battle of versailles in 1973

Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent at the ‘Battle of Versailles,’ November 28, 1973.

The “Battle of Versailles” was an event created by Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kamp. Held in Paris where the top american designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass , Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows were pitted against the top French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. A benefit for the crumbling Palace of Versailles it created history in the fashion industry. Their goal was to not only showcase fashion, but to also restore the legendary palace which was in need of a $60 million USD renovation that the French government simply couldn’t provide. 

Ava DuVernay To Direct ‘The Battle Of Versailles’ Movie For HBO Films

The story of the 1973 Palace of Versailles fashion show that put American designers and black models on the map is the subject of The Battle Of Versailles, an HBO Films movie co-written and directed by Selma helmer Ava DuVernay. 

It is based on the 2015 book The Battle Of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into The Spotlight And Made History by fashion journalist Robin Givhan.

The movie will chronicle the November 28, 1973 fashion show that took place at the Palace of Versailles. A fundraiser for the restoration of King Louis XIV’s palace, it pitted the top five French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior) against five then-unknown Americans (Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein, who brought along her then-assistant Donna Karan) in front of an audience of the world’s social elite. By the end of the night, American fashion would be born, racial barriers broken, and the industry would be left forever transformed.

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It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Right now is a very exciting time in fashion. All around the world, it’s Fashion Week season. New York and London Fashion Weeks recently wrapped up, Milan is well underway, and Paris begins next week. So it seems only fitting that today we should talk about the history of the fashion show.

The precise early history of the fashion show is a bit of a mystery. It developed slowly, therefore no one has yet been able to pinpoint when and where exactly the first true fashion show was held. Back in the mid-19th century, Parisian dressmakers would have their assistants wear their designs around their shop to exhibit the pieces. This trend was likely started by Charles Frederick Worth,and as I mentioned in my Worth post, he was also the one to come up with the idea of spring/summer and fall/winter seasons. Yet as technology changed, it became possible to mass-produce garments. This completely changed the fashion industry. Designers could now sell their clothes across the world, and a woman no longer had to pay for a fully custom dress, but could instead go to a department store and choose a design from a wide selection. As a result, designers needed to present their designs to buyers so they could be sold in stores far and wide.

These early fashion presentations were known as “fashion parades.” They were highly exclusive events. Only the most prestigious buyers were allowed to witness these fashion displays. At their core, they were not too different from shows today, except for the fact that they were much, much longer. A show today might take 15 minutes. A late 19th Century Fashion Parade could take several hours. The show would pause several times, as the buyers waited for the models to be carefully dressed between each time they walked. The show would be repeated for the next several days for different audiences of buyers.

In 1903, Ehrlich Brothers Department Store in New York City held the first fashion parade in the United States, and opened it to their customers. This was likely the first “modern” fashion show. It quickly spread to other department stores, and soon designers began to invite non-buyers to their personal shows.

In 1943, the Paris fashion industry, previously far and above the top in the world, floundered due to German occupation. The American fashion industry jumped in to fill the void. Fashion PR specialist Eleanor Lambert organized “Press Week,” an opportunity for the editors of fashion magazines’ to feature American designers. This was the very beginning of the idea of “Fashion Week.” Of course, throughout the decades, the increased media exposure has amplified Fashion Week and fashion shows to the extravagant events that they are today.

Want to learn more about the history of the fashion show? Check out these books:

The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, by Caroline Evans

Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness, by Caroline Evans

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of page!