, the models needed to be dancers, performers, athletes," Mitchell says. "Many of the diverse models, including Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison, played a huge role in the Americans' success that evening and as a result went on to do a lot of work in Europe." The energy of the models was vital in securing an American victory. "I think Dennis Christopher said it best in the film when he recognized 'the Americans finally took seat at table,'" recalls the director. "This was a moment in history when American designers came out of the basement onto the first floor."

Stream Battle at Versailles on m2m.tv.


Text Hannah Ongley

battle of versailles
battle at versailles
fritz mitchell