How the Little-Known Story of the Battle of Versailles Influenced Fashion Forever

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Alyssa Morin
·7 min read
How the Little-Known Story of the Battle of Versailles Influenced Fashion Forever
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When fashion made history.

Before models traipsed down elaborate runways and designers presented audacious collections during Paris Fashion Week, there was a time when things were all business and no pleasure.

In its early iterations, fashion week brought only magazine editors and personal shoppers together in intimate settings. There was no star-studded front row—instead, invitees sat closely together as models weaved through their chairs. However, one fabulous night in November 1973 would change everything.

While the first recognized Paris Fashion Week was both a fashion and catwalk extravaganza, it also transpired into a scrumptious face-off between five French designers and five American designers.

The event became known as the Battle of Versailles.

It was a competition between the crème de la crème of American and French fashion, as well as a fundraiser held at the Palace of Versailles to restore the historic residence. Not surprisingly, Eleanor Lambert, the creator of New York Fashion Week, proposed the idea for the charitable gala.

Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston and Stephen Burrows represented the U.S., while Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan served on the French side.

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And like any major event, the Battle of Versailles' guest list would make anyone envious. Andy Warhol, Josephine Baker, Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, Liza Minnelli and so many others enjoyed the razzle-dazzle the night had to offer.

While the French came in hot with larger-than-life sets that reportedly cost $30,000 each, the Americans took a different approach: They had Liza, who earned an Oscar for Cabaret that same year, and 36 bright-eyed models.

Eleven of those models were Black—a trailblazing moment back then—which included Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair and Norma Jean Darden. China Machado, a Chinese-born Portuguese-American model, also participated in the event.

"They had never seen Black girls look so beautiful," Stephen Burrows said in the 2016 documentary, Battle at Versailles.

Gala night at the Palace of Versailles, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week
Gala night at the Palace of Versailles, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week

"That particular show could not have happened at that particular time, in any other way," Robin Givhan, the author of The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, previously told Harper's Bazaar.

"It was a reflection of what was going on politically and socially in terms of race relations," she pointed out. "The Americans emphasized ready-to-wear, sportswear and fashion as a kind of entertainment and a women's freedom to choose her own style of dress."

As Robin further explained, the fashion extravaganza "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."

It was actually considered the standard. "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."

Marcellas Reynolds, the author of Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, put it simply. "They thought it was a lock for the European designers because they were couturiers," he told Instyle in February 2020. "When you think couture, you think craftsmanship and history. Sportswear implies that it's here today, gone tomorrow."

Basically, the pressure was on for U.S. designers, so much so that Halston had a breakdown. In the 2016 documentary, fashion insiders recalled his "explosion" ahead of the big night after he wasn't able to rehearse his segment.

"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 of the designer's outburst at the time. "'I want all these clothes packed up and on the plane tonight. If it's not, I will come after you. You will have no way to get home.' And he left...nobody knew what to do."

And because all that glitters isn't gold, that wasn't the only drama to erupt at the sumptuous event.

Gala night at the Palace of Versailles, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week
Gala night at the Palace of Versailles, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week

Per WWD, 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."

Donna noted that her boss "wasn't exactly welcomed as a woman."

At the time, Anne's approach to fashion wasn't considered up-to-par with the other American designers. Notably, Halston, whose creations were worn by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy or Oscar de la Renta, who worked for Parisian fashion powerhouses before so he felt he had something to prove.

But, as the saying goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Donna recalled Anne's show taking "Paris by storm."

"There was no question about it," she told the magazine. "The French were so in shock of the American clothes. 'What do you mean you don't have hooks and eyes and you just throw them on?' The Americans were just so far into the future. It was about [the] ease of dressing, day-to-night. [Anne] was ahead of the game."

As WWD previously described of the fashion face-off, the French production "came off as stiff and old-fashioned," whereas "the American segment pulsed with the vibrancy of the groovy disco era and a more liberated view of femininity."

WWD's John Fairchild, who covered the ultra-glam gala under the pen name Marie Antoinette Esterhazy, said the French sets were "so tacky they weren't even camp."

Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week
Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week

Without a doubt, France's biggest asset was the legendary Josephine Baker, who lit up the stage with her opening performance and lavish ensemble, in which she wore a towering feathered headpiece and a nude bodysuit that was embellished with diamonds.

But when it came time for the Americans to take center stage, they left guests in awe. According to fashion editor and author Robin, Liza "brought a kind of Broadway performance and energy" while opening and closing the show.

"The Americans were really putting on a contemporary form of entertainment," the author told Harper's Bazaar. "There weren't elaborate sets and they pretty much relied on the performance of the people."

And while designers' fashion and presentations were alluring, it was the models who brought the collections to life. As John detailed for WWD, "The American mannequins knew how to move in the clothes they showed."

Supermodel Pat Cleveland echoed the same sentiments in an interview with InStyle, saying, "We were trying to bring life to the clothes. It was bodies moving under the flag of creativity, of design."

A prime example: Pat recalled Halston telling her to "be a moth" for him.

"I could feel through my feet that I was on the edge," she remembered. "I could hear the audience go, 'Oh!' They thought I was going to fall off the edge. I was just playing with them. It's so much fun to get a little thrill."

Liza Minelli, David J. Mahoney, Halston, Marisa Berenson, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week
Liza Minelli, David J. Mahoney, Halston, Marisa Berenson, Battle of Versailles, Paris Fashion Week

All in all, the Battle of Versailles marked the start of a new era for the fashion industry—in more ways than one. Yes, Paris Fashion Week was born, but Americans had influenced the French for once.

Even more game-changing? A more inclusive and diverse fashion industry.

As Marcellas explained to InStyle, "It was the first time that most Europeans would have seen that many Black models at once on the stage."

"Europe has always been, as far as fashion [is concerned], a place where Black models thought they could go and work more than they could in the United States. That's a fallacy," the fashion expert and author continued. "There were a couple of models that broke through, like Dorothea Towles, in the late '40s, and Helen Williams, who was the first dark skin Black model to do the European shows. But the doors of Europe were closed to Black models before the Battle of Versailles."

Marcellas pointed out the monumental impact of the event, saying, "The milestones literally are the girls from the Battle of Versailles, then Iman, then Naomi [Campbell]."

"If there had not been those girls during the Battle of Versailles," he added, "there'd be no Naomi Campbell. It was a defining moment."