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'The Battle of Versailles': Robin Givhan on an epic fashion smackdown

Robin Givhan, author of "The Battle of Versailles"

Robin Givhan, author of "The Battle of Versailles" (Flatiron, March 2015). Credit: Helayne Seidman

THE BATTLE OF VERSAILLES: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History, by Robin Givhan. Flatiron Books, 310 pp., $27.99.

Fashion competitions are the tired stuff of reality shows these days, but not so back on Nov. 28, 1973, when perhaps the world's most epic fashion smackdown was waged. In "The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History," Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic for The Washington Post, chronicles the drama, infighting and intrigue of the event. What began as a fashion-show fundraiser for the restoration of Louis XIV's palace in Versailles, France, heralded the energy and fresh ideas of American designers, celebrated African-American models and ultimately altered the history of fashion.

Givhan's account plays out like a scene from "Rocky" set in the leaky-roofed, termite-ridden palace. In one corner, hailing from Seventh Avenue, was an ill-prepared, underfunded, underestimated team of designers -- Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein (with her pregnant young assistant, Donna Karan, in tow). In the opposite corner, the haughty French masters -- Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. "For the American designers," writes Givhan, "walking to their private boxes to watch the show felt like entering the Colosseum to be devoured by the lions."

The French not only had home court advantage, they had loads more money. Each designer got to spend $30,000, and private donors contributed an additional $80,000. The entire American budget was $50,000. The French built wildly elaborate sets, hired a live orchestra and presented a pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty" by Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park. Josephine Baker performed the finale, emerging in a "sequined, chocolate-colored catsuit, feather headdress, and fur." The French portion of the show lasted almost two hours, and although the audience response was tepidly polite, Blass fretted aloud, "My God, they've buried us alive."

The Americans opened with Liza Minnelli. Their portion lasted 35 minutes, featured recorded music, and was backed by a simple line drawing of the Eiffel Tower. The models barely rehearsed. Ten of the 30 models were African-American -- "notably integrated," writes Givhan, even by today's standards. To the sounds of Al Green, the black models infused the show with movement and life. De la Renta, who died last October, told Givhan, "What made our show was the black American models. There is zero question about that." The audience responded with thunderous applause and shouts of "Bravo!" at the end of the American show. "The joie de vivre of American fashion had been made plain by the models," writes Givhan. "The clothes had been shown with personality, movement, and individuality."

The author uses the show as a focal point for reporting on the emergence of black models and designers (such as Burrows). In one chapter, she details a 1969 promotion dubbed, "Basic Black at Bergdorf's," at which African-American designers were heralded, and attendees were served what would be considered today a wildly impolitic menu of fried chicken, collard greens and chitterlings at the department store. Elsewhere, she recounts how Norma Jean Darden, a black student at Sarah Lawrence during the 1950s, was sent to Mademoiselle as a student model for an upcoming issue and "dismissed outright," after being told the magazine was for white women. Darden would be one of the models at Versailles.

But it isn't only the power of the black models heralded here. The power of women in general is a reoccurring theme, whether that of high-society types such as Babe Paley and Nan Kempner elevating designers' status by simply wearing them, to an unappreciated Anne Klein, who, as the only female designer at Versailles, triumphed. Most significant is the marketing prowess and downright chutzpah of Eleanor Lambert, fashion's original publicist, who, writes Givhan, "almost single-handedly established a fashion industry in America." The battle was her idea.

"The Battle of Versailles" is a fashion primer, a history lesson and a juicy tale with colorful and insightful character studies. At its essence, it is a contest of old guard -- the formal French who were steeped in tradition -- versus the new, and the high-spirited Americans' fresh, unharnessed, emerging identity. "The tale unfolded in France, but the story is wholly American: a culmination of social shifts, racial conflict, politics, ambition, idealism and magic," writes Givhan.

Versailles did not prove that American fashion was better than French, but instead it "helped fuel a transformation that made fashion less dogmatic, more democratic and invigorating. Fashion became a flashy, exuberant, open party that seemed to welcome everyone."

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