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50th anniversary of Battle of Versailles celebrated via art, design and film at Paris Fashion Week

By Jackie Mallon


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Art and design meet at Paris Fashion Week to celebrate Battle of Versailles 50 Credits: Fida

The celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Versailles that took place in Paris in 1973 have kicked off. The historic event pitted French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Emmanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan, and Hubert de Givenchy against the American contingent of Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein whose young pony-tailed assistant Donna Karan was also running around the vast 2300-room former royal residence helping prepare for the runway. Over the coming weeks there will be much written about this most famous runway showdown which occurred on November 28, initially conceived to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. But it went far beyond that to build the image of American fashion in the eyes of the world.

Poster advertising event to celebrate 50th anniversary of Battle of Versailles Credits: Fida
During Paris Fashion Week the House of Ungaro, With Love Halston Foundation, Istituto Marangoni Paris, Fida, and Coffee Bluff Pictures, the producer of the fashion film "Versailles ‘73: American Runway Revolution," gathered together for a multi-day event that paid homage to those fashion revolutionaries who, with one runway show, made fashion what it is today.

What exactly happened at the Battle of Versailles?

On the runway each of the ten designers showed eight looks before an audience of luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Rudolf Nureyev, Josephine Baker, and Princess Grace of Monaco. The US designers cast 11 Black models among the line up, including Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn, and incorporated music and dancing and a performance of “Bonjour Paris” by Liza Minelli into their presentation while the French designers stuck to a traditional catwalk format that was judged stale and old fashioned in contrast.

It is best left to those who were present to describe the atmosphere. Pat Cleveland, speaking last month on a panel at NYFW: The Talks, entitled “Battle of Versailles 50: The Making of Fashion History,” told the audience in a breathless voice, “We arrived at Versailles, a bus load of girls from Seventh Avenue, all yakking, just off the plane that had a belly full of designer clothes, and it was snowing and we all had to share a room but we didn’t care and nobody could speak French. Because it was Versailles and fantasy and Marie Antoinette, and although the place was cold because it wasn’t heated, you put that music on and us girls from Seventh Avenue are going for it. It was all about the rhythm and the beautiful clothes.”

But the “battle” had already begun during show preparations when, according to Cleveland, there wasn’t enough rehearsal time for the American designers. “The French had so much stuff and wanted to put scenery onstage, pumpkins and elephants, carriages and ballerinas, rolling it all in on creaky wheels. We were turning into pumpkins waiting around!”

Models Pat Cleveland, (second from left), Alva Chinn (second from right) and designer Stephen Burrows Credits: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for IMG Fashion

Whereas the Americans arrived with nothing but a tape which the French called “canned music” and the clothes. Well, and Liza Minelli. The American presentation represented the dawning of a new era of ready-to-wear, of clothes for everyone, as opposed to the French designers’ couture which represented clothes for the very few. No one had any idea the event would gain the importance it has over the half century since. Stephen Burrows, the sole surviving designer to have participated in the show, who was also speaking on the NYFW panel, said, “When you’re making history, you really don’t know you’re making history. I don’t think it could be done today. It was before the bridge between Europe and America existed.”

During PFW students and artists commemorate the Battle of Versailles

Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, co-founder of the non-profit With Love Halston whose mission is to honor the Halston legacy while supporting the next generation of great American designers through scholarships, told FashionUnited, “It was not only the minimalist background but the smooth, flowing and easy manner in which the models glided and twirled with such freedom across the stage to contemporary music. Liza Minnelli’s act certainly helped draw greater attention to this unique American style.”

Two artworks from Fida artists celebrating 50th anniversary of Battle of Versailles Credits: Fida
Fifty years later a group of design students from Istituto Marangoni Paris set out to capture that excitement, creativity, and exhilarating energy in the Halston Battle of Versailles Design Challenge. Eight finalists were chosen by Audrey Schilt, early illustrator for Halston and Ralph Lauren, alongside Patrick Morgan, founder of Fida. The finalists received insight into the Halston brand from its Creative Director, Ken Downing, before presenting their modern interpretation of Halston at an awards ceremony held at the House of Ungaro. Kobi Halperin, who has been heading Ungaro’s women’s collections creatively since Resort 21, was on hand for the ceremony.

Simultaneously, a group of international artists from Fida, Fashion Illustration Drawing Awards, had also channeled the Battle of Versailles for custom artwork. Based on a brief by Morgan, they were asked to create a poster capturing the essence of the different Parisian brands involved in the 1973 Franco-American showdown which was exhibited at Istituto Marangoni Paris.“Halston believed in drawing as part of the fashion system,” Morgan told FashionUnited. “The posters for the event designed by Fida incorporated illustrations by Stephen Sprouse, Halston’s illustrator for the Versailles 73 event. Fashion illustration and art is and forever will be part of the fashion partnership and vision language.”

Awards from the With Love Halston Foundation included special scholarships provided by the generosity of the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, awards by Tiffany & Co., and the opportunity for artists to have their fashion illustrations published in FIDA: The Fashion Arts & Illustration Magazine. To conclude the Paris Fashion Week itinerary a special screening of the 50th Anniversary Director’s Cut of the award-winning fashion documentary Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution took place on September 29, at Paris’s legendary Grand Rex Cinema, followed by a talk with the cast and director, Deborah Riley Draper.

Frowick told FashionUnited, “As the proud American that he was, Halston surely would be delighted to know his legacy lives on two generations later and that he, and the Versailles event, remain viable as they are being so widely commemorated.”

Battle of Versailles
Istituto Marangoni