*Thirty-seven years ago, renowned fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles’ curator Gerald van der Kemp created a benefit défilé at the Palace of Versailles’ Theatre Gabriel to restore the aging structure and provide exposure for American fashion.
The event was a fashion battle between French and American style in which American designers Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein faced French couturiers Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emmanuel Ungaro for runway supremacy.
The French designers presented their collections in a two-hour series of elaborate vignettes. Each side had its stars: Josephine Baker performed for the French, followed by the Americans who opened with Liza Minnelli singing “Bonjour Paris” surrounded by a multicultural rainbow of 36 models on a sparse stage
Throughout the half-hour celebration of American ingenuity and minimalism, the audience erupted in mounting cheers, stomping and tossing their programs in the air at pivotal moments. When all the models appeared for the finale dressed in black, the audience rose to its feet at the American triumph. American fashion gained the respect it craved and the world of fashion and modeling was transformed.
Sadly, according to Barbara Summers, former African American model, the foremost authority on the history of black models, and author of ‘Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models’ & ‘Black and Beautiful’: “that while the African American models were indeed the stars of the show, their reward was little more than symbolic. After enduring tears, fights, prima donna trips by both models and designers and 11 hours of rehearsing without food and little water, they had some priceless memories, but little else. The models were in fact discussing the formation of a union to upgrade their working conditions and improve their pay. The actual reality was that these fabulous performers received less than fabulous sums of twenty-five dollars per day for spending money and three hundred dollars in salary for the show.”
What the models did demonstrated a level of exuberant showmanship that set the international standard for runway presentation and editorial layouts for years to come. Later that year, American Vogue featured an African American model on its cover for the first time, and the success of the Versailles models paved the way for the diverse supermodels that followed.
The winners were 10 fresh faces of color that awed the international set and gave birth to the supermodel. Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, China Machado, Ramona Saunders and Amina Warsuma represented a diverse and multicultural group on the runway and made history that resonated throughout the world and became a defining moment in American fashion history.
Now more than three decades later, the magnificent models are getting their just desserts.
On a bitter cold and windy Monday afternoon, January 24, 2011, furs were flying as beaux mondes ascended the numerous steps at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to attend a celebratory salute to the legendary models who participated in the now famous “Grand Divertissement ὰ Versailles: Fashion Show of 1973.”
The commemorative luncheon took place in the Temple of Dendur and was hosted by Thomas P. Campbell, director, The Met; Harold Koda, curator in charge, The Costume Institute; Donna Williams, chief audience development officer, the Met; and co-hosted by iconic designers Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows.
The star-studded luncheon attracted a stellar crowd that mixed and mingled with museum officers and trustees, as well as the event host committee members including Gayle Perkins Atkins, Marisa Berenson, Francisco Costa, Tom Fallon, Diane von Furstenberg, Iman, Jane Holzer, Donna Karan, Carol Sutton Lewis, b michael, Sarah Jessica Parker, Linda Johnson Rice, Desiree Rogers, Audrey Smaltz, Lizzie Tisch, Isabel & Ruben Toledo, Veronica Webb and Jason Wu.
In his remarks Burrows congratulated the models for their global contribution to the world of fashion. “The models in the famed 1973 Versailles Fashion Show altered perceptions of American fashion’s presentation on the world stage, nearly 40 years ago,” Burrows noted. “I could not think of a more deserving group of women and dear friends who helped us define a new era in fashion as we began our careers all those years ago, nor a more defining organization to deliver this recognition,” Burrows concluded.
The Met’s president Emily K. Rafferty was joined onstage by Burrows and de la Renta in presenting each model with a proclamation to the roar of the celestial crowd noting that these models were indeed the stars of the show then and now. (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.