Fashion Film Friday: Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution

A still from Stephen Burrows runway presentation at Versailles ’73. Photo credit: arts.nationalpost.com

A still from Stephen Burrows runway presentation at Versailles ’73. Photo credit: arts.nationalpost.com

In 1973, American designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Halston were invited to Paris to show alongside the preeminent names in Parisian couture: Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin. But what began as a fundraising event to restore the Palace of Versailles became a momentous occasion in fashion history, in which the century-old–old being the operative word–tradition of French haute couture, made-to-order clothing, was eclipsed by the future of fashion: ready-to-wear. Equally significant, was that its creators were American.

Advertisement for an American import house, Vogue, October 1925

Advertisement for an American import house, Vogue, October 1925

France, and more specifically Paris, had been the dominant force in fashion arguably since the days of Marie Antoinette, a fate solidified by dressmakers, notably Charles Frederick Worth, in the 19th century who began imposing their own distinctive clothing designs on their clientele (and not the other way around), significantly re-charting the course of fashion history.Dressmakers became fashion designers, as we call them today, and with a high-profile clientele of idolized royalty and other celebrities, French couture became an internationally sought after commodity. In America, the latest French couture collections were followed with baited breathe, and the designs were re-produced, often illegally, at all price points. It was what American fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes referred to as the “French Legend”: “all beautiful clothes are made in the houses of the French couturiers and all women want these clothes.”[i] Hawes played a significant role in the pioneering generation of designers that laid the groundwork for the future of ready-to-wear clothing, an industry in which America would only continue to thrive. With the 1960s fashion revolution, ready-to-wear emerged as the easy-to-buy, -wear and -discard alternative for a new generation of young people shedding the antiquated customs of their parents and grandparents. Visionary couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent adapted to the time with high fashion ready-to-wear lines but other prestigious houses, notably Worth, closed their doors. It wouldn’t be long before high fashion ready-to-wear was the fashion, a point underscored by the momentous 1973 fashion show at Versailles.

Photograph of the French fashion presentations at the 1973 Versailles fashion show, by Daniel Simon via Getty Images

Photograph of the French fashion presentations at the 1973 Versailles fashion show, by Daniel Simon via Getty Images

The American fashions on show at the November 28, 1973 Versailles presentation were notable for their sleek modernity, a direct contrast to the more sophisticated, yet extravagant designs by the French couturiers for a by-gone generation. The contrasts were further underscored by the dramatically different presentation styles. “The French and American segments were as different as the Chateau of Versailles and the Seagram Building,” Women’s Wear Daily reported, “The French had two orchestras, four conductors, enough scenery and effects for four bad operattas [sic] at the Opera Comique. The sets, by Jean-Francois Daigre, were so tacky they weren’t even camp….The Americans just brought a tape recorder and no sets…and the American mannequins knew how to move in the clothes they showed.”[ii] Equally significant, was the Americans’ use of a racially diverse modeling team. Celebrated models Pat Cleveland and China Machado were two of eleven African American models who walked, or rather performed, in the show.

Photograph of Liza Minnelli performing in the American fashion show at the Palace of Versailles 1973 event,  by Jean-Luce Hure for the New York Times, November 30, 1973

Photograph of Liza Minnelli performing in the American fashion show at the Palace of Versailles 1973 event, by Jean-Luce Hure for the New York Times, November 30, 1973

This incredible and groundbreaking event is showcased in Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, a 2012 documentary directed by Deborah Riley Draper. Please find the trailer featured below.

[i] Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach (New York: Random House, 1938), 28. [ii] Alessandra Codinha, “Ringside Seat: The ‘Battle of Versailles” in WWD’s Eye,” July 9, 2012, http://www.wwd.com/eye/fashion/ringside-seat-the-battle-of-versailles-in-wwds-eye-6056461.

