Sunday, August 2, 2020

Weekend Review: The Battle of Versailles

The Battle of Versailles / Robin Givhan
NY: Flatiron, c2015
320 p.
A story of fashion history today! This book looks at the famous "Battle of Versailles", a fundraiser fashion show pitting the top French and American designers against each other, in November 1973. The designers represented were: Americans Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows and French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. You'll notice only one woman and she had to suffer egregious sexism.

Written by Robin Givhan, an award-winning fashion journalist, this story is told with clarity and verve. She approaches it from all angles; chapters on the designers, the organizers, and even the models illuminate this one night and mean that there is enough context to get a whole book out of a single event, with only the barest glimmer of repetition in the telling. 

Conceived of as a fundraiser to restore the Palace of Versailles, nobody had much expectation that the American contingent was going to be close to the French in terms of style and glamour. And the back story certainly shows how the French designers had the best of everything -- scheduling for their run-throughs, sets, music, and much much longer presentations. 

But against expectation, the American shows with their looseness and modern music and fantastic individuals as models (ten of whom were Black) took the night. The energy and speed of their presentations, the modern designs that captured the 70s spirit, and the way in which the models moved and danced on the runway unlike the static traditional presentations of the French designers -- all this led to the celebrity/rich person loaded audience response of loud cheering and excitement, also quite out of character. 

This night changed the perception of American fashion vs. French fashion. No longer did French fashion dominate the imagination as the only source of style, now there was an American spirit as well. Givhan notes that this event really changed the direction of the fashion world, and spends a lot of time going into every aspect of it to show how its effects rippled out in so many ways. You might think that looking so deeply into things like the funding and organization of an international event, spearheaded by American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, might be dull, but it's not. 

If you're interested in fashion or cultural history, this is a good read. There are a few flaws; because of the focus on this one particular moment, larger issues raised by things like the presence of the Black models or the sexist treatment of Anne Klein aren't expanded upon in a wider context. And while she does describe some of the designers and the way they planned their shows, she doesn't really call anyone out for their atrocious behaviours. Also, there are no colour images in a book about the impact of colourful, bright, energetic American fashion on a more prim fashion world. 

Overall, however, I enjoyed this one and learned a little more about a subject I'm always interested in.


  1. If you are interested in fashion and textile history read Emile Zola's The Paradise! It is an ebook ( I think in this form it is called "The Ladies' Paradise")

  2. Another book my library has .... yeah! On hold for me. Sounds a very interesting read.

    1. It's well done. But wow, the way fashion people live! I feel exhausted just reading about it, lol

  3. Do you know the "Dressed: the History of Fashion" podcasr? They had several episodes on this that I enjoyed very much, including an interview with the author and others with one of the models

    1. I had forgotten but that is probably where I heard of it first -- love that podcast!


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!