Robin Givhan’s enthusiastic history “The Battle of Versailles” is an effort to do for fashion what George Taber’s “The Judgment of Paris” did for wine: focus on a broad cultural shift through the lens of a single occasion. In Taber’s case, that was the shock moment in 1976 when California wines bested French ones at a blind taste-testing in Paris; in Givhan’s, it’s a fashion show and fundraiser for the crumbling Versailles palace, held three years earlier in its vast Théâtre Gabriel. Showcasing the style of five French and five American designers, the “battle” is an almost accidental triumph for the New World, a dividing line between the past of Parisian couture and the future of American ready-to-wear.
Or at least, that’s how Givhan frames it, in order to elevate this single, lavish, rather absurd evening to revolutionary status. But her own narrative blurs that clear-cut line, making it plain that ready-to-wear was already in the ascendant before the event and that, after it, Paris remained (and remains) a powerful locus of fashion prestige for Americans.
Givhan, who writes for The Washington Post and won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her fashion criticism, knowledgeably sketches the history of couture up to mid-century, when U.S. stores sold licensed copies of Paris designs and what cachet there was in American fashion came from the likes of Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman, not individual designers. The elite traveled to Paris for fittings, and that city set the tone, the shape, the fabric and the mood of the way the world dressed.
But by the 1960s, France was deep in a battle between haute couture and prêt-à-porter, and it was clear who was winning: The legendary high-fashion houses had to adapt or vanish. Christian Dior died in 1957, and Cristóbal Balenciaga retired in 1968: He saw what was coming and “could not bear to watch.” Rising stars like Dior’s former assistant Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin were embracing a futuristic, mod aesthetic.
Cardin was particularly prescient in licensing his name to an array of products that were not clothes (Givhan notes that the modern fashion industry is primarily a “handbag and shoe business.”) By the time of the Versailles gala, the presence of Cardin, Ungaro and Saint Laurent on the bill with Givenchy and Dior — no matter how formal and backward-looking their presentations — was a sign that the commercial, democratized future was already here.
Givhan vividly evokes a host of fascinating characters mostly unknown outside the fashion world. One, the publicist Eleanor Lambert, arrived in New York from small-town Indiana at the age of 22, “endowed with bulldozer determination, a love for the arts, and the soul of P.T. Barnum.” She went on to “almost single-handedly” build American fashion into an industry, establishing Fashion Week, the influential Coty Awards and eventually the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The five American designers who went to Versailles, naturally, were her clients.
Four of those names — Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta — are recognizable enough today to be valuable trademarks, even if the companies operating under them, with the exception of de la Renta, have little connection to their owners. Blass, another Indiana native, established himself as the man who dressed moneyed America before Ralph Lauren, while Halston — Roy Halston Frowick, from Iowa — was the diva who costumed the partygoers of Studio 54 in quintessential ’70s fabrics like jersey and Ultrasuede.
The Dominican-born de la Renta, who trained with Balenciaga and went on to renewed fame as the signature designer for Sarah Jessica Parker in her “Sex and the City” years, created romantic, feminine gowns. Klein, the sole woman in the show, dared to design for actual working women, not debutantes or disco queens, with easy-to-wear separates that brought her real-world success and fashion-world disdain. Klein’s is one of the most uncomfortable strands of this story: Just before the Versailles trip, she had learned that the cancer that would shortly kill her had returned. Her fellow designers didn’t know she was ill, and she bore their scorn and disrespect stoically; nevertheless, it’s a disappointment that she never gets around to giving the insufferable Halston a well-earned slap.
The larger, more important story struggling to escape the confining focus on the Versailles show centers on the fifth designer, the now almost forgotten Stephen Burrows. The only black designer in the show, Burrows was a resolutely modern, downtown kid just a few years out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, famed for colorful, near-sheer jersey dresses that shimmered over a model’s or a nightclub dancer’s body. Although Burrows was averse to both conflict and self-promotion, it’s clear from Givhan’s descriptions that his Versailles show was the real revolution. But the show itself was strikingly diverse, reflecting a moment when fashion seemed, albeit superficially, to be embracing African American culture. Givhan incisively probes the industry’s ongoing discomfort with racial difference and is blistering on its current lack of diversity.
Faced with a huge cast of characters and a wealth of detail, Givhan leaves no scrap of information out. But detail alone doesn’t make a story, any more than a pile of sequins makes a ball gown. It’s unclear why we need to know that the hotel where the show’s sound engineer stayed is now “a Marriott with an adjoining conference center,” but when the cabaret legend Josephine Baker, a star of the Versailles event, sits down to lunch with 10 African American models, one of whom calls it “the highlight of my life,” we’re left tantalized. Perhaps, as with all great parties, you just had to be there.
By Robin Givhan
Flatiron. 310 pp. $27