Robin Givhan is the fashion critic for The Washington Post. This article was adapted from her new book, “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History” (Flatiron Books, March 2015). It tells the story of a 1973 Franco-American runway extravaganza — born out of racial tumult, the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism — that altered the trajectory of the fashion industry.
D uring the recent round of fashion shows, from New York to Paris, the number of black models on the runways remained stubbornly low. The young women charged with transforming clothes into fantasies moved emotionlessly down countless catwalks. Fashion lumbered forward — a global enterprise of brand names, front-row celebrities and corporate dynasties.
But on Nov. 28, 1973, it looked as though fashion might take a different course.
That night, the world’s social elite gathered in the majestic Théâtre Gabriel at the Palace of Versailles. Originally conceived as a publicity stunt and fundraiser for the dilapidated French landmark, the Grand Divertissement à Versailles had become an international fashion extravaganza, bloated with pomp and passion. Style writers and society columnists; royalty, tycoons and politicians; the crème de la crème of the jet set; burlesque dancers, ballet stars, drag queens, famous choreographers; and one Academy Award-winning triple threat all watched in eager anticipation as five kings of French fashion — Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan — faced off against five unsung American designers.
The planning for the gala happened in only a few months. And the American models were not confirmed until a fortnight before the show. But once all the decisions had been made, it turned out that the Versailles runway would host one of the largest contingents of African American models ever to walk in a major, multiracial fashion show — a show that did not use them as a gimmick, an overt aesthetic statement or a political flourish.
Of the 36 American models hired for Versailles, 10 were black. The American designers — Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston and Stephen Burrows — didn’t have much money for models, and many of the biggest names in the business, such as Lauren Hutton, were out of their price range. “A lot of the models were turning it down because they weren’t being paid enough,” recalls Tom Fallon, who worked with Blass. The black models en masse were just starting to find acceptance, and, as Fallon says, “you could get them at a bargain price. They were willing to go for a reduced salary.”
The American designers paid the models a flat rate of only $300 for the entire event. They got themselves a deal.
None of the models hired were getting rich at their craft. Even on their best-paying days, their salaries were meager by today’s standards. Some of them would later run into serious financial troubles. No one was taking taxes out of their paychecks, because they were independent contractors, and no one was offering them advice on investments or retirement accounts. None of these girls were snagging million-dollar advertising contracts of the sort that exist today. Still, modeling had its glamorous perks: travel, clothes, parties. And for many of the black women, modeling was far more lucrative than the jobs they’d left or those that might have been in their future.
Designers had their favorite models with whom they worked regularly. These women epitomized the designers’ ideals in proportions and aesthetics or were simply their friends. Blass, for instance, was typically drawn to a Mayflower beauty with an athletic body. Halston liked a lithe physique and a certain sophisticated, jet-setting air of mystery. He was famous for his Halstonettes, several of whom modeled for him at Versailles, including Pat Cleveland and Karen Bjornson. Burrows preferred his models rail-thin. He had a preference for black models, but not to the exclusion of others. He, too, adored Cleveland, as well as Alva Chinn.
In 1973, the modeling world was divided into print girls and runway walkers. There was little crossover; that came later, in the 1980s. Print models were classic beauties who were photographed for advertising campaigns and magazine editorials. Runway models brought clothes to life on the catwalk. They needed stage presence and grace. The American designers who went to Versailles hired exclusively runway girls.
But even for models accustomed to commanding a stage, Versailles presented a unique challenge. Because most of them were modeling for more than one designer, and because the great Kay Thompson was choreographing a presentation that was more Broadway-style performance than traditional runway show, Versailles required long rehearsals, plus it came with all the stresses associated with a high-profile performance.
The modern model doesn’t have to work so terribly hard on the runway — not compared with her predecessors. Today, models just walk. Or stomp. And stare unblinkingly into a bay of photographers all aiming long lenses at them like a pack of hunters in a shooting gallery. Yet these sleepwalkers can build far more lucrative careers than women like Chinn and others of her generation ever imagined. For women lucky enough to be genetically blessed with the right look and attitude at the right time, and the chutzpah and nerve necessary to navigate the emotional, economic and cultural land mines of a volatile industry, an individual model can become a brand.
The only similarity between the modeling world of the early 1970s and now is the path to that first job. The first opportunity to pose in front of an established photographer still comes the same way it did nearly 40 years ago. Models were and are discovered through contests, chance meetings, cold calls and the eagle eyes of fashion editors working inside and outside the New York market. Most of the models invited to Versailles had not yet made big names for themselves. Today, the names of many of the models resonate only within the industry itself or among the most ardent fashion nerds.
Billie Blair, Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, Amina Warsuma, Charlene Dash, Ramona Saunders, Norma Jean Darden, Barbara Jackson, Alva Chinn and Jennifer Brice were black. Together they composed nearly 30 percent of the American roster. They were runway models. And they all understood that their role was not merely to wear the clothes but to bring them to life.
