‘Versailles ’73’: A True Fashion Statement

A new film looks at the iconic French fashion show when 11 black models tore down the house.

The film's stars at the New York premiere (Getty Images)

By all accounts, their show was as baroque as the palace. There was no continuity; the designers had not worked together, and each had a different set that had to be erected and then dismantled. 

Finally it was the Americans’ turn, and as model Pat Cleveland says in the film, “We had no props, no rockets; all we had was the core of who we were. They put us out front. We were their arsenal.” But the black girls brought it and, in doing so, brought down the house, all in 35 minutes. They marched, they stormed, they turned, they threw down their trains, they danced. They didn’t just steal the show; they held the audience for ransom. 

Of course, not all the models were black, but even some of the others featured in the film, like China Machado, attested to the “freshness, the different way of walking” of the black girls. “The girls you could get cheap turned it upside-down,” said Harold Koda. “All the doors were blown open.” Barbara Summers, featured in the film, noted the irony of “the descendants of slaves becoming stars” and referred to the models as “magicians of movement.”

The 1973 audience members — mostly French — leaped to their feet in a screaming frenzy, throwing their expensive programs in the air. In addition to putting themselves “on the map,” the models helped to put the American designers and American fashion on the map. Baroness de Rothschild reportedly purchased a green dress right off the back of a model.

Everything changed after that night. Givenchy altered his runway presentations to be more lively. “Americans [now] had a voice,” said Stephen Burrows. This success of the Americans’ presentation also inspired an attitude shift toward ready-to-wear and away from couture. St. Laurent, for instance, praised Burrows, telling him he was a “true American designer.” Indeed, as photographer Charles Tracy said in the film, “Something happened that night.”

Summers, who attended the Met luncheon celebrating the Versailles models who piqued Draper’s initial interest, remembers the surge in the use of black models in Europe and America after Versailles (“Europeans being so bowled over forced Americans to confront their own prejudices and not get left behind”) and the petering out of that interest during the Reagan era, and notes the current ebb and flow of diversity in fashion. “The movie should be seen by all black women and black girls, and many others,” she says. “This is packaged history.”

The film is showing at the IFC Center in New York City through Sept. 13, 2012.

Tricia Elam is an instructor at Howard University and the author of the novel Breathing Room.