Research Resource: Prada’s New Online Archive

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.08.51 AMPrada has recently opened up a world generally reserved for the rarified world of academics or by research appointment only, to the masses. Prada’s entire archive of runway shows (photographs and video!), print advertisements, and what the company calls “real fantasies” are now available to all on their newly redesigned website, complete with the occasional photo/model credits and set design background. Organized by year, it serves as a comprehensive resource that spans more than thirty years, suitable for those with a mild interest to an unhealthy obsession with fashion. The fashion show archive begins with the house’s first foray into ready-to-wear in 1988, designed by Miuccia Prada, and concludes all the way up until the present. As a historian and archivist, it is refreshing to see a global company like Prada investing time and money into the preservation of their history. Speaking from personal experience, house archives are generally very low on a company’s financial prerogatives with projects being cut entirely or postponed indefinitely—or horror stories of physical archives being stored in musty basements without proper air circulation. There are rumors of one particular designer whose life’s work has been carelessly shoved into cardboard boxes, unbeknownst to him, all due to his staff’s assumption that funds could be better spent elsewhere. This speaks to the obvious fact that clothing and textile collections are exorbitantly expensive to upkeep. Yet museum exhibitions dedicated to fashion have quickly gained ground in the last several years. They are undeniable crowd pleasers with blockbusters like Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (May 4-August 7, 2011) at the MET Museum, drawing in a whopping 662,509 visitors[1], which simultaneously establishes prestige, but also sales for the house.[2] According to the MET, the majority of the pieces in the exhibition were borrowed from the archives of Alexander McQueen in London and Givenchy in Paris. Without the respective houses’ dedicated practice of archiving, exhibitions like Savage Beauty may have never been possible.

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A Prada print ad from S/S 2000 featuring Sierra Huisman and photographed by Robert Wyatt.

Prada’s online archive, beyond being a repository of the house’s women’s and men’s ready-to-wear design history, is a microcosm of fashion show history and by default of runway photography from 1988 until today. Like most fashion houses, Prada employed their own in-house photographer to document their fashion shows. In the pre-digital camera era of the 80s- 90s, photographers predominantly worked with 35mm film cameras to shoot the runway. This is immediately perceptible when reviewing Prada’s runway photographs from this period both due to their grainy quality and the seemingly lack of standardized shots that are widely associated with runway photographs today.[3] More often than not, the model is immediately outside the center of the frame; or a passing model appears in the frame with her; or there is awkward cropping of a model’s head or feet, which comes from shooting that particular look several seconds too late. Unlike today’s runway photographs taken on a digital camera where one can take rapid-fire shots without any financial ramifications, film photography required deftness of hand—with unforgiving results if mistakes were made.

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Evidence that this runway photograph from Prada’s S/S 1990 fashion show was shot with a 35mm camera. This includes the grainy quality of the photo and the cropped ensemble.

Prada Fall 2014 Style.com

A classic runway photograph of today where the model is centered in the frame and is shot from straight-on with little to no background. Ideally the model’s eyes are open and stare straight ahead. Prada F/W RTW 2014. Courtesy of Style.com

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Neutrals prevailed at Prada’s F/W 1999 runway show that also featured fresh faced Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, and Naomi Campbell.

So much about the history of fashion may be gleaned from Prada’s photographic archive. Plus, it’s refreshing to see the youthful faces of some of fashion’s biggest names—Kate Moss, Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Amber Valletta, just to name a few—as many of them were just embarking on their illustrious careers. Yet the most enticing aspect of all is that the archive is online, which means that it’s available to not just those living in New York City where most fashion archives are located, but to those living outside of the city as well. Hopefully other designers and fashion houses will follow the practice led by Prada of digitizing their archival collections, once they realize how important it is to preserve and share their house’s legacy so that all can enjoy the art of dress.

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Prada’s first ready-to-wear collection from F/W 1988.

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The set of Prada’s S/S 2008 RTW fashion show.

Prada Ad SS 1995

Prada print ad from S/S 1995 featuring Kristen Mcmenamy.

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A classic example of a runway photograph shot with a 35 mm camera. The model on the right shares the frame with a passing model. Prada S/S RTW 1990.

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An example of a “missed shot,” where the model’s eyes are half closed, and the ensemble is cropped immediately underneath her thighs. Prada S/S RTW 1990.


Notes:

1. “661,509 Total Visitors to Alexander McQueen Put Retrospective among Top 10 Most Visited Exhibitions in Metropolitan Museum’s History,” MET Museum Press Room, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/news/2011/mcqueen-attendance (accessed February 10, 2015).

2. Ironically the MET’s exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations that juxtaposed the work of Italian fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli with Miuccia Prada was “no blockbuster this time around,” according to the New York Times. Only 339,838 total visitors attended the exhibition, almost half that attended the McQueen retrospective. Eric Wilson, “At the Met, No Blockbuster This Time Around,” New York Times, August 20, 2012, http://runway.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/at-the-met-no-blockbuster-this-time-around/?_r=0 (accessed February 10, 2015).

3. For more on runway photography practices today, read Schott’s article in the New York Times. Ben Schott, “A Fashion Week Miscellany,” The New York Times, September 9, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/a-fashion-week-miscellany.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed February 9, 2015).