Catwalking down memory lane: The Battle of Versailles ’73

Screenshot from "Versailles '73"
Screenshot from “Versailles ’73”

On 28 November 1973, a group of US models walked down the middle of the Versailles Palace and into history. The designs attracted attention, but it was the models wearing the clothes that brought the crowd to its feet.

They were black.

The Battle of Versailles has a unique place in fashion history for two reasons: one was that this was when designers Bill Blass, Stephan Burrows, Halston and Oscar de la Renta captured international attention; the other was the use of 12 models of African American descent in a group of 36. Pioneers Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland and Billie Blair were among them.

The purpose for the show was to raise money for the French monument’s restoration in an event that pitted upstart American designers, more known for sportswear than “real fashion,” against well-established French ones. But the outcome established a reputation more solid than bricks and mortar for the models.

“Fashion had never witnessed black beauty in such concentrated magnitude, all wearing the best designer clothes in the world.” – Ben Arongudade

“I walked like I defied the French,” Bethann Hardison told ABC News in 2011.

“Thirty-three minutes of taped music –  Cole Porter, Al Green, Barry White – set the pace, with the black models front and center. Wearing billowing Stephen Burrows, model Pat Cleveland whirled downstage like a spinning top; Billie Blair starred as Mr. de la Renta’s magic genie; the elegant Alva Chinn let a Halston feather boa slip to reveal a bare breast. At the end, the audience went wild, cheering and tossing programs into the air.” (Wall Street Journal)

ABC News has more here:

Deborah Riley Draper produced a documentary about the show:

Even though the black girls were a hit, there’s still a lack of diversity on the runway, as Hardison has signaled by reviving the Black Girls Coalition.

So where are they now?

Well,  Billie Blair is preaching the Gospel. Alva Chinn is an actress and yoga teacher. Pat Cleveland is about to tell all.

(I wonder if she’ll tell us how to twirl? Image swiped from Vogue.com.)


And Bethann Hardison is officially a legend:

Learn more about Versailles:

Looking back at American fashion’s coming out party – NY Times

Versailles ’73: American runway revolution – Coffee Bluff Pictures

Moving mountains in chiffon – Huffington Post

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