'The Battle of Versailles': Landmark Fashion Show Broke Racial Barriers, Showcased U.S. Designers

Nearly 40 years later, designers and models gather to celebrate landmark show.

January 24, 2011, 5:05 PM

Jan. 25, 2011— -- Nearly 40 years ago, a single fashion show put a new generation of designers on the map and a new kind of model on the runway.

The fashion show now known as the "Battle of Versailles" was waged on a chilly night in France in 1973. The show, originally organized as a publicity stunt, pitted the old masters of French design against a team of bold U.S. upstarts, including Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows and Oscar de la Renta.

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"It was a show that was bound for disaster, and it turned out to be absolutely extraordinary," de la Renta said, reflecting with pride all these decades later.

Five designers from each country teamed up on each side before a celebrity-packed audience of 800, including a tiara-wearing Princess Grace, gathered in a theater at the famous Royal French Chateau outside Paris. Lisa Minelli performed for the Americans, singing "Bonjour, Paris."

The French had U.S. expat Josephine Baker perform for their side.

Click here to see a slide show featuring designs from the 1973 fashion show and photos from a recent reunion of the American models and designers.

The French designers, including Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent, were certain of victory, backed by glamour and a long tradition. They employed elaborate stage sets and staid models to showcase their creations.

But the Americans had a secret weapon; a vibrant group of eight African-American models.

It started off all wrong for the Americans. Their sets were designed in inches, not centimeters, so they didn't fit. Still, with only a bare stage and a thumping beat, the U.S. models launched down the runway and into fashion history. For many in the audience, the show was a first.

"At the time, you didn't have African-American women walking the runway," recalled Amina Warsuma, one of the models. "It meant everything."

The French discounted the Americans as mere sportswear designers, but the designers and models from the United States were determined to be taken seriously in the fashion world.

"I walked like I defied the French," said Bethann Hardison, who walked the catwalk that night. "I walked like, they are going down."

Norma Jean Darden, another model, remembered, "We had a beat, and we came out with all that pizzazz and just floored everybody."

Landmark Fashion Show Broke Racial Barriers, Celebrated U.S. Designers

Models recall the crowd roaring to life; cheering, stomping, even throwing their programs in the air.

"When our segment of the American designers ended, there was a standing ovation," de la Renta said, reflecting on the achievement.

Asked why the show was so iconic, designer Burrows said simply, "We beat the French."

The women and men who tasted victory that night reunited for the first time in decades Monday at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art Monday. De la Renta and Burrows were there, as were the women who brought life to their fashions that night in France.

There were hugs among models and designers, and hugs among the models themselves. Model Billie Blair shed tears as she held de la Renta in a prolonged embrace. The two had not seen each other in years.

"She was the star of my show," de la Renta said.

The models said at the time that they didn't realize they were breaking racial barriers, but now believe that night changed the face and color of U.S. fashion forever.

"It was divine," model Pat Cleveland said. "I was part of a beautiful group. It was like planting our flag, the flag of American fashion."

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