Film Review: Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution

Marvelously diverting and detailed documentary about a legendary fashion smackdown, with the ultimate royal setting.

On November 28, 1973, the palace of Versailles found itself host to more gorgeous women than had been seen since the heydays of Louis XIV and XV, with their legendary courtesans, Mesdames de Maintenon, Montespan, de la Vallière, Pompadour and du Barry. The difference was that many of these ’70s ladies were American and black with names like Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair and Bethann Hardison, and they had descended on the royal habitat to participate in a fashion show that was touted as “The Battle of Versailles.”

Ostensibly held to earn money for the palace’s much-needed restoration, the event—a joint defilé with two carefully selected teams of French and American designers—became swiftly hyped in the press as a “battle” between the two nations for fashion eminence. It was an occasion fraught with nerves and creativity, and Deborah Riley Draper‘s documentary Versailles ’73 scrupulously details this once-in-a-lifetime, game-changing event of the style world. Draper tirelessly tracked down seemingly every survivor of this occasion, both French and American, and these interviews, from a flamboyant assemblage of couture insiders, paint a colorful, you-are-there depiction of that most beautiful and ephemeral of human endeavors, the fashion show.

The French forces put on the most elaborate spectacle imaginable, which encompassed everything from Josephine Baker, Rudolph Nureyev and Zizi Jeanmaire doing their respective things to pumpkin carriages and rocket ships going off onstage. The presentation of the clothes themselves—by Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro—however, was stiff and old-fashioned, redolent of a time when unsmiling models simply paraded garments, holding a card with a number on it.

The Americans, by contrast, who had been the victims of notorious Gallic rudeness with little rehearsal time allotted them and miserable conditions (“Freezing cold, no food and no toilet paper” according to at least a dozen witnesses), triumphed with a fluid, snazzily modern, no-props show, led by no less than Liza Minnelli, directed by her talented godmother, Kay Thompson, singing “Bonjour, Paris.” These designers also made effectively funky, full use of the then-burgeoning disco music, as well as the irresistible, compelling, sexy movements of those aforementioned black girls. Ebony supermodels like Billie Blair as an arm-wafting genie and deliriously spinning runway goddess Pat Cleveland captivated the largely French audience (including Princess Grace), who reacted by screaming like Beatles fans and throwing their expensive programs up in the air.

The American styles also put this country’s fashion business, long kept in the shadow of the French, on the map for all time. The easy, ultra-wearable and strikingly colorful modes by Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and talented black tyro Stephen Burrows suddenly made ready-to-wear as desirable as haute couture. Additionally, those models helped break the color line on the runway, making “Black is beautiful” a dominant fashion industry idea for the next decade. In the ensuing years, it is clearer than ever that, as the business became increasingly concentrated on the bottom line and, once more, white-bread, this truly was one shining moment of fiercely individualistic—and democratic—glory for America.

Versailles ’73 fully captures the excitement of that evening, which entailed a lot of amusingly bitchy infighting for pre-eminence among the American designers themselves, as well as a wild, hard-partying airplane flight from the U.S. As such, it’s an absolute must for fashion devotees, and will also, like the Valentino doc The Last Emperor, deliver rich, informative entertainment to everyone else as well.