On November 28, 1973, the world's social elite gathered at the Palace of Versailles for an international fashion show. By the time the curtain came down on the evening's spectacle, history had been made and the industry had been forever transformed. This is that story.
Conceived as a fund-raiser for the restoration of King Louis XIV's palace, in the late fall of 1973, five top American designers faced off against five top French designers in an over-the-top runway extravaganza. An audience filled with celebrities and international jet-setters, including Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duchess of Windsor, Paloma Picasso, and Andy Warhol, were treated to an opulent performance featuring Liza Minnelli, Josephine Baker, and Rudolph Nureyev. What they saw would forever alter the history of fashion.
The Americans at the Battle of Versailles– Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows – showed their work against the five French designers considered the best in the world – Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. Plagued by in-fighting, outsized egos, shoestring budgets, and innumerable technical difficulties, the American contingent had little chance of meeting the European's exquisite and refined standards. But against all odds, the American energy and the domination by the fearless models (ten of whom, in a groundbreaking move, were African American) sent the audience reeling. By the end of the evening, the Americans had officially taken their place on the world's stage, prompting a major shift in the way race, gender, sexuality, and economics would be treated in fashion for decades to come. As the curtain came down on The Battle of Versailles, American fashion was born; no longer would the world look to Europe to determine the stylistic trends of the day, from here forward, American sensibility and taste would command the world's attention.
Pulitzer-Prize winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan offers a lively and meticulously well-researched account of this unique event. The Battle of Versailles is a sharp, engaging cultural history; this intimate examination of a single moment shows us how the world of fashion as we know it came to be.
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About the Author
ROBIN GIVHAN is a style and culture critic based in Washington, D.C. She is the former fashion editor of The Washington Post, where she covered the news, trends, and business of the international fashion industry, and she is the former style editor for Time, and The Daily Beast. In 2006 she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. The Battle of Versailles is her first book.
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The Battle of Versailles
The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight And Made History
By Robin Givhan
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Robin Givhan
All rights reserved.
If a tourist arrives in Paris during the period of ready-to-wear runway shows in March or September, a taxi driver stuck in the inevitable traffic jam on the trip into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport is likely to offer commentary on the world-famous fashion labels Christian Dior or Chanel in the same manner that a New York cabbie might kibitz about the Yankees. Fashion, after all, is one of France's national treasures. Even those who do not consume it at its highest levels are interested in its well-being.
France's reputation in the world of fashion is bound up with the industry's early links to the monarchy, its importance to the developing republic, and the enduring tension between the two. From the days of Marie Antoinette, in the eighteenth century, French fashion, like fashion throughout Europe, was dictated by nobility. "The rules were established by the court in every country. Spanish fashion had nothing to do with French fashion. When French fashion was pale blue for men and women, Spain was black," explains Didier Grumbach, the author of Histoires de la Mode, his book about the history of French fashion. "In every country in Europe, the king or queen was making fashion. Marie Antoinette had a couturier but only to give her advice. It was the queen deciding."
Any well-bred French woman, even those who were not part of the royal court, employed a dressmaker. As a result, there were some 350,000 couturiers working in France up until the end of the 1920s. In addition, all commoners who could not afford a dressmaker sewed, so that the production of basic clothing occurred at home. But there was no ready-to-wear, no off-the-rack, in the manner we think of today.
The monarchy ruled over clothing aesthetics—everyone simply copied or paid homage to what the nobles wore. There was no creativity in fashion—only in textiles. The fabric merchants were the artists in what could only barely be called a fashion industry. They dealt in jacquards, brocades, and silk taffetas, as well as notions: button making, lace weaving, and embroidery. They perfected crafts that continue on at such lauded firms as Maison Lesage embroidery and Maison Lemarié, where artisans work magic with feathers.
Breaking from this tradition of the royal court determining the styles and women collaborating with their own dressmakers was Charles Frederick Worth, who arrived in Paris in 1845. An Englishman with significant chutzpah, Worth established what we now consider couture: something that is born in the imagination of the designer and offered to the client.
