As far as fashion lore goes, the 1973 “Battles of Versailles” — the showdown between a handful of American designers and their European counterparts — stands the test of time.
Participants Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and Chris Royer served up some savory details about that monumental fashion event Wednesday during a discussion led by The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the event doubled as a reminder of the Tom Ford-orchestrated Battle of Versailles gallery that is now on view at the Upper East Side museum in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” through Sept. 5.
Explaining how the extravaganza at the Palace of Versailles transpired, Givhan said Versailles’ curator had asked his publicist friend Eleanor Lambert about how to raise some money in an effort to support French institutions, and she suggested putting five great fashion designers against five American ones — all of whom happened to be her clients. Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior faced off against Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows. The Americans used pre-recorded music, a spare set and “sleek, easy and unencumbered” clothes and models, “who moved with distinction and personality,” Givhan said. What began as an international party and a publicity stunt was soon hyped into a battle by the media, and the Americans were victorious in that battle. They won over the crowd and their colleagues.”
Hardison, a model and associate of Burrows at that time, recalled how models then inspired fashion designers and were muses. There was also diversity with models and designers of all different types of backgrounds, she said.
Speaking to Cleveland about her signature runway style, Givhan said, “No one could spin and whirl and let the clothes take flight the way that you can.” Cleveland admitted, “It was quite something not to fall off that stage with the light in my eyes. I couldn’t even see the audience and I was spinning until I got to the edge of the stage. I almost fell off. People said, ‘Ahhh,’ like they were catching their breath.”
Citing the influence of wonderful performers like Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker (whom her aunt taught in Sunday school) and Isadora Duncan, Cleveland emphasized the freedom women had at that point of time and how modeling accentuated that. “The lingerie that we wore long ago in the ’50s we were not wearing under our garments then. So we had body freedom. My style is having that beauty of freedom,” she said. “We worked so hard for having that [freedom] over hundreds of years. I’m mixed race. I don’t know which thing I am. I’m kind of all these things and I try to represent what is that beautiful feeling of [being] in the moment in clothes.”
As a “Halstonette,” house model and muse, Royer highlighted described the nonstop workload the designer and his team dealt with toiling away until 2 or 3 am to perfect the outfits. Unquestionably “a perfectionist,” Halston drafted Liza Minnelli into the event and wanted not only his team to succeed, but the other teams as well, “because this represented American fashion,” Royer said. It also represented American made-to-order, which is sort of equivalent to French couture. He wanted to identify American fashion and how it can be respected and understood. That was part of the pressure that he had at that point.”
The talk didn’t just single out the high points though — many of the show’s challenges were discussed, too. Asked if the event was awful — noting the lack of toilet paper, the building’s chilly temperature indoors and the certain amount of chaos — Hardison said, “It was just shock. I don’t think it’s fair to say it was that awful…it was challenging. That’s for sure. We had so much rehearsing.”
Despite feeling as though they weren’t being treated well by the hosts, the Americans carried on and despite any competitiveness they ultimately came together to top the Europeans. The models shared a greater sense of camaraderie, according to Cleveland. “We were like sisters in love. We planned our trip to Paris. We drank Champagne on the plane. When we got out of that plane, Billie Blair kissed the ground. Then we got into that bus and they took us to a hotel. We were all talking together like schoolgirls — two in a queen size bed…it was hysterical. All those products we had and we brought so many clothes with us in the belly of the plane. It was just overloaded. We were just in showbiz. We all wanted to be dancing girls. We did our rehearsals in New York with Kay Thompson. She was ‘Funny Face,’ Eloise at the Plaza, Liza Minnelli’s godmother and Judy Garland’s teacher. We were in showbiz so the show must go on and we did it. We just stepped into that rainbow and did our tap dance. It was really fun together.”
Givhan noted how models’ responsibilities included learning choreography and really selling the clothes, which were unstructured and required making them live, so to speak. Royer agreed, explaining that the American models moved differently with fluidity unlike the European ones, who walked in a more regimented way with little cards marked with numbers. The Americans grasped how the designer wanted them to exude what they were wearing. “The clothes made the models. If you look at Pat or how Bethann walked on the runway, it was, ‘Wow!’ That was from the heart… a lot of the American models had a great deal of passion to be able to work with their designers because they wanted to do a very complete presentation. That was a very important difference to the French,” Royer said.
As for whether post-Versailles European design houses were more enthusiastic about diversity and encouraging models to show more of their individuality on the runway, Cleveland said Italy was the first country to respond by hiring Black models to do the runway shows, followed by Givenchy’s cabine. of six in-house Black models. “What happened for Black girls with all the struggles for slavery and being hated and everything, this beauty just sort of blossomed like those flowers that blossom every 25 years or so. We were blossoming. They say the character of a person is like the perfume of their spirit.
Earlier in the program though, Hardison made the point though that Givenchy had received some pushback for his diversity efforts.
In relation to Halston’s lasting influence, Royer noted how from the beginning in 1972 the designer wanted his “cabin to be one of multiple personalities and looks of girls with different walks, but ones that were relaxed, fluid and hip,” she said. “The dresses were made to feel good. Once you felt good in them then you started to become the total picture. If it’s on you and you feel good, you automatically feel a lot better.”
Fast forward to today, Givhan asked the panelists which designers they would choose for Team America, if there were a Battle of Versailles today. Hardison named Ralph Rucci, Christopher John Rogers, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta’s team (of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia) and Gabriela Hearst. Royer said that she and Hardison think alike and offered Tom Ford, as well as Hearst and struggled to think of more female designers.
Givhan questioned what that says about the industry, but Hardison stressed how it has always been a women’s business. “There have been great female designers forever. I always say to some of the young girls [designing], ‘No matter what it looks like. It’s still our business and don’t let go of the reins. [But] you’re right about that Robin; when you have to think so hard of [leading female designers today]. Pauline Trigère, Anne Klein, Liz Claiborne — you could just say them. It’s not like that [now],” Hardison added.
As for her American dream team, Cleveland chose designers whose clothes she wears to events — Ralph Rucci, Naeem Khan, Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Tom Ford and now Ken Downing, who has the Halston team. I love them. I wear them when I sing. I wear them when I go to events. We talk on the phone. It is so fab-u-lous. And Mr. [Stephen] Burrows can come back in with these vintage pieces, which I still wear. So I would have them all right there — party time.”