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Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution

 

 Stephen Burrows designs at Versailles show.image via the_f


Stephen Burrows designs at Versailles show.      image via the_f

 

 While the 50th anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy dominated the media yesterday, today, one hopes the brouhaha will cease so that another important anniversary can be honored.  November 28th, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the unexpected American victory at the Battle of Versailles in France.

You didn’t know America had been at war with the French?  Of course if you ask anyone at the State Department, they will deny it and label you a conspiracy nut.  They will admit there was a Cold War with the Soviet Union, but they will deny the decades long Guerre Tiède that began after the Marshall Plan spigot ran dry.

Think about it:  Why do you think the French are often so rude to Americans?  Why does a pair of Levi’s jeans cost close to $100 over there?  Why do you think they export crappy movies like Holy Motors and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and enlist critics as propagandists to fawn over them, (trying) to make us feel stupid and uncultured?  They declare Jerry Lewis a comic genius to make us wonder if we’re missing something in his work.  Trust me, we aren’t.

Think it stops there? Sure, they consume our popular culture: music, ipods, McDonalds (their most profitable franchises in the EU are in France).  But their popular culture has been kept hidden from us.  I suspect the reason is that if we heard some of the music of the two “singers” whom I’m about to reveal, the war would escalate.

Do you know who this man is?

 Image: l'internaute© Softpedia


Image: l’internaute ©Softpedia

 

His name is Johnny Hallyday- yes that’s his stage name (né Jean-Philippe Smet), and no is not misspelled as far as the French are concerned.  He is a rocker (pronounced rohk-AIR) and he is a star, famous for mocking our music, American rock n’roll.

Then there’s this guy.  Dick Rivers (pronounced DEEK REEV-airz, né Hervé Forneri). Claiming to be an admirer of Elvis and Johnny Cash, he’s really the Gallic impersonator of these American icons.  A French Johnny Cash????  Pas possible!

image via udenap.org

image via udenap.org

 

 Before Project Runway, before those weird-ass hair-battles emerged from Hades, there was no competition in fashion.  Just as the KGB were the unquestioned experts on murder by umbrella, the French were the unquestioned authority on fashion. Period. Point.

This is one of the best fashion documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Point.

I have tossed away my notes just as Princess Grace tossed her $125 gold embossed blue silk moiré textured program into the air, leading the crowd to do the same as they cried “Bravo!” at the conclusion of the spectacle.  

The movie begins with wonderfully concise portraits of each designer that efficiently convey their biography, aesthetic, and explain how they arrived to occupy their position among the five designers selected by each country for the show.  The models’ stories are less straightforward, but still provide plenty of background -as distinct individuals, no less, who complained when they were hungry!

The story is well told; director Deborah Riley Draper did her homework (just like Le Movie Snob).  

The collection of people she corralled to interview is impressive, especially when one realizes that of the five American designers, only two are alive today:  Oscar de la Renta (age 81) and Stephen Burrows (age 70).  Of the French designers, there are also only two still living, Emmanuel Ungaro (age 80) and Pierre Cardin (age 91).

One notable absence is that of Liza Minnelli, but I learned from John A. Tiffany, an expert who does appear in the film, that she is contractually obligated not to speak about the event.  Pourquoi?  I believe only one of the models is deceased, and she spoke with many more who appeared in the show.

Donna Karan is another curious absence.  She was Anne Klein’s main assistant and helped dress the models backstage.  At a lunch honoring the Versailles ’73 models held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she remarked that this event was the ” …most important education in design in my career.  It was the most important event in my life.”

I don’t mention these absences as criticism of the movie.  I discovered Karan’s remarks while researching this movie, as is my normal practice.  I include them as supporting material to help you have the best experience possible while watching the movie.

I would like to commend the director for NOT including interviews of contemporary designers and “experts” who would undoubtedly have something to say on this subject, but would just take away from the story.  Those who were not at the event and were interviewed are people who have expert academic knowledge or have a direct connection, such as John A. Tiffany whom I just mentioned.  He worked as Eleanor Lambert’s assistant and recently wrote her biography. 

I wish more archival footage had been included, but I give director Deborah Riley Draper the benefit of the doubt that it’s likely not much original film exists.  The footage we do see appears to have been filmed with a home Super 8 camera with no sound.  There are many still photos, but my interest in the subject was so great that I wanted more.  

This movie clearly states the story it’s going to tell, tells it with little distraction, and concludes by telling us again and again why the story is so important. Un peu trop.

