Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution


Not many moments in life change the course of history; break the mold; shatter the status quo and usher in a paradigm shift. But on a chilly night in November 1973, such a moment took place. For the second time in history, the Americans stormed France in an epic battle. This battle, however, would pit the French haute couture establishment against innovative American ready-to-wear designers in a runway rumble for industry dominance. On the stage where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, in front of a who’s who audience of royalty, jet-set millionaires, and icons including Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol, Christina Onassis, and Josephine Baker, the American designers claimed victory. The extraordinary evening left an unforgettable imprint on the fashion industry and forever changed fashion history.

The show was initially conceived as a fundraiser orchestrated by American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp, to raise money to restore the Palace of Versailles. However, fierce competition between the lions of haute couture— Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro, and what the French considered easy prey, a group of American designers eager to become household names on the European fashion scene—Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston, turned it into ready-to-wear’s iconic coming out party.

In an era known for protesting, this legendary event made a statement all its own – a fashion statement, one that created a cross-stitch of change across fashion, commerce, and publishing. When African-American models Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, Jennifer Brice, Ramona Saunders, and Amina Warsuma boarded a plane from New York to Paris, they had no idea they would be part of a new world fashion order. These amazing women walked the catwalk and helped American designers pull off a fashion coup that would be remembered for decades.