The iconic Battle of Versailles was a major throwdown between French and American designers.



Breaking Down The Battle Of Versailles Before It Comes To A Theater Near You

Get ready to break out the Budweiser and cheese dip, America. Ava Duvernay is directing a movie for HBO about The Battle of Versailles, also known as the night when America put France in an elegant chokehold and told it to say “uncle.” A sort of fantastic fundraiser to raise money for the crumbling Palace of Versailles, the battle was the brainchild of one Eleanor Lambert, prolific fashion editor and based goddess. It featured five French and five American designers battling for the most jaw-dropping moments, with France pulling out such heavy hitters as Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, and Pierre Cardin. Like most American battles, it was a fight we shouldn’t have won but totally did, which is why it seemed necessary that we provide an American’s guide to understanding The Battle at Versailles.

So go on, paint your face red, white, and blue. Adorn yourselves in the fine couture of a live American bald eagle. Literally wear the bird, and let its quiet nobility settle on your skin like the fine silk crepe de chines of an Oscar de la Renta gown. And as it cries that mighty liberty cry, feel free to place your right hand over left breast as you recite the great words of this pure country: “America. Fuck yeah.

Battle of Versailles
A taste of the spectacle.

So far, documentaries on the event emphasize the utter majesty of that evening. Princes and princesses, dripping in their family jewels, mingled with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Josephine Baker, and Andy Warhol. Describing the show as “elegant” is an understatement that would’ve gotten you slapped by an elegantly gloved hand and challenged to a duel; the word “marvelous” is slightly better, but also still completely wrong. This wasn’t an event, after all. The was a happening. A worldwide shake down of beliefs, including barriers based on race–nearly 30 percent of the American models were black, including the legends Bethann Hardison and Pat Cleveland. It was the night that we triumphed in a way that, at the time, seemed totally impossible—as if, after months of playoffs and nationwide emotional distress, SuperBowl XLVIV was won by the British.

See, at the time it was believed that the French dominated the fashion industry. They were the ones American designers went to to apprentice under, sort of “translating” their designs for the American public. They set the trends. They emblazoned every magazine from here to Australia.

They made “haute couture” a thing. But things were changing by 1973. Combine the sexual revolution with the women’s revolution, and then again with the Civil Rights movement and, “elegance”  (aka snobbery) as the world knew it at the time was on its way out. That is, people still wanted to feel elegant and posh, but for once they wanted to wear the clothes rather than have the clothes to wear them. 

Battle of Versailles
Pink and posh at Battle of Versailles.

An important thing to understand is that you’ll never be as American as Eleanor Lambert. She’d dreamt of this for 40 years, had spent her career chasing this sole wish of seeing America snatch France’s probably still powdered wig, and push it off its baroque throne. It was her idea to have these designers compete, and she was a driving force of inspiration. She helped them find their voices when so many had lived in the shadows of France’s fashion powerhouses.

Imagine if legendary football coach of God Vince Lombardi had decided to opt for a career in fashion instead of nationwide skull-crushing. And then feel blessed that you live in a world where that wasn’t necessary, because Eleanor Lambert still happened. Put differently: she is as imperative to the American psyche as apple pie and denying global warming.

Needless to say, her hand-picked starting roster was nothing to sneeze at. At the start of the American presentation, post-Cabaret Liza Minnelli brought her Broadway skills to the stage before handing the ball off to:

Liza Minelli performing at the Battle of Versailles.
Liza Minelli performing at the Battle of Versailles.


The quarterback.

The pretty boy known for his sleek and athletic “Halstonettes.” Tensions arose upon realizing just how little time they would have to run through the show and at one point he told his entire crew to pack up everything and prepare for the flight back. Someone with an ego but with all the talent to back it up, it seemed only appropriate that he would open the show. Following him came…

Halston in the '70s in his mirrored atelier at the Olympic Tower. found on
Halston in the ’70s in his mirrored atelier at the Olympic Tower.

Stephen Burrows:


The designer from Harlem making waves for his colorful, wearable designs and use of black models, including . He would go on to call France’s two hour presentation “boring.”

He would go down as one of Yves Saint Laurent’s favorite designers.  

Vogue September 1977 with Jerry Hall, Iman, Pat Cleveland, and other models holding Stephen Burrows
Vogue September 1977 with Jerry Hall, Iman, Pat Cleveland, and other models holding Stephen Burrows.

Bill Blass:


The suave figure with an air of debonair, his collection brought the darkness to the light and taught us the importance of a well placed feather fan.  

Bill Blass, 1969. Found on
Bill Blass, 1969.

Anne Klein:

Running back.

Anne Klein, a woman for the women. The French obsessed over her ultra wearable yet sensual clothing. Nearing the end of her secret battle with cancer, this show was to be the culmination of all her life’s work.

Anne Klein ad from the 80s
An Anne Klein ad from the 1980s.

Oscar de la Renta:

The wide receiver.

Everyone knows that plays don’t matter if you can’t score. Luckily for us, Dominican-born Oscar de la Renta was here to play the long game. Having left France ten years prior for America, he returned to prove a point.

Oscar de la Renta, Billie blair, Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland, Andre Leon Talley, Dalma in the 1970s. found on
1970s American Royalty. From left: Jerry Hall, Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Oscar de la Renta, Andrè Leon Talley, Dalma.

They were furthermore backed by some of the best and baddest models in the field— along with Cleveland and Hardison, Alva Chinn, China Machado, and Marisa Berenson were just some of the 42 models who accompanied the designers to France despite the meager pay, eager to live out a real life fairytale.

So how does it all go down? Well, we couldn’t possibly summarize a night as momentous as the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game that ended the Cold War, could we?

Instead, get ready, America. Prepare for the greatest non-sports sports movie about the time we stormed foreign soil and kicked ass—and for once, nothing went horribly, horribly wrong.

Images via Vogue, The Washington Post, Tumblr

Stay tuned to Milk for more fashion movies we’re eagerly anticipating. 

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