Pin It
Battle of Versailles
A still from Stephen Burrows runway presentation at Versailles 1973via

The secret history of fashion’s ultimate showdown

Remember that night Yves Saint Laurent and Halston competed on the catwalk?

Only yesterday, the news was announced that director Ava DuVernay would direct a cinematic recreation of the Battle of Versailles fashion show – an historic 1973 event initially conceived as a fundraiser to restore the French palace back to its former glory. The concept was simple: five established French designers would take on five then-unknown American designers. The results, however, were spectacular. Spanning three hours, the show unravelled to reveal the participation of a live orchestra, performances by Liza Minelli and Josephine Baker alongside several fully choreographed dance routine. Crucially, of a cast of 36 American models, ten were African American – a ratio which, at least in the 1970s, was unprecedented. So, in celebration of the news, we took a look back at the lesser-known story of the event to bring you the secret history of one of fashion’s most iconic, yet overlooked, shows.


While French designers Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bahan (then-designer for Christian Dior) and Emmanuel Ungaro collectively took two hours to showcase their work, the Americans favoured a concise, high-energy approach which ultimately led them to victory. Deliberately refuting the elaborate French aesthetic, the U.S. designers stuck to classic, functional clothing, instead relying on the energy of their models to communicate their vision. The line-up was varied – the likes of Anne Klein and Steven Burrows showed alongside Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Halston, all of whom presented a range of aesthetics which would go on to become synonymous with New York and its enduring fashion scene.


Considering that this was a show staged in a mammoth Parisian palace attended by some of the world’s richest couture customers, it’s hardly surprising that the sets were as elaborate as they were. A simple line drawing of the Eiffel Tower provided the initial backdrop for the French designers, but things soon escalated as Emmanuel Ungaro bizarrely introduced a gypsy caravan pulled on stage by a painted rhinoceros. Elsewhere Pierre Cardin commissioned a rocket for his set, whereas Yves Saint Laurent looked to the 1930s to create a set which featured a full-length limousine and a cast of models being carried on the arms of drag queens.

“A drawing of the Eiffel Tower provided the initial backdrop for the French designers, but things soon escalated as Emmanuel Ungaro bizarrely introduced a gypsy caravan pulled on stage by a painted rhinoceros”


No expense was spared in ensuring the event had a star-studded line-up both on-stage and off. The audience was littered with royals and pop culture icons ranging from Princess Grace of Monaco to Grace Jones and Andy Warhol, whereas designers famously competed to see who could land the biggest names. The American set kicked off with cabaret icon Liza Minneli who opened with a coy ‘Bonjour, Paris!’ that captivated the audience, whereas the legendary French-American dancer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker delivered a seductive performance which left her clad in nothing more than a bejewelled nude bodysuit.


In many ways, the models were the real stars of the show. However, the casting process was rumored to be so stressful that the American models weren’t booked until just two weeks before. Because the designers didn’t have the same astronomical budget as their French counterparts, many of the U.S. models agreed to take a reduced salary and work at a flat rate of just $300, whilst a number of big-name models are rumored to have turned down the gig due to its pay rate. Of all the models cast, almost 30 per cent were black, including the likes of Pat Cleveland, China Machado, Alva Chinn and Jennifer Brice. The casting was especially revolutionary as it didn’t rely on tokenism – the intention was simply to hire women that were beautiful, statuesque and charismatic, and the result was a success.