In November 1973, a cadre of handpicked American fashion designers and their entourage descend upon Paris to take their French counterparts on at their own game. According to the film Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, it was a watershed moment in fashion history, ushering in a new era of ready to wear clothing and introducing a new, contemporary form of fashion show.
Whether this point of view is true is ultimately unimportant, although fashion had certainly been moving towards a less formal mode for some time. In London for instance, designers such as Mary Quant and Ossie Clark had already developed a long history of energetic fashion shows, and Chloe in Paris was a developing brand of serious ready-to-wear fashion. Perhaps it takes the juxtaposition of the contemporary beside the traditional, such as happened at Versailles, to underscore the extent of the changes that were then occurring, not just in fashion, but in society as a whole.
The event had initially been organised as an elaborate fundraiser for the restoration of Versailles Palace but the story told is actually one of personalities and the clashing of cultures. With John Gallanos and Geoffery Beene having both turned down invitations to participate, the Americans opted for Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and the virtually unknown, young black designer, Stephen Burrows, to take on the couture might of St Laurent, Givenchy, Dior, Ungaro and Cardin, with modern, accessible designs that resisted the formula of elitist made-to-measure gowns.
Partying and bitching ensue on the trans-Atlantic flight to Paris as narrated by a host of models, many of whom had been enjoying their first foray abroad. The film is dominated by this kind of talking-head reminiscence which has some fun moments. Once on the ground and rehearsals have begun, the back-biting continues, firstly between the Americans and their hosts who refuse to acknowledge their existence, denying them first food and water then even loo paper. Then follows the infighting as the diva antics of Halston frustrate his colleagues as they via for rehearsal time through the night.
Miraculously, it is from the fiasco that comes the fabulous. Miscommunication over choreography and staging leads to stripped down moves and striped down sets. While the French presentation of Wagnerian proportions runs to 2 ½ hours, (including giant pumpkins and er… reindeer), the Americans seize the day with a 35 minute blitzkrieg. Fresh from her Academy Award win for Cabaret, Liza Minnelli opens a performance that electrifies the audience- Princess Grace of Monaco herself leads proceedings in flinging her program in the air at its conclusion.
Given the social upheavals the French had endured in 1968, it seems remarkable how bound by tradition their fashion system remained. Even though St Laurent had pushed that system into new territory by becoming the first couturier to launch a ready-to-wear line (pret-a-porter), he and all his compatriots were blown away by the fresh spirit of the Americans. This reflects perhaps some fundamental differences that had emerged between Europe and America since the second world war; France continued in its hierarchal notions of taste and culture, America had encouraged an egalitarian and democratic model of consumer culture. Near the end of his career St Laurent proclaimed the blue jean the one design he wished to had have pioneered, and consistent with his love of popular culture he apparently proclaimed Stephen Burrows the stand out collection of the occasion, full of youth, flamboyance and colour that it was.
It really is a very American tale however, the film presenting their own pioneering attributes over the perceived fustiness of the French model. Almost the entire content draws upon American accounts, whether designer (Burrows is the only designer who presented that is actually in the film), assistant or model. The main disappointment however is in the dearth of actual footage from the Versailles show itself, probably five minutes of colour ‘runway’ footage and a few black and white stills are all that is shown.
The more interesting story however, is the emergence of a new wave of models, and indeed, way of modelling. Unusually, (for both that period and now), black models dominated the American show and they contribute to much of the film’s narration with humour and élan. Recollections of sashaying down the runway, breasts covered with nothing but a fan, point to the new, provocative space fashion was then heading in. With such little time on the clothes however, many may find this film disappointing. Halston, Burrows and de la Renta dominant the discussions and yet while ready to wear was apparently trampling over the toes of the traditions of couture, it’s premier proponent of contemporary daywear, Anne Klein, is given scant attention or screen time.
Versailles ’73 reflects the spirit of the age rather than convincing that this particular fashion show was ground zero for contemporary fashion. What we see instead is the breakdown of social barriers in many forms, the beginnings of a globalised fashion system and perhaps most relevant, early signs of the spectacle that fashion would become in the following decades.