As a young man, Worth worked as a salesman at Gagelin, a textile firm. While there, he began to make dresses for his wife, who was a saleswoman in the shop. He built a small business designing dresses, which won prizes at various fabric exhibitions and contributed to Gagelin's success. With the rise of the French Second Republic in 1848, Worth encouraged his employer to expand even further into dressmaking. But Gagelin refused. Dressmaking was still perceived as lowly, inelegant, and beneath the status of a textile artist. So Worth found a partner and started his own business, calling it the House of Worth. He set about the process of developing new shapes and conjuring fresh ideas. He even had the audacity to present his creations on live models. His brazenness didn't go unnoticed—or unrewarded. It created a scandal.
"It was unaccepted that someone was inventing new shapes," Grumbach explains. "The rules were very clear about what women wear—before forty years old and after forty; when she is married, when she is widowed. Everything was imposed. There was no freedom in fashion."
For a time, Worth's daring paid off. All was fine and lucrative, and destined to get even better. But then Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been elected the president of the Second Republic, led a coup d'état and, in 1852, began to rule as Napoleon III. With a new emperor and a new royal court, Worth had to rethink his business plan. Wily and savvy, he dispatched his wife, Marie Vernet, to visit the wife of the Austrian ambassador. Vernet arrived with a book of sketches. At first she was met with skepticism about this Englishman's skills, but Worth's creativity prevailed. The ambassador's wife placed an order for two dresses, one for day and another for evening, for the grand sum of three hundred francs.
Soon after the dresses were completed, the diplomatic corps was invited to a ball at the Louvre. When Napoleon's wife, Empress Eugénie, got a look at the Worth gown—white tulle, embroidered with silver threads—she was smitten. The next day she summoned Worth to the Louvre, the emperor's city home, to shop his wares. But instead of arriving prepared to acquiesce to the empress's desires, with a sketchpad and sample fabrics, Worth arrived with a fully made brocade dress.
"The empress sees the dress and hates it because she thinks it looks like curtains. And she's absolutely insulted because the dress hasn't been negotiated. It's all made. He's proposing a creation where she didn't interfere," Grumbach explains. "She sends him back; she sends [the dress] back. But by chance, the emperor arrives. And Worth, who is not shy, quickly explains: 'The brocade is from Lyon—a republican city—so I think it's good politics if the empress wears it a few times.'"
Politics won the day, as it still so often does, and Empress Eugénie gave in. And Worth, a consummate rainmaker, made sure that anyone with money knew that he was the couturier for the empress. During the reign of Napoleon III, from 1852 to 1870, France saw robust growth both industrially and economically. Its influence and power spread around the world. Worth's position as the exclusive dressmaker for the court was incomparable publicity. He was deemed the ne plus ultra creator of evening gowns and began to dress Russian and English nobility, as well as the wives of American millionaires.
Worth's business model and his determined self-promotion set the foundation for what became haute couture at the dawn of the twentieth century. Worth would create a collection of designs, which he presented to potential clients. They would make their choices with Worth's counsel. And he would tailor-make the garments to each client's specifications through a series of fittings.
This would be the process by which generations of well-to-do women would dress. And while those women would still collaborate with the great couturiers, because of Worth, the balance of creative power increasingly tilted toward the designers.
* * *
Today the term couture is used loosely in reference to clothes that are expensive or especially luxurious, but from Worth's day well into the 1970s, it had a particular meaning—and in France it still does. Formally, haute couture refers to a manner of construction, one dedicated to handmade quality and personalized fit. The rules of haute couture are strictly dictated and overseen by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which was established in 1868 and essentially codified Worth's design process. In France, haute couture is a legally protected designation and the Ministry of Industry regularly reviews which design houses are allowed to use the nomenclature.
A couture show was and remains a singular event—intimate, dignified, and glamorous. The attire of the guests can be breathtaking, not for its opulence or its ostentation but for the sheer perfection of its construction: the purity of fit, the unspeakable chic. The audience is filled with clients as well as retailers, editors, and, today, stylists.
