(The Root) — Deborah Riley Draper hadn't heard of the iconic fashion show at Versailles in 1973 — when five American designers and five French designers showed their wares in a fashion competition of sorts — until she heard an NPR report about a luncheon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the models who participated.
Draper fell in love with the story she had never heard and wanted to know more, so she began doing in-depth research. Once she started, she couldn't let it go; she traveled to New York, Paris and Versailles and spoke to models, curators, historians, socialites, sponsors and attendees. And her documentary, Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution, was born.
After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was screened last week at the start of New York Fashion Week — with fashion-world icons and devotees packed into a formal premiere at the Paris Cinema, followed by an after-party at Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue. Many of the models featured in the film were in attendance, notably Pat Cleveland, Alva Chin (who took over the men's room when the ladies' room line grew too long), Bethann Hardison, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, Nancy North, Karen Bjornson McDonald and Norma Jean Darden.
Also in the audience was Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, who provided much of the film's historic commentary; designer Stephen Burrows, the only black designer invited to Versailles; and former model (from 1973 to 1990) and fashion historian Barbara Summers.
The film tells the story of the 1973 fashion show, which began as a fundraiser for the crumbling French palace but would turn into much more — an unofficial competition between French and American designers that put a spotlight on the talents of America's black models.
Five French designers (Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro) selected the five Americans. After a bit of shuffling, the result was Halston, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows. Burrows was the big surprise because he was "up and coming" as well as black. Klein's inclusion was somewhat controversial because her narrative was sportswear.
According to the documentary, the French designers did not take "the challenge" seriously while the Americans did. The French had the wherewithal to spend approximately $30,000 each on their presentations; most of the Americans, with fewer resources, could spend only $5,000 each.
Because of the budgetary restrictions and the sheer expense of taking 36 models to Paris for a week, three out of the five designers had to like each model in order for that model to be chosen, since all designers would use the same models (except for Halston, who had the means to hire his own and did so). Models basically worked for a free ticket, and forces converged so that 11 of the models who went were African American — perhaps because they were lesser known and less expensive but also because Burrows already had eight black models in his cabine.
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.