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  • Writer's pictureParisian Niche

Versailles' Major Battle - for Fashion...

As Paris is absolutely bustling with Fashion Week at the moment, P'Niche just had to take this timely opportunity to speak about an iconic night that makes up the very fabric (get it?) of our history. Think War - but make it Fashion!

Well not a war in the true sense of the word. In fact, this "battle" was waged for a very good reason. As we discussed in the finale of the P'Niche Versailles Series of posts, quite a bit of damage had be taken on with the passing of time - noted most of all by John D Rockefeller, who had started a philanthropic team for restorations 40 years prior to the evening we will visit.

Fast forward to 1973 and the Fédération de la Couture, overseen by a team of both French and American visionaries - the Grand Divertissement à Versailles (the official name of the event) was the largely the vision of two grandes dames.

The first, American Eleanor Lambert, was a fashion publicist, with a keen eye for beauty and design, working from New York City.

She is credited with the creation of New York Fashion Week, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, The Coty Awards, The Met Gala, as well as the International Best Dressed List.

She was a staunch advocate for American fashion designers and handled public relations for many designers and their collections / works.

Versailles curator, Gerald Van der Kemp was also instrumental in the thought process to the evening, dreaming in tandem with Mrs. Lambert, envisioning an event that would raise much needed funds for the palatial (pun intended) restorations, and making important social connections...

As such, and no less important to the visionary team was the stunning Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, a social mover and shaker, operating on the other side of the pond, in Paris. She already had experience in lavish party planning, most notably 1972's De Rothschilds Surrealist Ball. Named the honorary chairwoman of the event, without her elegance and influence, President Georges Pompidou might not have signed off on the use of the Château de Versailles for the star studded event, which tallied an impressive list of 650-700 globally prominent invitees.

And who was on this lavish invite list? So glad you asked, you inquisitive P'Nicher, you!

Just some of those to make "the list" were:

  • HSH, Princess Grace of Monaco

  • Andy Warhol

  • Josephine Baker

  • Liza Minelli

  • Jane Birkin

  • Christina Onassis

  • Jacqueline de Ribes

  • Gloria Guinness

  • Dalida

  • Elizabeth Taylor

The date was set - November 28, 1973.

They were cordially invited to le Théâtre Gabriel - the palace's opera house (originally inaugurated to fete the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette).

The fashion designers (5 designers each, from both France and the USA) were selected - each submitting 8 glorious designs for consideration / showing. As noted here, the fashionable Crème de la Crème to represent each country were...

From France: Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior

From The USA: Anne Klein, (the sole woman designer and accompanied by her then 25-year-old assistant, Donna Karan) Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Stephen Burrows

Now, of course, no party is a real party without a pre-party - and so they did. The near week-long extravaganza kicked off with the pre-pre-party on Sunday evening at The Colony Club.

Next up was the glamorous Maxim's de Paris (in honor of Liza Minelli - keeping in mind the mega-conglomerate had just purchased Halston's - her bestie's - business). Last, was the Baron de Réde's dinner (in honor of Kay Thompson).

All this before the main event!

Speaking of the main event - the night before was ... less than stellar for Team USA. Set to work in inches versus centimeters, our pre-cut sets and backdrops were rendered useless. Working conditions themselves were less than ideal, with a drafty/leaky palace, plugs and converters that malfunctioned - was the fashion match over before it even began?

Not if Liza Minelli had anything to say about it!

While the Americans bickered behind the scenes and the French (admittedly) used the lion's share of the rehearsal space and time, Liza came in (with her strong theatrical force), declaring that "the Show Must Go On" as she, herself, prepared for a show stopping opening.

When the French, as gracious hosts, opened the evening, they largely payed homage to their glorious past, with a focus on the decadence of couture and bespoke made to order garments, versus the "lesser" ready to wear.

Givenchy, with their large flower basket backdrop and motif, were considered the best of France's showing of the evening, with candy colored chiffon evening gowns.

Yves Saint Laurent's vignette showcased Zizi Jeanmarie, who sang "I'm Just a Gigolo," which varied greatly from the Cinderella-esque pumpkin.

