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Black Models Honored As Runway Revolutionaries

  • by
  • February 8, 2011
  • 10:21 pm
Black Models Honored As Runway Revolutionaries

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.”

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Photo courtesy of Marcus Hansson via Flickr

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35 comments

+ add your own
7:53AM PDT on May 8, 2011

interesting that it took so long

3:52AM PST on Feb 16, 2011

erica j. wrote:
Don't take offense but just try not to be so negative when the sole purpose of this article was to celebrate these African-American women and the statement for America at a time when African Americans were not celebrated in this country nor in other countries around the world. African culture and African American culture are two very different things. These American women brought something to the French that they had never seen before. This was a very thrilling time for something like this to happen.

If there is a need to celebrate any particular race on the catwalk should we not celebrate the one group of women who have never ever been there: A Native American indian woman???????

When was the first or last time you saw a Native American indian strut her stuff & heritage in some outlandish outfit in the land of make believe beauty?
And, shouldn't there even be a first lady who is an American indian since America is/was their land & country first?

When will the Native American indian be as recognized, accepted & glorified for their place in a land that is really their catwalk or no catwalk?
It is long long over due!!!!!

Plant & protect Danny's trees for life in 2011...........

3:24AM PST on Feb 16, 2011

Isn't it time for allraces to represented in the industry? We are still in the dark ages !!!

6:27PM PST on Feb 12, 2011

Interesting.

1:36PM PST on Feb 10, 2011

Harmony B, this is a story about the French and the Americans. Why would they talk about Africa? These women who were revolutionary for the time period, were African-AMERICANS. Not Africans. Yes Africa does have it's own culture but that has nothing to do with this story. This is about the French and the Americans. These women were from America and they did make a huge statement for the year in which this was done. This article is about celebration, not your confusion of African and African-American. Don't take offense but just try not to be so negative when the sole purpose of this article was to celebrate these African-American women and the statement for America at a time when African Americans were not celebrated in this country nor in other countries around the world. African culture and African American culture are two very different things. These American women brought something to the French that they had never seen before. This was a very thrilling time for something like this to happen.

12:06PM PST on Feb 10, 2011

Harmony B. says
Feb 10, 2011 11:00 AM
The problem I have with this article is that it's so incredibly America-focused. These models are hardly revolutionary, people do realize that even though African nations are poor, they do have upper and middle classes (abet smaller), not only that, they even have *gasp* their own designers...who have been using black models for decades :D :D :D

Yes, Africa does have its' alot of whats here in the states. Their major problems are massive overpopulation, massive corruption & massive illiteracy. However, what they do have compared to the developed countrys is hardly ever mentioned because it is as if some leaders want it all kept a deep dark secrete so the poor us image never leaves the mind of developed countrys.

Plant & protect Danny's trees for life in 2011.......

11:00AM PST on Feb 10, 2011

The problem I have with this article is that it's so incredibly America-focused. These models are hardly revolutionary, people do realize that even though African nations are poor, they do have upper and middle classes (abet smaller), not only that, they even have *gasp* their own designers...who have been using black models for decades :D :D :D

10:00AM PST on Feb 10, 2011

When ever people of color could show there worth as models, actors, opera singers at Texas State University, or sitting at the front of the bus, brings all of us to the realization that we truly are one race no matter what we look like.

9:10AM PST on Feb 10, 2011

Thank you.

4:14AM PST on Feb 10, 2011

Thanks for the article.

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