The event was the Grand Divertissement a’ Versailles – Fashion Show of 1973 in Versailles, France. It was a fashion celebration between the French couturiers and five American designers in a grand face off at the Palace of Versailles. The Americans shocked the world by displaying for the first time in France, an array of diverse models of color who took the runway with verve and aplomb, immediately changing the color of the international runways. It was reported the French had never seen `Black’ models before. On that magical evening, 37 years-ago, American fashion models: PAT CLEVELAND, BILLIE BLAIR, ALVA CHINN, NORMA JEAN DARDEN, CHARLENE DASH, BETHANN HARDISON, BARBARA JACKSON, CHINA MACHADO, AMINA WARSUMA and RAMONA SAUNDERS made history as they displayed American fashion by designers; STEPHEN BURROWS, HALSTON, OSCAR DE LA RENTA, ANNE KLEIN and BILL BLASS to the music of Barry White in a presentation that also featured singer Liza Minnelli.
A FASHION FIRST
On Monday January 24th 2011, on the coldest day of the year, with single digit temperatures in New York City, The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was sizzling hot. Luminaries of the American fashion arena, gathered to honor the pioneering fashion models at a lavish luncheon, hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Welcome remarks by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Donna Williams, Chief Audience Development Officer kicked off the formal proceedings followed by remarks from Thomas P. Campbell, the Museum’s Director. Mr. Campbell stated: “We are all here to honor those extraordinary women who made new strides for people of color in the world of fashion.” Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of the Museum’s Costume Institute, saluted the five American designers and introduced a video of the historic event which was hailed as `The Battle of Versailles.’
Designer Donna Karan, who during the pre-cocktail reception told me that the event in Versailles was the point where she decided to become a fashion designer, later told the cheering audience: “The event was the most important education in my design career and the highlight of my life. All I can say is what Versailles did was truly put the American standard on the map. I dressed Billie Blair at Versailles, not as a designer, I was an intern at Anne Klein at that time. It was a moment in life that you never forget. Oscar is the master, always will be, he put us all together. It was in his heart and he’s a mentor to me. It’s an honor to be standing here with Oscar and
Stephen. Fashion will never be the same and it was because of Oscar and Stephen.”
AMERICAN DESIGNERS – EXTRAORDINARY BEAUTIFUL MODELS
Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows, two of the designers featured at the Versailles fashion show and the only two designers that are still living were the keynote speakers. Stephen recalled that the French threw their programs in the air and started stomping. “I did not know that was their way of accepting us. It was a wonderful experience.” Oscar said: “There was no cohesiveness in the French presentation, but for the Americans, for that very short time, we were all one. It was the unbelievable, extraordinarily beautiful girls walking to the music, and that’s what made it. The models made the magic.”
Emily Rafferty, Museum’s President, presented the Proclamations to the models who received thunderous applause as they paraded to the podium. There were also Proclamations from the Mayor of the City of New York and other City Officials. Bethann Hardison spoke on behalf of the `girls’ noting the significance of the event and the call for diversity on the runways even today. Bethann has been a champion for that cause for years. She was the force behind `The Black Girls Coalition’ formed to bring awareness and equality for models of color on the runways and print advertising campaigns.
Legendary runway star Pat Cleveland who was known for her dramatic strut, said that she recalled the competition between the French and American designers. “They had chandeliers on stage and a vintage car, Josephine Baker, strippers…. all that. We had a bare stage and had to perform…I knew we had something special to offer because we, the Americans, were the new bouquet.” Charlene Dash who attended the luncheon with her son Christopher said that she remembered the color, beauty and excitement of being in Paris for such a significant show. “For a young woman from Long Island City, to dine in the King’s Quarters and dance in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was a fairy tale come true.”
TEARS & STOMPS
Alva Chinn said she burst into tears when she saw her idol Josephine Baker, Billie Blair recalled: “The runway was exhilarating, exciting, and electrifying. During Oscar’s segment, I wore Liza Minnelli’s show stopping lashes – a true Hollywood moment.” Norma Jean Darden, now a popular restaurateur and cookbook author recalled: “Stephen gave me a butterfly dress with a long, long train. The applause as the train kept unveiling was deafening. The audience cheered, clapped, and even stomped. The Americans definitely and decisively triumphed in style and presentation, which was quite a coup.”
There was a tableau of clothing created by the American designers featured at Versailles and the guests present were truly the who’s who in American fashion. Among them were: Iman, Donna Karan, Cecily Tyson, Lynn Whitfield, Desiree Rogers, Oscar de la Renta, Anna Sui, Francisco Costa, Isabel & Ruben Toledo, Audrey Smaltz, Teri Agins, Amy Fine Collins, Paul Wilmont, b.michael, Jason Wu, Constance White, Kelly Bensimon, Robin Givhan, Kim Hastreiter, Liya Kebede, Lynn Yaeger, Reggie Canal, Estelle, Veronica Jones, Barbara Summers, Jennifer Brice, Kate Betts, Veronica Webb, Karen Bjorson, Jeniel Williams, Stan Herman, Thelma Golden, Spencer Means, Cindi Leive, Jocelyn Taylor, La Tanya Richardson, Robert Verdi, Star Jones, Sam Fine, Lizzie Tish, Terrie Williams, Stefan Campbell, Tonya Lee, Hamish Bowles, Emil Wilberkin and Mrs. Alma Rangel.
By Walter Greene | Photographed by Profiles98 | Published in Profiles98 Magazine – Spring Issue6 2011