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Review: Robin Givhan's 'The Battle of Versailles' a riveting fashion history

Black models with a dance sensibility were just one of the surprises that five American designers brought to a legendary fashion show at Versailles in 1973.
Black models with a dance sensibility were just one of the surprises that five American designers brought to a legendary fashion show at Versailles in 1973.
Published Apr. 1, 2015

It's difficult to tell people who don't care about fashion why fashion is worth caring about. Why it's more than pretty clothes and shallow vanity. Why it speaks to an ever-shifting tableau of social strata, race, international politics and so on.

As a result, some fashion books exist vaguely on the surface, skating a stiletto around any meaningful semblance of depth.

Good news. Robin Givhan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her Washington Post fashion criticism, has done the hard work. In The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History, Givhan distills cogent points about fashion against a backdrop of one real-life glittering showdown in Paris.

It's educational, but this is no textbook. Versailles is full of intrigue and tension, fashion designers Mean Girl-ing each other, Oscar de la Renta and Halston getting in delicious snits. Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker show up. So do Andy Warhol, Rudolph Nureyev and Kay Thompson, fraught with plastic surgery but full of Funny Face energy.

The story revolves around a 1973 fundraiser to restore Versailles, the palace of King Louis XIV of France. Eleanor Lambert, probably the most effective fashion PR woman in American history, dreamed up the idea.

Lambert was on a mission to raise the profile of the American fashion designers she represented. And to do that, she knew she had to conquer France.

Why? Well, here's why Givhan's book should be required reading for all fashion students, or anyone who considers themselves fashion-literate.

Paris dictated fashion for the entire Western world. The word "couture" has become an annoying mall catchall, but couture is actually a revered French tradition centered around a religious devotion to personalization and fit. American department stores just copied the work from ateliers like Dior and Balenciaga, literally, and Givhan explains how.

But changing social norms, sexual freedoms, civil rights and advancements of women in the workplace began to change how people dressed. That ushered in more creativity and caused a market for ready-to-wear items. The whole thing made French traditionalists uneasy, even while their own customers became interested in things off racks.

Then came Versailles. The event was never marketed as a Franco-American war, but of course that's what it was. In some ways it was even bloodier, because it was passive-aggressive.

Ten designers came to Versailles from France and America. Givhan explores each of the American designers, from egomaniac Halston to reliable Bill Blass to helpful yet proud de la Renta to aimless upstart Stephen Burrows. They all had disdain for the fifth designer on the bill, career clothier Anne Klein, who dared to present — shudder — separates.

A cadre of new black models shook up the American presentation, bringing personality and a dance sensibility to the stage. The wild spectacle played against the palatial backdrop of Versailles, pitted against the couture of Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin.

Givhan's depth of reporting is evident. She offers many names to keep track of, but tells the story with a chatty sensibility that never feels slow.

Versailles is a treasure trove of interviews, from Klein's then-assistant Donna Karan, to de la Renta, who died in 2014. The book has a tone of affinity for de la Renta, whom Givhan describes even at the end of his career as the "sometimes grumpy, always charismatic eminence gris."

Versailles offers plenty of cocktail party tidbits: the fact that Burrows created his famous "lettuce hem" by accident; that France removed a law banning trousers on women only in 2013.

And then there are the bigger points Givhan makes. Did the American pluck shown at Versailles transfer to our current celebrity-driven fashion world? Were the black models really revolutionary, or simply a fleeting oddity for the bored and gilded crowd? What is fashion's state of diversity today, and what does it say about the things we hold important?

They are questions worth asking, even for those who are not sure why.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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