The guests arrive quietly and in due time. There are no hordes of people clogging doorways. No pushing. No snarling guards. There is no conjuring of faux frenzy. The anticipation is palpable but silent.
If haute couture shows today are calm and respectful, up until the late 1960s they were like religion, a cross between Easter Sunday and Holy Communion. The models were not especially beautiful, but they were elongated, birdlike creatures who floated gracefully through a room filled with clients perched on little gilded chairs. Each model held a number in her hand to identify her look. There was a hush over the room. At Balenciaga, there was utter silence.
Haute couture greedily consumes a woman's time, as a garment requires multiple fittings—in practice and by legislation. It demands patience and a willingness to bother with details. A woman has to appreciate the perfect little hand stitches on the interior of a garment, the handmade lace and embroidery—or at least relish the admiring glances that an exquisitely constructed garment can attract.
Following each couture show, clients make an appointment with their vendeuse, or saleswoman, for the next day. The process has not significantly changed since the time of Worth. Clients select their style, request tweaks, and then proceed through a series of fittings. From a rudimentary muslin to the final product, the garment is handmade, embroidered, beaded, and feathered by a group of artisans who have learned their trade over the generations. This is not disposable fashion. Clients keep garments for years, often altering them slightly to freshen them up.
* * *
Historically, clients maintained close relationships with their vendeuses, who were not just salespeople, but also social arbiters, gatekeepers, and meticulous businesswomen who kept track of who bought which garments and how those orders were progressing through the atelier. The vendeuse was a diplomat who knew which social circles overlapped and was abreast of the current hierarchies. She could discreetly dissuade a client from an ill-advised purchase. If so moved, she could offer a client the discounted sample garments worn by the model in the show. And if the vendeuse was the sort of woman who herself came from relatively rarefied circumstances, she could bring in influential, big-spending, important women who could raise a design house's notoriety by association. The vendeuse was a celebrity wrangler long before the first Hollywood red carpet was unfurled and the swag suite was opened.
In its most serious form, couture is a way of life. And in its heyday, the 1930s to the 1960s, when there were some twenty thousand couture clients, wealthy women made multiple costume changes a day, going from a dressing gown to a luncheon suit to a dinner dress. The couturier often developed a personal relationship with his clients. For example, designer Hubert de Givenchy sometimes traveled with his American clients Rachel "Bunny" Lambert Mellon (whose grandfather invented Listerine) and Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney (daughter-in-law of Franklin D. Roosevelt and later wife of John Hay Whitney, the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James). Indeed, Mellon once sent her private plane to fetch Givenchy from Paris so that he could create uniforms for her entire household staff—including the gardeners.
You had to be someone, not just someone with very deep pockets, to wear couture. Couture was a world defined by relationships and lineage, in addition to money. A woman was introduced into this world by her mother, a socially prominent friend, or a representative of the house who'd taken note of the woman's stature in the community and her healthy bank account. One did not simply turn up at an atelier, ring the bell, and expect to be welcomed. A fool's errand! Haute couture was an exclusive club. And once admitted, a woman tended to remain loyal to one or two couturiers for a lifetime.
Paris's fashion industry provided the wardrobe for the Western world's great, striving, and influential beauties. And in the decades straddling World War II, beauty was as all-consuming and revered as any career. Beauty was a profit center for those who were genetically endowed or determinedly self-creating. It helped women attract the most suitable sort of husband. And thus, it could improve a woman's social standing, fatten her bank account, and enhance her cultural clout. And of course, her beauty reflected well upon her spouse, lending him both virility and admiration.
In today's judgment, relying on one's appearance for advancement may be disdained, but throughout the 1940s and '50s, a woman would be declared foolhardy and unambitious if she failed to exploit her valuable gift of beauty, just as a musical prodigy would be deemed a disappointment if he shunned the concert stage.
The French fashion capitol had a symbiotic relationship with these aspiring women. The Parisian designers used their great skill to help them dazzle men of means and impress (or intimidate) their fellow sojourners. In return, as their appearance won compliments and their prominence rose, these women reflected the spotlight back on their French créateurs whenever their portraits appeared in the pages of Vogue, which debuted in America in 1892, and when their names were included on the International Best-Dressed List, which began as a poll orchestrated by Paris couturiers.
