I am so excited to share a new article from our friend and contributor David Lucas! A couple of months back he mentioned to me a documentary called the “Battle of Versailles,” with the suggestion that it may be a perfect story for the Classic Chronicles. I was intrigued, not ever having heard of it. However, with its preface about fashion in the 70’s, alongside my growing obsession with the decade, I was immediately on board. Last night I FINALLY had a free hour to watch. Albeit 2 months late, I almost want to say it couldn’t have come at more perfect time. The 1970s were a decade of such great strides towards equality. It was a turning point in fashion. It became an era where the gay rights movement unfolded and the women’s rights movement became vivacious. At the same time, gorgeous black women were gracing the covers of magazines, runways, film, and tv. It was a time where, as Pat Cleveland said perfectly, “Black is beautiful.” I went to bed last night feeling hopeful for the first time in weeks. We created change then, and I have no doubt we can create change once again. Grab a glass of wine, cozy yourself up on your couch and dig into this beautiful commentary of a film that I can guarantee you will be adding to your watch list.
I have been enduring New York on PAUSE by spending mornings on the sofa, in the Madame Récamier position, reading and watching snippets of Graham Norton shows and Trevor Noah from Home. I take a mid-day nap and then try to drag myself out for a walk around the neighborhood, or do some online yoga. I have been aiming to do something intellectually stimulating, so I finally watched the Battle at Versailles documentary.
In 1973, Eleanor Lambert, the United States’ premier fashion publicist, and the woman who founded The Council of Fashion Designers of America and inaugurated what became Fashion Week, helped spearhead a fundraiser for the Palace of Versailles in Paris. The palace was sorely in need of restoration and the funds from this glamorous event helped get the historical site back on track. The solution was a charity fashion show at the palace. The event pitted stalwarts Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, and Hubert Givenchy against American newcomers Oscar de la Renta, Steven Burrows, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, and Halston.
The French, secure in their centuries-long dominance over fashion, created a prop-heavy set, with a carriage, animals and Josephine Baker in a bejeweled body stocking, which completely overwhelmed the clothes. They also took up all the rehearsal time in the drafty, bone-chilling Opera House at the palace. The Americans were not only left with little time to rehearse, their sets had been done (in a gaffe straight out of Spinal Tap) in centimeters instead of inches and were useless. They did have Liza Minelli, belting away in a beaded Halston mini. And they had breezy sportswear, designed for the women of the seventies— a departure from the overblown couture that had dominated Europe since time immemorial. The American clothes were beautiful and practical, and in the case of Halston and Burrows, body-conscious, sexy and ideal for pret-a-porter-ing around in the Disco Era.
And famously, they had amazing models, most of them Black women like Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, Alva Chinn and Bethann Hardison (who soon went on to have her own modeling agency.) With a bare stage and music like Barry White’s Love’s Theme blasting, the Americans blew the Parisians out of the eau. The event was a watershed in global fashion.
To me, the star of both documentaries is Pat Cleveland. She’s still gorgeous and lithe in her late sixties, and I’ve seen her a couple times on the dais at Fashion Institute of Technology, where she talks about her career on the runway. She has a breathy purr of a voice and exudes an innocence, while she talks about globetrotting and meeting (or dating) celebrities. I met her briefly after a presentation on fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, and she seems genuinely kind and charming. Here are more recent clips of Cleveland.