Versailles ’73 – American Runway Revolution documentary

In 1973 New York fashion promoter Eleanor Lambert had an idea for a fashion show to promote American ready-to-wear. The November show was ostensibly created as a fundraiser for the restoration of Versailles but it became an historically important fashion event akin to the debut of Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947. The extravaganza featured five Paris haute couturiers (Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan for Dior, Hubert Givenchy, and Emmanuel Ungaro) and five of Seventh Avenue’s best designers (Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta.)

Every moment of this story, from inception to after-party, is excitingly recounted in the smoothly edited documentary ‘Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution’. A huge cast of models, photographers, socialites, and fashion historians, most of whom were there, recall the story from the stereotypical icy Parisian reception of the American contingent through the dramatic melt-downs and infighting that took place right up to curtain time, to the thundering applause from the audience who tossed their programs into the air while screaming Bravo.

The French went first, with a 2 1/2 hour presentation that was heavy and dull with overly-theatrical sets, long musical numbers, and formal fashion parades. This was followed by the American 35 minute presentation that used blank sets, emphasizing the lively presentation of willowy models as they danced across the stage in colourful, easy-fitting clothes. The American presentation won the unanimous acclaim of the guests and media.

American fashion had been gaining international importance since the 1940s, but this event made even Paris recognize the leading role American ready-to-wear and sportswear design now had in the world of fashion. The Versailles show was also instrumental in opening doors to black models that only ten years earlier were absent from mainstream American fashion presentations. The minimalist style of the show and dramatic moves of the models even changed how fashion would be shown for the next 25 years.

The film is at its best when it lets the still stunningly beautiful models recall, almost with disbelief that they were there, the events of the evening. A few grainy clips and photos survive, which help to bring the recollected stories to life, but it is difficult to believe that no complete film of the show was originally made or survives.

The documentary slips a little by using too much footage of experts who weren’t there but pontificate like they were. Also, the film drags towards the end as the message gets repetitive about how important the show was to black history. With a ten or fifteen minute edit, this documentary would be perfect.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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3 Responses to Versailles ’73 – American Runway Revolution documentary

  1. Lizzie says:

    I have not seen this yet, but what is it about so many documentaries recently that include interviews with persons who have no first hand knowledge of the subject? It’s like we can’t have a discussion about fashion unless Harold Koda and Valerie Steele are interviewed!

    • Jonathan says:

      LOL – I wasn’t going to name names, but yes, Mr. Harold Koda is on screen a titch too much… I would much rather listen to Pat Cleveland or Marisa Berenson, or Barbara Jackson talk about their memories of the show – that stuff was fascinating and I wanted more!

      • Lizzie says:

        Well you know when you recognize a curator just by his voice that you have heard him a bit much. At least he did know Diana Vreeland and made that film more interesting.

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