Haute couture set the standard of beauty in all of fashion, and the women who wore it set the standard of style for the masses. The American women who patronized the couture ateliers of Paris came from all parts of the country, from the East Coast to the plains west of the Mississippi to the oil fields of Texas to the California coast. They availed themselves of couture because it was the most personal expression of creative design. They admired the couturiers' techniques, understood couture's history, respected its perfectionism, and relished its enduring iconography. But they were also drawn to couture because of social expediency, family tradition, and simply because it was expected of them.
Among the most memorable of these women were Mona (née Strader) Schlesinger Bush Williams von Bismarck, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame of the Best-Dressed List. She was born in 1897 with little fanfare in Louisville, Kentucky, but she died a countess in Paris after she'd made an impressive and lucrative habit of marrying up. The designer Hubert de Givenchy, who says she was both "beautiful and elegant," often dressed her.
Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer Paley, the wife of a Standard Oil heir and later of the founder of CBS, was another darling of the haute couture world. Born in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts, she made her first appearance in Vogue in 1934, where she was described as having a "special talent for wearing clothes." By 1958, Babe was also welcomed into the Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame.
"There's a story about her walking out of a famous New York restaurant and she had a scarf and didn't know what to do with it so she tied it on her handbag. And scarves on handbags became a thing," recalls fashion editor Marylou Luther.
Hailing from Texas, the blond socialite and philanthropist Lynn Wyatt was the granddaughter of the founder of the Sakowitz department stores. She was divorced with two children when she married Oscar Wyatt, the smooth-talking wildcatter, in 1963. A friendly and exuberant woman with a birdlike physique, large, round eyes, and a rollicking Texas twang, Wyatt was introduced to couture—specifically, Hubert de Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro—and the glamour of Paris by well-meaning friends who took her social well-being in hand. They invited her to all the right parties, and she would pack ten evening gowns in her suitcase for a ten-day trip to Paris. "It was never exhausting to me, ever. I don't care how many times I see something. I am never blasé. I am never blasé about anything. Beauty is beauty is beauty," Wyatt says of herself. "I get energized by things like that.
A pure and unabashed clotheshorse, Nan Kempner, wife of New York investment banker Thomas Kempner, was a wry and self-deprecating character who maintained a "social X-ray" physique, which was akin to that of a very hungry-looking twelve-year-old boy. She grew up in San Francisco in the 1930s and '40s with a mother who shopped couture. The daughter quickly picked up the habit.
And there was Muriel Newman, the legendary Chicago art collector, who used to say that she always chose the top pieces from a couture collection so that her dress would speak eloquently for her and help secure her rightful place in society regardless of her having come from the former cow town of Chicago.
But the grandest presence among this genus of American women is the regal Catherine "Deeda" Blair. A great thoroughbred, she was born Catherine Gerlach and grew up in Chicago, with her social coming out occurring in 1949. She was a devotee of Cristobal Balenciaga, and it was his work she'd saved up for when she arrived in Paris in 1959 for her first couture show.
Deeda was recovering from a failed marriage when family friends Eunice and Sargent Shriver introduced her to a lawyer named William McCormick Blair Jr. Mr. Blair was the son of an investment banker and a member of the family who once owned the Chicago Tribune and gave Chicago's McCormick Place its name. He was also an associate of Adlai Stevenson and part of the Kennedy circle.
Excerpted from The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan. Copyright © 2015 Robin Givhan. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love fashion history, primarily of the 20th century, so when I saw this book, I obviously was curious. Given that it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner increased my anticipation as well. I found the most of it to be informative and well written, but disappointed at the author's overall approach. I wished Givhan would have stuck with her main theme as American Fashion being another world and escape from the issues of the late 60s and 70s, instead of making those political and social issues such a focus. I'm not sure if it was done to fill the pages or reveal a hidden agenda. Less racial content and more fashion history is why one would pick up the book.