Metropolitan Museum Luncheon to Celebrate Models of the 1973 Versailles Fashion Show

Hosted by Harold Koda, Curator of The Costume Institute & Donna Williams, Chief Audience Development Officer.
Co-hosted by Oscar de la Renta & Stephen Burrows

Monday, January 24, Noon-2:30PM
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street.

When five American fashion designers faced off with five French couturiers at The Palace of Versailles in 1973, the Americans shocked the world by deploying a diverse array of models. These faces of color enlivened the event and the clothing, forever altering the way fashion is presented on a global stage.

The luncheon will celebrate the blend of emerging models who awed the International Set and changed fashion – Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, China Machado, Ramona Saunders and Amina Warsuma.

All of them made history. Thirty-seven years ago, legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gerald van der Kemp created a benefit défilé at the palace’s Theatre Gabriel to restore the aging structure and provide exposure for American fashion. It was a fashion battle between French and American style, in which American designers Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein faced the French houses of Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emmanuel Ungaro.

The French designers presented their collections in a two-hour series of elaborate vignettes. Each side had its stars: Josephine Baker performed for the French, followed by the Americans who opened with Liza Minnelli singing “Bonjour Paris” surrounded by a multicultural rainbow of 36 models on a sparse stage. Throughout the half-hour celebration of American ingenuity and minimalism, the audience erupted in mounting cheers, stomping and tossing their programs in the air at pivotal moments. When all the models appeared for the finale dressed in black, the audience rose to its feet at the American triumph. American fashion gained the respect it craved and the world of fashion and modeling was transformed.

Sadly, according to Barbara Summers, former African American model, the foremost authority on the history of black models, and author of ‘Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models’ & ‘Black and Beautiful’: “that while the African American models were indeed the stars of the show, their reward was little more than symbolic. After enduring tears, fights, prima donna trips by both models and designers and 11 hours of rehearsing without food and little water, they had some priceless memories, but little else. The models were in fact discussing the formation of a union to upgrade their working conditions and improve their pay. The actual reality was that these fabulous performers received less than fabulous sums of twenty-five dollars per day for spending money and three hundred dollars in salary for the show.”

But the models did demonstrated a level of exuberant showmanship that set the international standard for runway presentation and editorial layouts for years to come. Later that year, American Vogue featured an African American model on its cover for the first time, and the success of the Versailles models paved the way for the diverse supermodels who followed.

For more information about the luncheon contact:
Nancy Chilton, 212.650.2123 or



Ernest Schmatolla is publisher of Lookonline since 1994. It is the longest running fashion site on the Internet.


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