Battle of Versailles recounted in new documentary

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

What began as an international exhibition in 1973 quickly became a historic fashion design contest that changed the trajectory of

runway style while putting African-American models on the map.

The story of the Grand Divertissement à Versailles, a legendary show that pitted French designers against their American counterparts, is chronicled in the documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” which was released earlier this year and screened Nov. 13 at Film Row Cinema in the Conaway Center. Work from the American designers who were part of  the historic show is currently on display in the lobby of the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building.

Politics, economics and stereotypes figure prominently in the documentary and the conversation that followed its screening. The fashion industry had historically shied away from the use of black models, so their professional opportunities were limited. Vogue magazine didn’t feature a black model on the cover of its British edition until actress Donyale Luna in the March  1966 issue.

“The establishment establishes beauty based on what they think is general market aesthetic,” said Deborah Riley Draper, director and executive producer of the documentary. “As the country changes and becomes brown, you’re going to see a definitive shift in the faces that you see in media, but that shift has been very slow and very painful.”

The ’73 fashion show, which raised money to repair Versailles through ticket sales, was the work of famous fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace  of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp. The event catered to some of the wealthiest and most influential socialites of the decade. Draper, who attended the screening, said 650 guests and media outlets from around the world converged at the event, which launched American ready-to-wear fashions and challenged French domination of the fashion industry.

“[The documentary] was inspiring,” said Niche Pryor, a fashion studies alumna who attended the screening. “[Women of color] brought soul [and] innovation to the runway. As an aspiring model, it definitely motivated me to keep going.”

The 400-year-old art of combining innovative design with custom-fitted clothing known as haute couture made France the fashion capital of the world, Draper said.  Designers Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro represented French fashion and picked out their American competitors. Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows accepted the invitation, bringing their ready-to-wear designs with them. Each American designer was given a $5,000 budget compared to the French designers’ $30,000, forcing the Americans to share models to cut costs.

In the film, the French delayed rehearsals and provided the Americans with ill-equipped bathrooms. Similarly, the American sets weren’t built to scale and could not be used.  The French planned elaborate staging that took more than two hours to present.

“I’m one of the few people who was impressed by the Paris presentation,” said Norma Jean Darden, who modeled at the famous fashion show, during the Q-and-A following the screening. “I loved the circus, and that’s what it was.”

There was original footage showing off Klein’s classical day wear and Burrows’ dresses with exaggerated, rainbow-hued trains.

The American aesthetic, body language and beauty standards on display at the show shifted the paradigm of the fashion world, according to the film.

“[That trip] was one glamorous sacrifice, but it really was the rising tide that lifted all boats,” said Mikki Taylor, a former model and Essence magazine editor-at-large. “We were no longer sent away and told to come back another day, or, ‘We really can’t use someone like you.’”

Draper learned about the Versailles show in 2011 and was instantly enamored of its significance. Without this show, she said, fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford might not have been welcomed as heads of prestigious French houses.

She said making the film showed her that establishing one’s identity through fashion can be a political and social statement.

Darden said the symbolic American victory at Versailles wasn’t permanent  because style is  fluid.

“When we came back, we were in fashion, [but] I remember going on a go-see and [someone] says, ‘Well, black girls are over now,’” she said. “Fashion carries itself, and it needs new momentum and it goes to the next thing. Hopefully, that little string of democracy is still flowing through, but fashion is fashion.”