Marc Bohan for Dior, Emannuel Ungaro, and Pierre Cardin rounded out the French contingent, presenting stunning, if staid, designs - as was to be expected from these long standing, French titans of designs.

The French "closing numbers" held a little bit of something for every taste and every style.

Dancers Merle Park and Rudolf Nureyev performed a stunning classical scene from Sleeping Beauty, while burlesque dancers from the Crazy Horse Saloon tantalized. Continuing to wow the audience, American born Josephine Baker glittered in sequins and furs, closing out the French segment.

Quite honestly, not much was expected, fashion wise, from the "cute" American contingent of designers, who were just rather glad to be invited to contribute to the cause.

Well, that was until Liza Minelli took to the stage - letting France (and the world) know that American designers were here, with a rousing performance of "Bonjour Paris!"

Whereas Anne Klein, the sole American woman designer of the team, presented her (African themed) line of tailored looks in sleek straight lines, neutral tones, and natural fabrics, it was Stephen Burrows who exploded onto the stage (and the scene).

Burrows, a Black designer from NYC, showed modern colors, structured art blocks - in silky fabrics that skimmed over the models bodies, rather like a second skin. Needless to say, France recognized his unique talent, and he was signed to a French design house very shortly after the Battle of Versailles.

Bill Blass, with a nod to the Roaring 20s and Gatsby styles, made a great impression as did Oscar de la Renta, with sherbet colored chiffon concoctions, which floated gracefully down the runway...

While these fashion designers are being mentioned out of the order they appeared, Halston was also considered a stand out of the evening.

His gorgeous jersey fabric creations were confidently strutted out - turning this way and that - best showcasing the work (often cut on the bias). The Bradenton Herald went on to state, "The American models knew how to move in the clothes they showed. The French models stood there bewildered while the acts went on around them."

Rather importantly, of the nearly 40 American models present at Versailles, 10 were Black women, showcasing the strength and diversity of the American woman to an international audience, with supermodel Pat Cleveland acknowledging that Versailles set a strong new path for Black models.

Closing out the show with a true "mic drop" moment, many eye witnesses declared that the evening's programs were thrown into the air - in shock and jubilation to the fashion conquering Americans.

Elaborating, Norah Hampton noted, "those French women who usually spend a part of their year standing for fittings at their favorite salons, rushed backstage to buy up the American clothes."

Seeing the overwhelming artistic reception and monies generated, it was the international press who then dubbed the philanthropic fashion soirée "The Battle of Versailles."

That left only to decide...

Who actually won the battle of Versailles?


You might say - both sides won. (And isn't that the kind of fairy tale ending we really wanted anyway?)

Not only did American fashion explode into the global area, monies collected from the fête allowed for the purchase of a sculpted and wooden piece of furniture - originally commissioned by Louis XVI - for the Games Room of Saint Cloud.

Now that's what P'Niche calls a win-win!

While not many photographs (especially colorized) remain of this spectacular evening, if you were interested in learning (and seeing more), I strongly recommend Robin Givhan's meticulously researched book, The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History.

Certainly, we will be covering this in our book club - the Parisian Page Turners. Come read with us!

No time for a whole read? No judgement here - you can check out a great synopsis, which aired for the 50th anniversary as a CBS news video.

It was also covered in Netflix' limited series Halston. P'Niche PSA - content may not be suitable for children and contains triggers of substance abuse, etc.

What do you think, P'Nicher? Do you have a favorite look or model from the Battle of Versailles?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below et à bientôt!


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4 commentaires

Susan Maxheim Carter
Susan Maxheim Carter
29 févr.

Fascinating info - thanks for all your research.

01 mars
En réponse à

this one was great fun to do - thank you so much and delighted you enjoyed!


Debra Borchert
Debra Borchert
28 févr.

Such fabulous images and writing. Took me back to my student days at Fashion Institute of Technology where we raced to get our Women's Wear Daily editions! Merci!

01 mars
En réponse à

oh, how I miss working in fashion and reading WWD each day to start off - we are the lucky ones!

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