How Black Models Helped America Beat France at Fashion

The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973 was a moment in time that would set the tone for the future of fashion industry.

In deviously delicious PR stunt to raise money to restore the Palace of Versailles, the fashion show was billed as a battle between American designers like Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, and French designers such as Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent.

And the show also featured eleven black models, like Pat Cleveland and Billie Blair, which at the time was truly groundbreaking.

I got the chance to speak with executive producer and creative director of the 2016 Battles at Versailles documentary Susan Hootstein and got her take on covering such a triumphant event and the moments that changed the game forever. 

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Why did you feel the need to make another documentary of the battle even after a past documentary and book depiction of it were already done? 

Not only was Battle at Versailles a story of triumphing over adversity, it changed the trajectory of American fashion and put American designers on the map. We wanted to celebrate the moment that legitimized American fashion by creating a documentary that provided a deeper look in to the story. While there have been past iterations of the historic Versailles show, there has never been a documentary that allowed viewers to truly peer into the past. We made Battle at Versailles to bring the behind-the-scenes story to life. 

After viewing the Battle at Versailles, it wasn’t just the presence of American fashion that won the French crowd over, but the inclusion of African American models as well. Why do you think that moment was so important in black history?

There were 11 African-American models walking on that runway in Versailles, which was an incredibly unprecedented number at the time. By including African American models, the American designers, particularly Stephen Burrows, equivocally tied American fashion to the zeitgeist of 1970’s American Civil Rights movement and brought black beauty to the center of fashion on an international stage.  

What was it like interviewing the last living designer of the Battle at Versailles, Stephen Burrows, being that he played a huge part in bringing in the biggest group of black models in France?

Not only did Stephen Burrows, alongside Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein change the course of American fashion, he brought the oft-marginalized color and body of the African-American woman to the forefront of contour fashion—celebrating the beauty of the black woman in a way that had never been done before—so hearing his story was both a privilege and an honor. 

Even though the inclusion of black models broke grounds back in 1973, do you think even then the fashion world viewed the inclusion of them as some sort of “trend” or did people think that it was something that would become a permanent part of the industry in creating diversity? 

I think the inclusion of black models brought something fresh and new to the fashion world of the 60’s and 70’s that left a lasting mark on the industry. Even so, though, Versailles didn’t change diversity in fashion overnight. I’m sure some in the fashion world thought black models were a “trend” or a “publicity stunt”. Indeed, even now, the industry still has a long way to go in terms of including diversity. However, Versailles marked a turning point in the way people viewed black skin, beauty, and fashion.

Was it considered risky at the time to cast black models in fashion shows in New York City? What about in France?

There was always risk during the height of the civil rights movement—the 1970s in America was a hotbed of unrest and protest and France had its own deeply mined prejudices. Even so, though, casting black models was slowly becoming more common in the States and while African-Americans were still marginalized, black woman were finding more opportunities to model.  

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How did the presence of black models at the Battle of Versailles change fashion?

The presence of black models at the Battle of Versailles changed fashion by giving people a new perspective on beauty. These models married dark toned skin with bright colors in a world where the pastel palette of couture clothing catered to white skin. 

How do you think the Battle Versailles changed the game for fashion week and fashion in its entirety?

The American designers and models transformed the actual concept of a fashion show. Incorporating movement, music, and a performance quality, they created a show more akin to Broadway musical (complete with Liza Minnelli), which offered something completely new compared to the static, silent French runway. These elements of fluidity and music are still used in fashion shows today.

What was one of the best discoveries about the battle that you didn’t know before?

I loved learning about how Pat Cleveland and Marisa Berenson help Liza Minnelli’s get over her pre-show jitters right before performing that amazing number during the show!

For full documentary click here.

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