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Photo courtesy Flatiron Books
Photo courtesy Flatiron Books

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Reviewed: Robin Givhan's Book on the Night that Changed Fashion Forever

The Battle of Versailles will appeal to both history buffs and fashion obsessives.

On November 28, 1973, in the ornate Théâtre Gabriel at the Palace of Versailles, five American upstart designers faced off against five legends of French haute couture in a dazzling charity fashion show that would later be dubbed "The Battle of Versailles" by Women's Wear Daily's John Fairchild.

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As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan explains in her exceptional new book, The Battle of Versailles, this grand event reflected the social upheaval of the era, from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. to labor disputes in late ‘60s France. The rise of Black Power had inaugurated the "black is beautiful" mantra, Maya Angelou had published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings four years earlier, and female participation in the workforce had grown by almost 50% since the 1950s. Designers and advertisers were growing interested in black models, ten of whom appeared at Versailles. The sexual revolution inspired American designer Stephen Burrows's featherweight, curve-hugging jersey dresses, and the growing independence of the country's working women was on display in Anne Klein's streamlined sportswear.

In effect, the evening's performance represented the triumph of a liberating future over the rigid formality of the past.

Packed with stars of the international jet set, diplomats, royals, and style columnists, the opulent theatre—dripping with seven chandeliers, lined with blue velvet benches, and dotted with gold pillars—served as a dramatic backdrop for the designers and their competing egos. By the end of the evening, after two hours of ostentatious presentations by the French featuring elaborately constructed stage sets and a live orchestra, the Americans and their ready-to-wear had trumped the French tradition of custom, made-to-order gowns and introduced the concept of modern sportswear that remains the dominant style of dress today. In effect, the evening's performance represented the triumph of a liberating future over the rigid formality of the past.

While the Americans' fashion philosophy had advanced in light of civil rights developments, the customs of the French remained based on an entrenched legacy of nobility dating back to Marie Antoinette. To be part of the exclusive French fashion world, with its personal fittings and lavish parties, a woman needed the right family lineage, social standing in society, and connections. But as the powerful transformations of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s began to dominate the cultural conversation, the status quo began to change. The new comfortable silhouettes and fabrics not only transformed the American fashion industry, but catalyzed an evolution toward the prominence of ready-to-wear in France.

Stephen Burrows and friends on Fire Island. Photo courtesy Flatiron Books.

In this heightened environment of progress and rebellion, five American designers traveled to Paris for the charity event that changed fashion forever.

Dominican Republic-born Oscar de la Renta was coming into his own as a designer of sweeping, romantic gowns. De la Renta competitor and friend Bill Blass had begun creating easy daywear inspired by New York's café society. Roy Halston Frowick—a Midwesterner who started out as a window dresser and hat-maker in Chicago—was now a wealthy designer to the stars known solely as Halston. Anne Klein, the show's only female designer, was lambasted by the other participants for her casual sportswear separates made for the modern working woman.

The final American designer, an earnest African-American FIT graduate named Stephen Burrows, is in many ways the star of Givhan's story. An independent thinker, his bold color combinations, feather embellishments, and sultry silhouettes were derived from the disco era of drugs and dancing on New York's Fire Island.

They confronted five giants of French design: Hubert de Givenchy, Marc Bohan of Dior, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Yves Saint Laurent. Known for his close relationship with treasured client Audrey Hepburn, Hubert de Givenchy's studied structural lines and sumptuous evening wear were a byproduct of his friendship with Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. Bohan, a shy, unassuming fellow who took over Dior in 1961, gained fame for what editors labeled the "Slim Line," a more subtle, less exaggerated approach to design.

Pierre Cardin—notorious for his myriad licensing deals on everything from cigarette lighters to wigs—was one of the first French designers to enter ready-to-wear, provoking the disdain of colleagues including Balenciaga. Another disciple of the aforementioned couturier, Emanuel Ungaro's clothes were a romantic ode to bohemia featuring minidresses in layered patterns and delicate fabrics. Finally, Yves Saint Laurent—an unstoppable force in French fashion—had forever altered the design landscape with the debut of his women's tuxedo, dubbed le smoking, in 1966. He would continue on to become a legend, both for his collections inspired by such varied influences as Mondrian, Africa, bikers, and gypsies, and for his infamous hard-partying ways.

Analytical and detailed, Givhan's chronicle contextualizes the event within a heated era of social change.

Through extensive interviews with the remaining designers, models, and journalists who were present at Versailles—along with observations from scholars like Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Givhan carefully weaves together the narratives of each designer and model. Analytical and detailed, her chronicle contextualizes the event within a heated era of social change. Her anecdotal style of writing is compelling and easy to read, and her ability to draw modern comparisons—the relative restraint at today's Met Gala and Washington soirees, for instance, in contrast to the garish display of millions of dollars worth of jewels by the guests at Versailles—makes this nostalgic story of a night in 1973 feel not only relevant, but current.

In her columns at The Washington Post, Givhan has become known for her keen ability to examine fashion through the mirror of larger socio-cultural trends, a talent that makes her uniquely qualified to tackle the tale of Versailles. Due to the limits placed on the presence of photographers and press at the event by Marie-Helene de Rothschild—the eccentric socialite who served as the event's chairwoman on the French side—documentation of the night remains limited. In light of this fact, Givhan's meticulous reporting becomes even more valuable.

For history buffs, The Battle of Versailles is a tale of how the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, from student protests to disco fever to the rise of Black Power, led to widespread social changes that opened doors for minorities and women. For fashion enthusiasts, the book is an inside look at a night of glamour and enchantment featuring ten of the most revered and controversial designers ever. For the casual reader, it's a masterful hybrid of research and storytelling of the night that American fashion came alive on the world stage.


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