In terms of fashion lore, the 1973 “Battles of Versailles” — the showdown between a handful of American designers and their European counterparts — stands the test of time.
Attendees Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and Chris Royer gave some juicy details about that monumental fashion event Wednesday during a discussion led by The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the event doubled as a reminder of the Tom Ford-orchestrated Battle of Versailles gallery, which is now open at the Upper East Side museum in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” through September 5 . .
Explaining how the extravaganza at the Palace of Versailles came about, Givhan said the curator of Versailles had asked his publicist friend Eleanor Lambert how to raise some money to try to support French institutions, and she suggested putting on five major fashion designers. against five American ones – all of whom were her clients. Christian Dior’s Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan squared off against Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows. The Americans used pre-recorded music, a backup band and “sleek, light and uninhibited” clothes and designs “that moved with distinction and personality,” Givhan said. “What started as an international party and a publicity stunt quickly turned into a media battle, and the Americans won that battle. They won over the crowd and their peers.”
Hardison, a model and Burrows associate at the time, recalled how the models then inspired fashion designers and were muses. There was also diversity with models and designers of all different kinds of backgrounds, she said.
Speaking to Cleveland about her signature runway style, Givhan said: “No one could twirl and twirl and let their clothes fly like you can.” Cleveland admitted: “It was something that I didn’t fall off that stage with the light in my eyes. I couldn’t even see the audience and I was spinning around until I got to the edge of the stage. I almost fell over. People were saying, ‘Ahhh,’ like they were breathing.”
Citing the influence of great performers like Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker (whom her aunt taught her in Sunday school), and Isadora Duncan, Cleveland emphasized the freedom women had at the time and how modeling emphasized it. “The underwear that we wore long ago in the 50s, we didn’t have under our clothes back then. So we had the freedom of the body. My style is to have that beauty of freedom,” she said. “We worked hard to have him [freedom] over hundreds of years. I am of mixed race. I don’t know what I am. I have all these things and I try to represent what that beautiful feeling is [being] at the moment in clothes.”
As a “Halstonette,” model and house muse, Royer pointedly described the nonstop workload the designer and his team faced as they toiled until 2 or 3 a.m. to perfect the outfits. Undeniably “a perfectionist,” Halston drafted Liza Minnelli to the event and wanted not only his team to succeed, but other teams as well, “because it represented American fashion,” Royer said. “She also represented American made-to-order, which is somewhat equivalent to French fashion. He wanted to identify American fashion and how it can be respected and understood. That was part of the pressure he had at the time.”
However, the conversation didn’t just highlight the highlights – many of the show’s challenges were also discussed. Asked if the event was terrifying — noting the lack of toilet paper, the cold indoor temperature of the building and the amount of chaos — Hardison said: “It was just shock. I don’t think it’s fair to say it was that awful… it was challenging. That’s for sure. We had so much evidence.”
Despite feeling like they weren’t being treated well by the hosts, the Americans pressed on and despite any competition, they came together in the end to top the Europeans. The models shared a greater sense of camaraderie, according to Cleveland. “We were like sisters in love. We planned our trip to Paris. We drink champagne on the plane. When we got off that plane, Billie Blair kissed the ground. Then we boarded that bus and were taken to a hotel. We were all talking together as schoolgirls – two in a queen size bed… it was hysterical. All those products we had and brought so many clothes with us in the belly of the plane. It was just overwhelming. We were just in showbiz. We all wanted to be dancing girls. We did our rehearsals in New York with Kay Thompson. She was ‘Funny Face’, Eloise on the Plaza, Liza Minnelli’s godmother and Judy Garland’s teacher. We were in showbiz so the show must go on and we did. We just walked into that rainbow and did our dance. It was really fun together.”
Givhan noted how the models’ responsibilities included learning the choreography and actually selling the clothes, which were unstructured and required making them come alive, so to speak. Royer agreed, explaining that the American models moved with a different fluidity than the European ones, which moved in a more regimented manner with small papers marked with numbers. Americans understood how the designer wanted them to bring out what they were wearing. “The clothes made the models. If you look at Pat or how Bethann walked the runway, it was, ‘Wow!’ This was from the heart… many of the American models had a great passion to be able to work with their stylists because they wanted to make a very complete presentation. This was a very important change for the French,” said Royer.
As for whether European design houses after Versailles were more enthusiastic about diversity and encouraging models to show more of their individuality on the runway, Cleveland said Italy was the first country to respond by hiring black models to do the shows. of the runway, followed by the Givenchy booth. from six internal Black models. “What happened to black girls with all the attempts at slavery and being hated and everything, this beauty bloomed like those flowers that bloom every 25 years or so. We were thriving. They say that a person’s character is like the perfume of their soul.”
However, earlier in the program, Hardison pointed out that Givenchy had received some backlash for its diversity efforts.
Regarding Halston’s lasting influence, Royer noted how from the beginning in 1972 the designer wanted “his booth to be one of many personalities and looks of girls with different gaits, but ones that were relaxed, liquid and in the hips,” she said. “Dresses are made to feel good. Once you were comfortable in them, then you started to become the total picture. If it’s on you and you feel good, you automatically feel a lot better.”
Fast forward to today, Givhan asked the panelists which designers they would pick for Team America if there were a Battle of Versailles today. Hardison nominated Ralph Rucci, Christopher John Rogers, Marc Jacobs, the Oscar de la Renta team (of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia) and Gabriela Hearst. Royer said she and Hardison think alike and pitched to Tom Ford as well as Hearst and tried to think of more female designers.
Givhan questioned what this says about the industry, but Hardison pointed out that it has always been a women’s business. “There have been great female designers forever. I always tell some young women [designing], ‘No matter how it looks. It’s still our job and don’t let go of the reins. [But] you’re right about that Rob; when you have to think so much [leading female designers today]. Pauline Trigère, Anne Klein, Liz Claiborne – you can just name them. It’s not like that [now]Hardison added.
As for her American Dream Team, Cleveland chose designers whose clothes she wears to events — Ralph Rucci, Naeem Khan, Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Tom Ford and now Ken Downing, who has Team Halston. I love them. I wear them when I sing. I wear them when I go to events. We talk on the phone. It’s so fantastic. And Mr. [Stephen] Burrows can make a comeback with these vintage pieces, which I still wear. So I’d have them all there — in time for the party.”