Can one fashion show have enough material for a writer to craft a book around? The answer is yes, if the event was more than just a regular fashion show, and if the writer is willing to spend years in meticulous research and conduct numerous interviews. In this case, Robin Givhan has not only done the background work, but has managed to put the events of one night in November of 1973 into their proper place in fashion history.
In the fall of 1973, fashion public relations representative Eleanor Lambert cooked up an idea to help raise funds for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. It involved a fashion show of five French fashion designers, and five from New York (all who were clients of Lambert, naturally). The show would take place at Versailles and they would charge $235 per person to attend.
The show was never intended to be a competition, but people (and the press) being what they are, it soon turned into a matter of us against them. The five French designers – Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Ungaro, Cardin, and Marc Bohn for Dior – were all masters of the haute couture, although by 1973 all were also producing ready-to-wear. The Americans – Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Stephen Burrows – were strictly Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear designers at a time where it was still widely thought that “fashion” came from Paris and clothes came from New York.
Partly because of all the publicity surrounding the publication of this book, the events of November 28, 1973, are now fairly well known. The French had a huge, overblown production that failed to wow the audience, but the American models with their free and easy modern dance style stole the show. American fashion had arrived.
But it’s not the basic story that is so interesting. Givhan sets the stage by recapping the events of the days, most of which have nothing to do with fashion. The Vietnam War was finally grinding to a halt only to have the world embroiled in an “oil crisis.” The French had their own problems with rioting and other unpleasantness.
In places Givhan seems to over-think the atmosphere of the early 1970s. I remember it as a time of hope and progress, with the war ending and people becoming more aware of the effects of pollution and the lack of civil rights for Black Americans and women. In describing what life was like for Americans in the early Seventies, it seems to me that Givhan was giving the lifestyle of certain big city groups, with their drugs, disco and sex, to Americans in general. She comments in her endnotes that many of the people she interviewed for the book had trouble recalling details of their lives in the Seventies, echoing the saying that those who could remember the 60s or 70s were not really there.
One of the real strengths of the book is how Givhan gives an in-depth account of all the major players in the spectacle, including the models. The Americans took thirty-six models to France, ten of which were Black. In doing the research for the book, Givhan interviewed many of the Black models, and gave an account of each, telling how they were able in the late 1960s and early 70s to find success in a field that had been closed to Black women just a few years before.
Givhan also interviewed some of the surviving designers, including Stephen Burrows, Donna Karan (Anne Klein’s) assistant, and Pierre Berge, who was Yves Saint Laurent’s partner. Fortunately, she also talked with Oscar de la Renta, who died last year, before this book was published.
To me, the most interesting character was Stephen Burrows. I was in high school and college in 1973, and I was in love with his designs, not that I could have bought them here in Western North Carolina. But he also did a line of patterns for McCall’s which made his work accessible to me and other young women across the country.
Burrows is almost like an anti-hero, and if you read or view interviews with him today you can see the same traits that Givhan describes in her book. He was the most non-competitive participant, as he was just thrilled to be there. While de la Renta and Halston jockeyed for position and models, Burrows kept out of the pettiness and did his own thing. He really was a child of the 60s. And as Givhen puts it:
In 1973, Burrows represented a moment when fashion was connecting to women in ways that were both emotional and practical. In one of Burrows’s dresses, a woman’s body was free. And she was on her own, for better or worse.
Even though the “Battle of Versailles” brought American fashion into the spotlight, there seems to be little lasting effect of equality for minorities in the fashion business, especially where models are concerned. In 2015 we are much less likely to see Black models in a runway show than we were in 1973.
I really enjoyed The Battle of Versailles, and I recommend it to those who like a good dose of history mixed in with your fashion.