American conversations on race tend to cluster around singular events: The Emancipation Proclamation, Brown vs. The Board of Education, the election of Barack Obama. They become historical signposts used to demonstrate how race—here black vs. white—has progressed in the country. Robin Givhan’s book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History (Flatiron Books) questions if the 1973 show at the Palace of Versailles that pitted American designers versus French designers was indeed such a moment for the fashion world. The stage was presented as America vs. France, but the spotlight was seized by American blackness.
Held on November 28, 1973, the evening in question was a created to help restore the ornate Palace of Versailles, home of the French government under Louis XIV, which needed substantial renovations. Fundraisers Gérald and Florence van der Kemp along with American fashion champion Eleanor Lambert came up with this idea of hosting a fashion show that brought together five American designers (Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Roy Halston Frowick, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta) and five French designers (Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro). Lambert saw an opportunity to display the skill of new American designers versus the French establishment, but in her book, Givhan isn’t quite so enamored with the need to prove American might. Instead, her focus is on the ten black models of the thirty-six American models chosen, and the young upstart black designer Stephen Burrows.
Givhan, the current fashion critic for The Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006, and season after season writes some of the most insightful fashion writing there is. Her critical eye comes through in the book in that she never shies away from the faults of the designers, on or off the runway. Of Anne Klein, the only woman designer in the mix, Givhan writes, “She wasn’t a fragile artist struggling to turn out one collection after another.” Then a sportswear designer—a still-stigmatized genre in those days—Klein was disrespected not only by the French, but also her American peers. A singular uplifting narrative arc might have been easier to manage, but Givhan doesn’t gloss over such tensions.
Through Steven Burrows and the handful of black models at the Versailles battle, however, Givhan finds her real subject. She writes of Burrows, the youngest and of course the only black designer, that “he wasn’t trying to prove himself to the kings of couture, he just wanted to put on a show in a new place, to try something he’d never tried before.” Barely 30 when he made the trip to Paris, he wasn’t so swept up by the opportunity as his peers. His style took from the New York environment he lived in day-to-day, not the couture legacy of Paris.
But black models Billie Blair, Bethann Hardison and Amina Warsuma were more wide-eyed by the opportunity in front of them. Being flown to Europe to model in Paris was a far cry from home. In the post-1960s Civil Rights Era, America was trying to repair its race relations, while the fashion industry was only started to play catch-up to these social shifts. Though the pay wasn’t great, the moment was still worth celebrating. Givhan writes: “In an era that predated Transportation Security Administration, before flight crews called police at the sight of passengers loitering in groups, before smoking was banned, and when booze was still free, the models clustered about the airplane, chattering about their upcoming adventure and basking in their own success.”
Drama abounded in preparations—Bill Blass and Halston’s disagreement over the order in which the designers would show their collections nearly broke the Americans—but once that was resolved, the shoe-string budget was nipped and disagreements over models were quashed, the show could begin. The irony is that for a fashion moment historically important enough to justify a book, the actual event was mostly just about famous people gathering, drinking, and watching some models in clothes. The deeper context Givhan provides helps establish the sheer amount of production it took in corralling all this talent, on and off stage, to make this event work beyond simply displaying clothes. “The historical record is slim,” Givhan tersely states, “on the details of the fashions that came down the runway that evening.”
It’s hard to not chuckle reading that line more than two-thirds of a way into the book. Once the crowd’s reactions and many pre- and post-parties are recounted, the actual Battle of Versailles gets a single chapter. But the evening of glamour is clearly not what drove Givhan to the the topic—though the American designers, by all accounts, put on the better show. Givhan seizes that post-curtain call moment to consider the impact, if any, on the contemporary places of blacks within the fashion industry. At the time, the inclusion of ten black models and one black designer gave the event the feel of progress, the idea that not only could American fashion be presented alongside the work of the French masters, but that the American fashion could proudly reflect the diversity of the country. At least that was the hope.
Before the start of New York Fashion Week this year, Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times wrote on the lack of black representation in fashion:
“Of the 260 shows on the men’s and women’s schedule, only three with any global reach are by African-American designers: Tracy Reese, Public School and Hood By Air… This mirrors the percentage of African-American designers who are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America: approximately 12 out of 470.”
In the closing pages of Battle of Versailles, Givhan appears a bit defeated, admitting that often blackness in the fashion industry is truly just a trend. In the Epilogue, she found a moment to celebrate in Rick Owens’s monochromatic F/W 2014 collection show, which put black step teams on the runway in Paris. It was an inspired choice, but again, it was just one moment. Givhan’s book paid tribute to a wondrous evening, retains a palpable frustration with how little changed in the decades since, and with any luck, will point us forward to a time when blackness is not just a trend to be whitewashed away next season.
Images via Flatiron Books/Robin Givhan by Helayne Seidman