Last week, 200 people gathered for a luncheon at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute for “A Tribute to the Models of Versailles 1973″ and to celebrate a group of ten African-American models “whose work that night made American fashion a contender on the world stage” almost 40 years ago and to honor them as runway revolutionaries. The event was hosted by designers Steven Burrows and Oscar de la Renta.
“I could not think of a more deserving group of women and dear friends who helped us define a new era in fashion as we began our careers all those years ago, not a more defining organization to deliver this recognition,” Burrows announced.
The New York Times called it “American fashion’s coming-out party.” In November 1973, at a fundraising benefit for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, five emerging American designers were invited to showcase their collections alongside established French mainstays. Old versus new, you could call it. On the French side, there was Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanual Ungaro and Pierre Cardin. Americans were represented by Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston and Stephen Burrows. “A first-class prize fight,” according to NPR, “the Thrilla in Manila, only with high heels, not boxing gloves.”
Like any showdown, this one was not without its snags. The American show was “bound for disaster,” said Oscar de la Renta. “Yves Saint Laurent had converted a white Cadillace and he had Zizi Jeanmaire singing ‘Je Cherche un Millionaire.’” The French also had showgirls, space ships, even a pumpkin coach. All the American sets had to be scrapped because the designer made measurements in inches, not centimeters.
“The French had started to snub us before we even got there,” said Bethann Hardison. “They laughed and said, ‘These are not designers, these are sportswear people.’ We were going into French territory unwelcome and so, of course, when we got there, the Americans all decided to fight.”
Fight they did, and the American show came off, partly “because the bare stage with no props made it look so modern,” said Stephen Burrows. Yet most of its success came from the models themselves, who were African-American. Putting black woman at the forefront of a runway show was completely unprecedented in 1970s France when the general census of “‘an ethnic woman’ was someone who was southern European,” said Koda.
“At Versailles, they had never seen so many flagrantly beautiful black women at one time,” said fashion historian and former Fords model Barbara Summers.
The models that brought “character and the strength of defiance,” said Hardison. “The only thing I had was my fierceness and in my body, I defied the French when I walked down the catwalk, and that’s when people started screaming and the programs went flying in the air.”
This was the first time Paris saw an African-American woman on a catwalk. Black models “were nor the norm then and are hardly the norm now. But we were part of a time period where being a runway model meant something, a time before runway models were given up for print girls, and it was the runway girl who sold your merchandise. That really started started changing people’s minds about us and what we could do.”
The impact echoed throughout the show’s start-studded French attendance. Emanual Ungaro called the American show “genius.” “The French were good,” said Duchess de la Rochefoucauld, “but the Americans were sensational.” “The French were pompous and pretentious,” said Countess Jacqueline de Ribes. “The American show was so full of life, of color.” “Not since Eisenhower have the Americans had such a triumph in France,” said C.Z. Guest. As fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert put it, “It was as if, on this cold night, all the windows of Versailles had been blown open.”
Much of that night’s success lay in the fact that the African-American models brought an attitude to the catwalk that read as the antithesis to the cold-shoulder aloofness that dominated so many French models at the time. “Black girls changed all that,” said Summers. “they plugged fashion into what was happening now, and that meant R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, dancing, music, popular culture. They brought the electricity of popular culture into fashion.”
“There was a certain kind of walk that we had at the time, and I’m just going to say it was pretty much the ‘black girls’ walk,’” said model Sandi Bass, who was not in the show, but got her start the same year and ended up working with Givenchy. “We were free, we were spirited, we would smile… It was like a trot down the runway… We had no holds barred, the personalities just flourished and opened, and this created an excitement for the designers as well as the audience.”
“From that moment on, there was a kind of interest on the part of fashion designers in representing the excitement and diversity of the street,” said Koda. “Part of that excitement came from the African-American community and the music scene, and part of it was a sort of animated desire for a range of looks.”
That multicultural desire and American diversity that these ten women represented paved the way for future black models such as Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn, and Chanel Iman.
Yet the runway world is still a very homogenous one. At the age of 38, Naomi Campbell continues to model because there are still too few black women on the catwalk. “I don’t do so many shows anymore, but I do count how many girls of color they use in the shows,” she told Reuters. “It happens to be last year New York was the worst… Now at Paris Haute Couture there was only one black girl out of all the shows. It cannot be a trend.” She posed alongside Tyra Banks, Iman, and other female black actors, models and singers for July’s all-black issue of Italian Vogue to bring attention to the problem.
“I go to castings and see several black and Asian girls, and then I get to the show and there’s just me and maybe some other colored face,” said Jourdan Dunn, who recently became the new face of Burberry.
It’s a dangerous trend because it reinforces the stigma that black women don’t fit in the mold of ideal beauty. Which makes it all the more important to remember these ten women. Regardless of how seriously the fashion industry is taken these days, the precedent that these women took, the pioneering walk they took down the catwalk, and the magnetic charge they attracted from their dynamic energy goes deeper than racial diversity and inclusiveness. In this one night, these women proved that feminine beauty doesn’t reside in skin color, but in personality.
“They weren’t planning on being revolutionaries, but they happened to be at the right place at the right time,” said Summers. “And for a revolution to take place in Versailles, let me tell you, for these little black girls to be running around, kicking up a fuss, showing off, it had to be absolutely thrilling.”
“I realize that that was my time in history,” model Billie Blair remembers from that night. “I was this skinny black girl, taller than Jesus, with no boobs and no booty, but for the first time I was really proud of what I was and where I came from. I was recognized.”
Photo courtesy of Marcus Hansson via Flickr