Then-Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde plucked Brice from near obscurity. Hyde was part of a group of influential newspaper fashion editors who established the fashion beat as a significant part of American newspaper journalism. If Eugenia Sheppard, who died in 1984 after spending much of her career at the New York Herald Tribune, nursed modern fashion reportage through its infancy in the 1950s and ’60s with her emphasis on personalities and trends, then Hyde helped bring the beat to its adulthood with a focus on business, society and culture.
Hyde and Brice met backstage after a fashion show at the State Department. Brice was 18 and freshly married. She had graduated from Sears Charm School, a multiweek course that taught young girls proper table manners and good posture and culminated with a fashion show. Afterward, she started doing some modeling in Washington, D.C.
After the State Department presentation, Hyde needed one of the models to slip into some of the clothes so they could be photographed. Brice obliged. Hyde was impressed enough that she told the young model to call her at The Post. When Brice failed to follow through, Hyde telephoned her a month later. She’d come across an advertisement that said Hecht’s department store was sponsoring a model-of-the-year contest. She thought Brice should enter.
Brice demurred. She’d seen the poster featuring Cybill Shepherd, a blonde, blue-eyed beauty. “I’m too black for that,” Brice, whose flawless skin is the color of dark chocolate, remembers telling Hyde. Like all models, Brice was a genetic anomaly: tall, reed thin, and with the face of a doll. She didn’t have a sultry look or an aloof demeanor. She was cute.
Hyde admonished her not to think that way. “Every area will have different winners,” she said.
Brice won the local competition, and the day after her victory, Hyde ran a photograph of her in The Washington Post. She went on to New York to compete in the national competition at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Brice didn’t win, but she did get a taste of the big city and the possibilities it offered. When the model agencies started calling, Brice answered, despite a husband who would have preferred she ignored them. She quit her job as a charm school teacher for the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation, and her husband stopped work as an appraiser for a car dealership.
Brice had been living in New Jersey and working in New York for about six weeks when Hyde came to Manhattan on business. Brice was walking along Seventh Avenue, heading to a casting call for models, when she spotted Hyde coming toward her. Brice began bouncing up and down on her feet, excited to see not just a familiar face but her benefactor. Hyde was on her way to meet with Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows and insisted that Brice accompany her. “I don’t know if they loved me or it was just because of her,” Brice says, “but I ended up in both of their shows.”
Brice also developed a schoolgirl crush on Burrows, who loved her beanpole body and called her “a pencil.” Endearingly, of course. “I was butt-naked [in the showroom]. He was gay as a jaybird and looking at me as an art piece. After he saw me nude, my heart got soft for him. I couldn’t believe he didn’t like girls,” Brice recalls. “He was in love with a little Cuban guy named Victor.”
Two months after Hyde ushered Brice around Seventh Avenue, she was booked for Versailles. “I was the youngest and the shyest” of all the models, Brice says. She’d hoped the other, more experienced women might take her under their wing, but no one was feeling sisterly.
To the other models, Brice was a curiosity. She had not been working very long and they wondered who the “tall, chocolate girl with the curly hair” was. Brice thought Billie Blair “was the craziest woman in the world. She was so experienced. The designers loved her. She was a fully blossomed woman,” Brice laughs. “She could really work the runway.” Pat Cleveland was “one I thought had fallen from another planet,” Brice says. She was eccentric and was constantly posing. Even if she was simply seated on the arm of a chair, it was as though she could see cameras off in the middle distance and was always giving them her best side.
Brice did not think Bethann Hardison liked her and so steered clear of her. She was intimidating. She thought Amina Warsuma was a tough city girl — “a little bit too ghetto for me,” Brice says. “She was a cusser and too unladylike.” Cleveland, Ramona Saunders and Alva Chinn moved in a pack. They were confident, focused and at times, it seemed, vain.
Saunders was stunned to find Charlene Dash was part of the Versailles group. Dash was the kid from the file room at Shell Oil, the one Saunders had left behind as she set out for an adventure. Norma Jean Darden remembers Billie Blair praying a lot. The group certainly needed it.
The models’ flight landed at Paris’s Orly Airport on Sunday morning, three days before the Versailles show. The weather was gray, the sky spitting an icy rain. The women disembarked, a rainbow flock of young starlings full of twitchy enthusiasm who had done themselves up in their finest plumage to take on the city.
The 36 models represented the American mosaic: ivory-skinned redheads, blue-eyed blondes, honey-toned and ebony-skinned African Americans, and sun-kissed brunettes. It was a perfectly optimistic picture — a portrait of American beauty that had been forged out of riots, cultural soul-searching, friendships, politics and a subtle subtext of racial fearfulness that ran through American life.
Givhan will discuss and read from “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History” on April 7 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Busboys and Poets, 235 Carroll St. NW. 202-726-0856. www.busboysandpoets.com/about/takoma.