In her new book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, Robin Givhan (the first writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism) explores a time before Americans were installed at French houses, a time when the American fashion industry took its marching orders from Paris. Department stores paid French brands to knock off their designs and American designers made frequent treks to the City of Lights to see the styles they'd soon incorporate into their own collections.
But when five American designers including Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows and Halston were pitted against their French contemporaries like Marc Bohan of Christian Dior, Hubert Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro, in a series of fashion shows that featured the five Frenchmen presenting first, followed by the Americans, that all changed. Though it was expensive and ornate (featuring a pas de deux and live orchestra) the two hour long French portion opening the competition was overshadowed by the snappy, accessible movement of the American designs. And it wasn't just the epic designs that made the night pop: Liza Minnelli opened and closed the American portion as a favor to Halston, while Josephine Baker took to the stage to round out the French half. Here are five things we learned from Givhan's exploration of the most fashionable fight in history:
They don't throw parties like this anymore, anywhere.
The night was actually billed as a charity event and was only thought of as a competition after WWD wrote that it undoubtedly would become one. Because of this high profile, showgoers included Andy Warhol and the creme de la creme of international socialites, weighed down in jewels and trailed by security guards. The dinner following the match-up had places set with 12 forks and 13 spoons each, the type of splendor not even the Met Gala or Inaugural Balls can touch.
The way celebrity fashion works today really started in France.
Most of what we know to be modern day celebrity fashion really started in Paris. The brand managers and public relations people who paired celebrities with the perfect pieces were known as vandeuses. Vanity Fair's annual International Best Dressed List? Quite literally inherited from France as, according to Givhan, it started as a poll between Paris couturiers (although some maintain it was actually just a publicity stunt.)
Legendary singer Josephine Baker performed live for the finale of the French portion
The runway casting was a coup for models of color.
Yes, five French designers and five American designers were pitted against each other with something to prove for their respective nations, but there was unexpectedly another group being represented: models of color. Of the 30 models that the American designers flew over with them, ten were models of color, outpacing the diversity rate most any mainstream show at that time or even in today's presentations. And by all accounts, it was the "pep in the step" vivacious energy of the models that won the night for the American designers.
Rick Owens' fashion show cum step show had a predecessor in Versailles.
It wasn't just the way the models of color walked at the show, it was the way they moved. Just as the audience clapped wildly for the sorority sisters that Rick Owens posed as models in his spring/summer 14 show, the Versailles set cheered on the models as they danced in Stephen Burrows' segment, and did what can only be described as predecessor to voguing for Bill Blass's.
Text Mikelle Street
Images courtesy Flatiron Books