1973 Ground Breaking, Historic Fashion Event

“Oh Yes, I Remember It Well” (Well, Sort Of)

Stephen Burrows with the girls of Versailles: Amina Warsuma, Norma Jean Darden, Pat Cleveland, Charlene Dash, Alva Chin, China Machado, Billie Blair & Bethann Hardison

On Monday, January. 24, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute paid homage to the African American models who made their world ‘debut’ strutting their fabulous stuff on the runway during the course of a 1973 ground breaking, historic fashion event: Le Grand Divertissement a Versailles. Conceived as a way to raise money for restoration of the grand palace and grounds of Versailles, this major fashion moment not only elevated the status of American designers, bringing them global attention and giving them ‘credibility’ by virtue of their taking the world stage, but it was also a way of ‘introducing’ their fabulous ‘women of color’ muses and models (of the approximately 30 models imported for the occasion, about half were African American and as Oscar de la Renta pointed out, prior to this, “In Paris , nobody had ever seen a black model”. Someone else observed that at the time, ethnic diversity meant ‘southern Europe ’. I guess you could call it the ultimate fashion coming out party).

This veritable ‘fashion face off’ involved 5 legendary French designers, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, and Pierre Cardin, and their American counterparts, Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Oscar de la Renta, who wowed the crowd with their simple, elegant, and modern designs.

Yesterday’s well attended lunch, which was fittingly held in the spectacular Temple of Dendur, was hosted by Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows, the only two living designers in this illustrious group (other designers in attendance were Donna Karan, who was Anne Klein’s assistant at that time, Anna Sui, Francisco Costa, Isabel and Ruben Toledo, and B. Michael). Among the other high profile guests were Iman, Kate Betts, Robin Givhan, Teri Agins, Constance White, Hamish Bowles, Micky Boardman, Lynn Yaeger, Kim Hastreiter, Cindi Leive, Amy Fine Collins, Paul Wilmot, Desiree Rogers, Lizzie Tisch, Eliza Reed Bolin, Annette de la Renta, Linda Johnson Rice, and Patsy Tarr.

Before lunch (at which time guests mingled and took in the fashion installation showing 15 designs by the 5 American designers included in Versailles) there were opening comments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Donna Williams, Chief Audience Development Officer, remarks from Director Thomas P. Campbell, who hailed Versailles as an “historic moment in time”, a “tale of victory for American fashion”, and more remarks by Harold Koda, Curator in Charge, The Costume Institute, who introduced a video (which included footage of the event and comments by Cathy Horyn).

After lunch was served, Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows, the two Keynote Speakers, took to the podium, at which point Donna Karan, seated next to ODLR, literally jumped up to join in. She could not contain her enthusiasm as she discussed Versailles: “It was the most important education as a designer and the highlight of my life. It put the American standard on the map. It was the girls who made the clothes come alive”.

And then she continued: “Oscar was the master, he will always be the master, and always is the master. It’s an honor for me to be standing next to him (and Stephen). Fashion will never be the same.” Oscar de la Renta recalled: “There was no cohesiveness in the French presentation, but for the Americans, for a moment in time, we were all one! The models made the magic!”

 Stephen Burrows stated, “The greatest moment in my life was Versailles and we won!” (This met with thunderous applause from the guests). At this point, Emily K. Rafferty read a statement from Mayor Bloomberg who alas, was unable to attend (I guess he was escaping the cold in Bermuda, or better yet, was busy getting ready for the snow which will arrive later this week), and she then made the Presentation of Proclamations to each of the 10 model honorees in attendance: Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, China Machado, Ramona Saunders, Amina Warsuma, and this was yet another photo op, met with rousing applause. It may have been positively frigid outside, but you could literally feel the warmth inside the Temple of Dendur.
By the way, the significance of the timing of this luncheon wasn’t lost on me, in that it was one week following Martin Luther King Day, (which is all about equal rights and equality for all), weeks before New York Fashion Week (where runways here and abroad are now a true testament to ethnic diversity), AND the 70’s couldn’t be ‘hotter’ from a fashion point of view.

The reunion lunch was certainly meaningful to me (and no silly, not just because it’s the one time in recent memory I would find myself in a roomful of models who were about the same age as I). I basically came of age (fashion age anyway) in the 70’s, starting my fashion magazine career first at Seventeen and then moving on to Harper’s Bazaar, where China Machado (one of the models being honored yesterday) was Fashion Director. In the capacity of senior market editor, I was given certain ‘houses’ to cover, and coincidentally, I was the editor for all 5 of the designers represented at the Versailles show. (The only one I never got to meet was Anne Klein who died of breast cancer in 1974 at the age of 50. By the time I was responsible for covering the line, Donna Karan and Louis Dell’ Olio were firmly ensconced).

I have fond memories of private appointments at 550 7th Avenue with both Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass (both, who were always elegant and gracious, treating me like a true pro even though I was so young and wet behind the years at the beginning); going to Halston’s very sparse and dramatic showroom at the top of the Olympic Tower with its million dollar views, to meet with him prior to collections (the sunglasses never came off), and then going back to view his shows which were quite the scene (Liza with a ‘Z’, et. al.); and seeing Stephen Burrow’s joyful, colorful, and unique designs unfold at formal runway shows held in his exclusive boutique at Henri Bendel, aptly called Stephen Burrow’s World (its legendary president, Geraldine Stutz discovered him in 1970).

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that in the 70’s, Henri Bendel, located off 5th avenue at 57th street, was THE coolest, hippest, store on the planet. In fact, it was so ‘happening’ and such the scene, Bill Cunningham could be found religiously standing near the entrance of the store, snapping the stylish who would come and go. (Bergdorf, Who?) Come to think of it, the very first time this legendary lensman took my picture, was in the early 70’s and it appeared in WWD, where he had a regular column reporting on what else? Street Style. I was walking into Bendel wearing a magnificent Anne Klein heavy wool floral tapestry maxi coat, which I still have and still fit into, thank you very much and, it’s one of my all time favorites. Some things, like great fashion, seem to improve with age.

Speaking of age, is it possible that like Nora Ephron (“I Can’t Remember Anything”), I’m having a ‘senior moment’? I’m not sure what I find more ‘troubling’: knowing that I’ve been around so long and I’m so ‘old’ that I could have actually covered the Versailles fashion show in Paris in 1973, or being so ‘old’ I can’t remember any of it, (or even say for certain if I was there or not). In actuality, while I would attend many Paris fashion weeks in the future, as a young editor, I did not get to cover this groundbreaking event. But I certainly do remember all the hoopla and excitement surrounding it, and I certainly understand its significance.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

  1. Nice information, many thanks to the author. This is post nice and important for any model. This is providing good news about the fashion and modeling. I like it this good post.

  2. Dear Hope…

    I'm so glad you found this article (and the event of course) inspiring. Wishing you the best of luck in your future endeavors….all you need other than talent, is desire, will, tenacity, and a little 'hope' won't hurt. By the way, take advantage of your youth and enjoy it.


  3. This is such a great and inspiring article! Being a young African American women in the business sometimes you can feel inadequate to your counterparts, as if you haven't made a substantial contribution to the industry. Once again being reminded that I have or the way has already be paved for me I feel even more empowered! I definitely wish I was a fly on the wall in 1973 and at the luncheon today. Like Marilyn was in '73 "wet behind the ears", I too am "still wet behind the ears". (birth year 84)

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