Robin Givhan on How the Battle of Versailles Irrevocably Changed Fashion

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Photo: Matteo Prandoni/BFAnyc.com/BFA NYC

Fashion books tend to lean toward doorstop-size retrospectives, but Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan chose a much narrower lens for her latest book. Givhan spent years researching and meticulously re-creating one of the most influential fashion shows of the 20th century: 1973's Battle of Versailles. The event was framed as a "battle" between a group of American designers — including Halston, Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass — and a more established wing of French talents, notably Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro. Everyone from Liza Minnelli to Jane Birkin to Josephine Baker performed, with Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly present in the glittering crowd. By most accounts, the Americans came out victorious, as did, at least for that night, a cadre of African-American models including Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, and Billie Blair, among others, who were widely agreed upon as the stars of the show. Givhan took time out of her book tour schedule to chat with us about how she developed an affinity for the topic and why the show was such a watershed in fashion history.

What appealed to you about this specific moment in time, and why did you decide to write about it?

Several designers who had been involved had discussed it. Bill Blass had discussed it in his memoir, and Stephen Burrows had mentioned it. His mention of it had caused me to go back and try to find clips describing the event. It ended up being a very short paragraph in the context of a short feature about him. But I didn’t really know much about it until the Met hosted a luncheon [in 2011] celebrating the models who had been there. Ordinarily, I don’t think I would have been particularly interested in recounting the story of just a fashion show, but this was intriguing to me because of the time period, and because there was so much going on in the culture beyond fashion that all seemed to conspire to make this happen and make it resonate the way that it did.

This was a watershed moment in a lot of ways, but I thought it was interesting that you pointed out that it didn’t change certain systemic things in the fashion industry. It didn’t mean that runways got more diverse, for example.

My feeling about it was that it was this historical moment that had an impact on fashion. But as I started looking at what was going on now and how it all panned out, particularly for the American designers who were involved, I found that, in some ways, those who were most directly involved didn’t necessarily reap the benefits. By the last chapter, I was thinking, this is so depressing!

What Versailles had really done for [the American designers] was to give them a kind of psychic boost. I think that it also underscored this idea that couture is one thing – the whole sort of Paris fashion tradition is one thing – America is doing something different, but not something that’s less than. It’s equally viable. It served as a kind of undeniable announcement to the French that ready-to-wear was the future. One of the things the Americans did so well at Versailles that made them stand out was this idea of the street crashing through into this very formal, ornate theater. Not even just with the clothes, but the music that they chose, which was popular as opposed to classical music, the fact that it was recorded music as opposed to a live orchestra, and the fact that the models were so unbound – these women doing their own thing as opposed to very politely falling into this very precise promenade across the stage.

You were talking about how Bethann [Hardison, who modeled in the show] had this distinctive lean.

[Photographer] Charles Tracy called it this gangster swagger, which in that context is astounding, because you just had these very graceful French models walking out with excerpts from Cinderella playing in the background, and then all of a sudden, Bethann strutting out. She even talks about how her look was so different. She had a real tomboy look, which was unusual for the time.

The American designers were also targeting youthful, cool people, whereas high fashion used to be geared towards mature women.

In the '50s, women aspired to dress like their mothers — this polished, controlled, formal way of dressing. Then all of a sudden in the '60s, going into the '70s, they stopped dressing like their mothers. They started dressing in a way that was very distinctive for that period and reflected the lives that they were leading, as opposed to the lives that they were expected to lead. It allowed them to break free of so many of the constraints of the past, but at the same time, it sort of led us to a point of overly celebrating youth.

The French half came across as more dated and Old World; they were walking to ballet music and the clothes were very staid.

They made a decision that they were going to show couture instead of ready-to-wear. At this point Yves Saint Laurent had established [his ready-to-wear arm] Rive Gauche, and could have used Rive Gauche but chose not to. They made strategic choices that celebrated the tradition and grandeur of French fashion as opposed to the future of French fashion.

I was trying to imagine something like this happening today, in the sense of a really built-up fashion face-off. Today, there wouldn’t really be this excitement: “Let’s see French designers and American designers face off.” Why do you think that was such a selling point?

I think that gave it a level of importance to the way that fashion was situated in the culture at that point — people looked upon it as something that had a kind of substance to it, or that had the suggestibility of provoking change — and I think it had a kind of weightiness to it that is not so clear today. Things like the State Department hosting fashion shows internationally, the fact that the White House would host a fashion show, or people would have gone to a fund-raiser at Bergdorf Goodman [that promoted] race relations. People believed that fashion could have this capacity to be a engine of social change.

Were there French outlets that phrased the event more as a victory for the French or were they pretty dismissive of the Americans?

No, not in anything I’ve found, pretty much everyone said the Americans had done a better job. I think in many ways the [French] production was so stilted that nobody saw the clothes, and the American production was so entertaining.

What kinds of lessons do you think the designers took away from the experience?

One of the real joys of the early reporting on this book was being able to talk at length with Oscar de la Renta about the show and about the things leading up to it. I didn’t really say this in the book, but I do wonder if he took a lesson from what he saw that evening at Versailles — seeing the French celebrating their past, essentially, and realizing how dangerous that was. He really talked about how he was never really focused on an archive, he was not really focused on looking back. He didn’t say that it was because of Versailles, but just in thinking about it, it makes me wonder if that was just a lesson that he took [from it], even subconsciously.

This interview has been edited and condensed.