 This is my only complaint about the movie.  It feels like everyone, including the movie’s editor, got drunk with the excitement of how the story ends. Different interviewees repeat the same clichés; it feels like an after-event party where everyone tells everyone how wonderful everyone was, the truth notwithstanding.  Just when you think it’s over, there’s more praise playing alongside the credits. It makes the movie feel unbalanced as it takes away from the excellent work that precedes it.  The best lines by far are from Dennis Christopher, one of Halston’s assistants; be on the lookout for him -he wears a red shirt and glasses.

But put aside my criticism and go see this movie!  I learned so much about an event about which I had been totally unaware.  This was a far richer experience than watching The Tents, a kissy-kissy movie that taught me one thing.

Learning that Yves Saint Laurent was one of the designers selected, I wondered if Karl Lagerfeld felt bitter at being passed over.  I checked the book The Beautiful Fall which chronicles the decades-long rivalry between the two designers and was stunned to see not a single mention of Versailles in the index! Neither was there an entry for Eleanor Lambert.  I still highly recommend this book for those interested in 20th century French fashion design and business -which Lagerfeld tried to block being published- that should make you want to read it!  Its omission illustrates the importance of making sure this story is told.

The movie raises many questions too -a good thing. How come I had never heard of Stephen Burrows before seeing this movie?  I am familiar with fashion, and despite the paucity of black designers knew of  the late Willi Smith and Oswald Boateng; I know beaucoup about the late Patrick Kelly.  Pourquoi?  At this moment, I can’t think of a contemporary black designer, a true designer who is not a rapper.  With apologies to Daymond John, who is successful in fashion, but as a businessman. He manufactures hoodies and other garments emblazoned with his logo; that is not designing.

Just as it took an American president to demand that the Berlin wall be dismantled, it took a First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, to remove the first stitch in the brocade curtain.  Compared to the First Ladies who came before her, she was photogenic and spoke fluent French.  While she captivated the world with her relative beauty and dignity in the face of tragedy, she was in fact, a tool of the government in the culture war.

I’m actually not making this part up. Eleanor Lambert was for over fifty years (no typo, did my research) the preeminent fashion publicist in the United States.  She was asked by the State Department to present American fashion for the first time abroad in 1959.  She was appointed to the National Council On The Arts where she campaigned successfully, targeting Senators Pell and Javitz in particular, to have fashion included among The Arts.

The first First Lady to whom Lambert was a fashion consultant was Eleanor Roosevelt. (Imagine what she would have looked like without Lambert’s counsel!)  

When Jackie Kennedy learned she was going to be the First Lady of the United States, she followed tradition by calling on Eleanor Lambert.  Both women were passionate about promoting American designers. Jackie was the first First Lady to be in a position to make this cause more than an excuse to shop, not that she needed one.

It was Lambert who sent Jackie to Halston, who was a milliner at the time.  He created the pillbox hat Jackie wore at her husband’s inauguration; it launched Halston’s career as a designer.  

The suit Jackie wore on November 22nd 1963 was made of Chanel fabric and buttons and cut to Gabrielle Chanel’s “line by line” specifications; revisions Jackie requested had to be approved by Chanel herself.  That the dress was assembled at the New York salon Chez Ninon meant it was “Made in America.” I’m not sure how the media was able to convince the American public that this meant the suit had been “Made in America,” but they bought it.  (It’s interesting to think today the situation is reversed: foreign make cars assembled in the United States aren’t perceived to be American cars.)

Jackie did promote American designers, notably Oleg Cassini (yes, he was American), but she still bought clothes from France, Hubert de Givenchy was a favorite of hers, ripping out the designer’s label as an expression of her patriotism.

Eleanor Lambert should be at least as well known as Diana Vreeland.  From my research, I believe Lambert did more for American fashion than Vreeland, which may be perceived by the fashion dictators as a controversial position to take, especially from a Movie Snob.  It’s really a veiled suggestion that a documentary be made about her.

The fashion show that is the subject of this documentary was entirely Eleanor Lambert’s idea.  

The movie mentions this, but doesn’t give enough background about her.  As the aforementioned details attest, she was a very accomplished woman, ahead of her time. First and foremost, she was an “Ari Gold” for her clients.  She created institutions, like the CFDA and their awards, but they were byproducts of projects in which she could promote her clients.

