Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution
On a snowy night in late November in 1973, Paris was burning, as first-time filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper shows in her rough-hewn, repetitive, yet still lively documentary on the “Battle of Versailles,” in which five top French couturiers faced off against an equal number of American ready-to-wear designers at the royal château. Team USA consisted of Halston, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Stephen Burrows, one of the many veterans of the event Draper interviews. Behind mirrored sunglasses, Burrows speaks nonchalantly about the chilly reception the Yanks got; more animated recollections issue forth from the models, several of them African-American, who recall the absence of toilet paper, heat, and food. Despite these privations, the New World destroyed the ancien régime. A tacky, creaky, and bloated variety show, the French presentation included pumpkin coaches, waltzes, and a mechanical rhino pulling a Gypsy cart with 10 Ungaro models. The U.S. segment, in the words of model Alva Chinn, favored simplicity: “Beautiful clothes on good-looking people just moving across the stage” to the sounds of Barry White and Al Green. “It was the presence of these African-American models that really animated the stage,” notes Harold Koda of the Met’s Costume Institute—a sentiment that fashion historian Barbara Summers expresses more memorably: The crowd was “peeing in their seats because these girls were so fabulous.”
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