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The Battle of Versailles

The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History - Robin Givhan

This was an entertaining, gossipy, cultural & fashion history that described events that led up to and surrounded the glittery night in 1973 at the Theatre Gabriel in the Chateau de Versailles.  It was a fashion show that pitted five American designers against Five French designers.  In the end, the Americans completely brought the house down and put the world on notice that American ready-to-wear fashion was to be taken seriously.

The book starts out as a mini-history lesson in how French haute couture developed and how as a result, France and French designers became the defining body of what was chic and fashionable. It moves across the pond to also give background on how the American fashion scene developed.

It is chock full of dropped names, including not only designers as far back as Worth, but also socialites, industry big wigs, society matrons, taste arbiters and even the models. Almost every person mentioned gets a mini-biography distilled into giving you just enough information to make their story interesting and relevant. The result is it gives the book a chatty intimacy that made the pages really turn.


The French designers were a who's who of haute couture heavy hitters: Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior.


Their American counterparts consisted of Oscar de la Renta - the only one to have a background in classical French haute couture as he was trained by the famous Balenciaga.  Halston --whose company had just been bought out by a financier so he was flush with cash & ego.  Bill Blass,  Anne Klein (the lone woman among the ten designers) and Stephan Burrows -- a young African American wunderkind who danced to disco and partied at Fire Island.

The book does a great job of building up anticipation and suspense for when it finally gets to The Event. The run up is chock full of anecdotes of the personalities, insecurities, battles and genius of not only the ten designers involved, but also of the models themselves.

I admit what really attracted me to the book was what little I had heard over the years about the involvement and yes, triumph, of the black models in the show. A lot of the credit for the success of the Americans at the event is given to the black models. They only made up 1/3 of the models included (10 out of 30) but their presence is heavily felt.

One of the things that I heard over the years -- and what this book reaffirmed -- is that the fierce walk/strut/showmanship of he black models was a huge factor in how the clothes were presented. It also created a major contrast between the vitality, youth, brashness of the American show and the staid, stiff almost too much pageantry of the French show.

The author invokes the name of the Ebony Fashion Fair as an influence on that showmanship and I immediately 'saw' in my mind's eye what it must have looked like as she describes Pat Cleveland whirling down the runway like a moth while the sophisticated Parisian onlookers gasp in awe.


One of the biggest downers of the book is the lack of pictures. There is a good reason for this as we learn in the book. It was a confluence of many factors that make images of this night somewhat scarce. The chairperson of the event, Helene Marie de Rothschild ruthlessly controlled any access to images as she wanted to preserve an air of exclusivity for the show. In addition the official American photographer was drafted to help out backstage and was not able to take as many photographs as he could have. And finally, Liza Minelli was the celebrity performer for the Americans and her contract stipulated no film.

Since the author could do a romance novelist proud in her breathless descriptions of the looks of the models and the clothes, I found myself relentlessly googling images of people just to see what they looked like. Additionally I decided to watch the Versailles '73 documentary done by Deborah Riley Draper to work as sort of a visual companion piece to the book. This proved go be a great decision as the documentary had some images and even some filmed snippets and many of the personal reminiscence of the models and others who were there affirmed much of what was written in the book.


I liked a lot of other little side stories as well:  The utter lack of respect the other designers seemed to have for Anne Klein even though she was probably at the time the most savvy businessperson of them all.   The utter chaos of the rehearsals.  When the Americans discovered that Josephine Baker would be a celebrity performer for the French, Oscar de la Renta approached her and asked if she would have lunch with him and the black models (whom he had noticed were goggling at her with awe).  As one model later said 'That was the best moment of my life.'   How all the other designers were busy sniping at each other except Stephen Burrows who saw the whole thing as one big party.  Fittingly it was his segment that first brought the French to their feet.  And just the descriptions of the enthusiastic reaction of the jaded French audience to the Americans' presentation. 

All in all this was a hugely entertaining foray into fashion history