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book review

Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan uses fashion as her lens for cultural analysis in her in her book The Battle of Versailles.Helayne Seidman

After legendary publicist Eleanor Lambert had transformed New York into the art capital of the world, she turned her attention to working the same magic for American fashion, to wrest it from the petites mains of Paris couture, which held sway over popular style and taste. Lambert seized her first opportunity in the vacuum created by the Occupation of Paris during the Second World War by staging Fashion Press Week at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1943, but it was a charity dinner 30 years later that proved to be the biggest moment of triumph in her life's work – a moment which, writes critic Robin Givhan, was about more than just style; it marked a global cultural shift.

The dinner was conceived as an on-site fundraiser to underwrite the Palace of Versailles's roof repairs, but the decadent event raised the roof on the American fashion industry. Or so went the hype at the time: The highlight of the gala was a style showcase in which five French designers (Marc Bohan for Dior, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy) took the stage alongside five U.S. counterparts (Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and wunderkind African-American designer Stephen Burrows). Both Deborah Riley Draper's 2012 documentary Versailles '73 and Givhan's new history The Battle of Versailles posit that the moment can be seen as the tipping point when the U.S. fashion industry came into its own – as much because of the clothes as the refreshing individuality of the diverse models (many of whom were African-American) in the night's runway lineup.

In her book, Givhan surveys the Nov. 28, 1973, face-off from many sides, through years of the American fashion history that led up to the weeks of disorganized squabbling. We've all seen enough underdog American Dream narratives to know the feel-good outcome: The long, stiffly formal French presentation of traditional haute couture set to a live orchestra was "funereal," the opposite of the energetic confidence the Americans displayed through recorded pop music, cursory sets and unrehearsed Broadway-style bravado (and their secret weapon: Liza Minnelli). Besting the French at their own sport earned begrudging respect and prestige – both things, ironically, the Americans insisted their industry didn't need in the first place.

As a journalist at the Washington Post, Givhan uses fashion as her lens for cultural analysis and in 2006 won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism (a first for anyone on that beat). She takes the same approach here, breezily examining the shifting sands of influence, like the manufacturers and retailers in derivative thrall to haute couture. There are enjoyable digressions into some of the forgotten practices that made Americans their own worst enemy, such as the once-standard practice of "approved" Paris copies, in which department stores paid French houses a fee to access, duplicate and sell designs.

A number of other relevant cultural subplots also intersected in that fateful November, such as the role that Paris couture played in defining and cementing women's social standing, and the subculture of the era's international socialites, led by event chair and queen bee Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. These tidbits are all placed in the larger context of the war in Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, the oil crisis and new concerns about pollution as well as riots on both sides of the Atlantic: in America in the summer of 1967 and the May, 1968, Paris student riots.

All this makes The Battle of Versailles dense with history and perfunctory mini-biographies (including each of the 11 models), but understanding the landscape, legacy and the various hierarchies, and even the snobbery within the ranks of the designers themselves, has a purpose. The Americans were a fractious crew. Unlike the creatively acclaimed but far less commercial Stephen Burrows, for example, Anne Klein ("a realist interested in the needs of working women") had a very commercially successful business that made her presence among the group controversial. She had little reverence for the traditions of Paris couture nor did she push a modern disco glamour fantasy the way the "slithering sexuality" of Halston did. She sold smartly co-ordinated, affordable separates. Klein was openly scorned not only by the French (who tried to block her participation) but by her peers. "She didn't create clothes to boost a woman's social standing or help her land a husband," Givhan writes appreciatively. "Instead, she produced one of the earliest versions of chic career dressing, all luxurious mix-and-match sensibility." Unbeknownst to everyone (including her young assistant Donna Karan), Klein had breast cancer and would die not four months after the show. Of all the personalities involved, she stands out as the one who truly understood fashion's future and, with the benefit of hindsight, that makes the battle of Versailles seem less like a French revolution and more like an evolutionary milestone.

Nathalie Atkinson is an arts journalist and film critic, and a weekly columnist in Globe Style; she's on Twitter @NathAt.

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