Lambert was on vacation in the south of France with Gerald Van der Kemp and his wife Florence. Didier Grumbach, Président of the Syndicate de Haute Couture (there’s a union for haute couturiers?), explains in the movie that while M Van der Kamp was known for his ability to attract sponsors for “heritage projects” -they save buildings in Europe, they don’t just raze them like the U.S. does- he couldn’t think of an angle to raise the $60 million needed restore most of the Palace of Versailles; the Queen’s Opera House had already been restored.

Lambert was inspired by Van Der Kamp’s query to hold a fashion show in the restored Opera House.  The show would feature French and American designers, and even without Women’s Wear Daily’s editor John Fairchild declaring it the “Battle of Versailles,” Lambert knew it would become a competition- one that the Americans would win.  

Those interviewed in the movie were not as confident as Lambert.  This is understandable when one learns just how disadvantaged they were in comparison to their French counterparts; those that suggest there may have been deliberate sabotage are not crazy.  The models, director Kay Thompson (who quit during a rehearsal), the tantrum-throwing designers, and the motley supporting entourage of photographers and assistants- one of whom, Donna Karan, as Anne Klein’s assistant, was a dresser for the models- didn’t see the big picture Lambert did.

John A. Tiffany explained in a talk to the Library of Congress that Lambert had wanted to show American fashion on a level playing field with the French since the 1930s.  She resisted opportunities to do so trusting her instinct to wait until the time was right.  At the moment Van der Kamp inspired her idea, she realized that the right moment had arrived.  

In the early 1970s, women were entering the workforce and American designers were beginning to design for them by developing sportswear and separates that were practical, appropriate, and empowered them.  France lacks the adaptive quality that characterizes the United States. Their default position is to rely on the classic designs with impeccable tailoring that made them beautiful, but lacked practicality and were not intended for mass consumption.

Le Movie Snob’s $250 (the cost of the ticket to the gala):

I would like to make a couple of contributions to the story of Versailles ’73, with mes meilleurs sentiments distingués to Mme Draper.

Where was Chanel?  

She was dead.  

She met her (dress)maker two and a half years before Versailles ’73.  The Chanel we know today is the Chanel designed by Karl Lagerfeld who was not appointed creative director until 1983, and his influence has kept the house on the firm footing it lost when Coco died.  So, at the time of Versailles ’73, it is understandable that the House of Chanel was not a candidate.

 It is ironic though, because Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is the true creator of sportswear for women.  When her designs took off in the 1920s, it was because they liberated women from the corsets and skirts that caused the French to lose the Battle of Versailles.  She designed loose comfortable separates that could be interchanged with her two-piece suit.  The Americans may have resurrected sportswear, but the French created it.

Not only did the French forget about the clothes in their presentation at the event, they lost sight of the unique character of their own country that allows black Americans to achieve the kind of success that eludes them in their native country.  They didn’t realize this even as they opened their presentation with Josephine Baker singing “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”- the second line of the song is “My country and Paris –Mon Pays et Paris“)

 Josephine Baker in sheer sequins, 70 lb fur at her feet. photo believed taken by Jean-Luce Hure


Josephine Baker in sheer sequins, 70 lb fur at her feet.
photo attributed to Jean-Luce Hure

 

From Josephine Baker herself, to writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois,  models Dorothea Towles, Helen Williams, saxophonist Sidney Bechet,  Louis Armstrong, and after 1973, the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly, the late singer Teri Moïse,  and Miss J. Alexander, black Americans have been able to find success and respect in France that they couldn’t in their homeland.  Eleanor Lambert had been using black models since the 1940s- it was she who told Yves Saint Laurent to cast models of color though he was happy to take the credit for breaking the color barrier.  

So not only did the U.S. liberate France in World War II, because of Eleanor Lambert we saved their most beautiful château and gardens.  While America could save the Palace of Versailles, we could never build one; look what happens when we try.

There are two St. Louis connections in the movie:  St. Louis-born Josephine Baker, of course, and Monsanto (based in the French named St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur (Broken Heart)- where Le Movie Snob grew up- who made a large contribution to the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.

SLIFF screening:  Saturday, November 23rd, 4 pm.  Landmark Plaza Frontenac.  

Director Deborah Riley Draper and producer Michael A. Draper will be in attendance.

About 

This site was borne of my passion for movies, particularly French films. I have spent time in France and am fluent in the language, hence the “le”. The “snob” part, while of French origin, is not meant to intimidate, but rather an effort to reclaim the word from the pretentious, just as the gay community has done with the word “queer.” We’re all snobs; we all like what we like.

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