WEEKEND MOVIE WATCH: Marie Antoinette Meets Modern Fashion in 'Versailles '73'

How did a bunch of rag-tag Americans storm the famed Palace of Versailles and trump the grand tradition of French couture? Quite easily, actually.

Jul 26, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

I am more than just a little bit interested in the life and times of Marie Antoinette. I buy every book I find about her life and times, and I’ve repeatedly dressed up as her on Halloween. 
 
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Moi as Marie Antoinette.

 
As a teen, my grandmother took me by train from Paris to the Palace of Versailles, where Marie Antoinette spent most of the second half of her life. I wasn’t even all that interested in going -- but one stroll through the breathtaking Hall of Mirrors changed everything for me.
 
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Hall of Mirrors photo by Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons.

 
I think it’s the combination of pure glamour and certain doom that initially hooked me on the legend of Marie Antoinette. From the glittering parties she attended to the tragedy of her lonely death, her story hit all the right buttons. So when I heard about a fashion documentary called Versailles ‘73, I was instantly intrigued. What in the hell was happening at Versailles in 1973 that could possibly be worthy of an entire documentary? And being a superfan of 1970s fashion and Marie Antoinette, how did I not already know about it?
 
The answer is that a LOT of self-professed fashionistas don’t know the story of what went down at Versailles in the fall of ’73. And it’s a shame, because the story to be told is one of triumph -- a great moment in time that just so happened to put American fashion firmly on the map.
 
In 1973, Versailles was in terrible disrepair -- plagued by leaks, termites and worms. American fashion publicist powerhouse and CFDA creator Eleanor Lambert cooked up the idea of a charity fashion show (meant to help fund repairs) featuring 5 French designers and 5 American designers, to be held at Versailles in the Royal Opera -- on the very same stage that Marie Antoinette herself was married to the future Louis XVI on May 16, 1770.
 
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Auditorium of the Opéra, Versailles. Celebration of the wedding of the dauphin to Marie Antoinette in 1770. Pen and ink drawing with wash by Jean-Michel Moreau. Via Wikimedia Commons

 
It was meant to be a show of French-American unity in fashion. Lambert dubbed the event “The Grand Divertissement à Versailles”, (The Grand Amusement) but the press instantly took to calling it “The Battle of Versailles” -- and once the gauntlet was thrown down, it was game on for both sides. (SPOILER ALERT: The Americans totally won!)
 
I asked the director of Versailles ‘73, the beautiful Deborah Riley Draper, how she came to find out about the largely forgotten event at the palace. Draper replied: “I heard (model/author) Barbara Summers reference it for about 10 seconds in an interview and my inner Nancy Drew was ON.”
 
Thank goodness for her tenacity -- as otherwise I fear this fascinating snapshot of fashion history might be forever lost. 
 
The French were represented by Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy. The rag-tag American contingent featured Oscar De La Renta, Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and the great Stephen Burrows.
 
For my money, Stephen Burrows is one of the most overlooked, underappreciated designers in fashion history. His rainbow-hued, scalloped edge jersey dresses are a defining hallmark of the 1970s. Their influence can be seen all over the runways ever since. Burrows did a special collection for Target in 2010 that I totally missed, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. It's a crime that his clothes aren't currently for sale everywhere
 
 
Versailles '73 tells its story in photographs, video footage and interviews with those who were there. Of course the creme de la creme of society turned out for the spectacle -- over 600 invited guests in all.
 
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The assembled crowd at the Royal Opera at Versailles. Screenshot via Versailles '73.

 
Actor and former Halston fashion assistant Dennis Christopher was present at Versailles and appears in the film. He describes the unreal scene most eloquently and succinctly: "Princess Grace Kelly had her f$%king crown on, ya know what I mean?" 
 
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Princess Grace Kelly at Versailles, Novemember 1973. Screenshot via Versailles '73.

 
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Andy Warhol at Versailles, 1973. Screenshot via Versailles '73.

 
The story of Versailles '73 is multi-layered. It's a story of American pride and ingenuity, French classicism, a changing of the guard, and the influence of rock & roll on modern day fashion. The American models and designers stormed the runway at Versailles with youth, spirit and blazing energy, stunning attendees and forever turning the idea that a runway show should be a staid event on it's head.
 
But the real story Versailles '73 has to tell is in the participation of numerous black models in the American portion of the show. While Spanish designer Paco Rabanne was one of the first designers to use black models, the French were quite unused to the practice, and their beauty, charm, wit and sass on the runway at Versailles simply blew the assembled crowd away.
 
The morning after the show, even the notoriously snide French press had to concede that the American designers and models were a true force to be reckoned with. The big news was that the haute couture was no longer the only story worth covering in the fashion world.  
 
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Screenshot via Versailles '73.

 
It's no coincidence that just 8 months after the show, attendee Grace Mirabella, then editor-in-chief of Vogue, put black model Beverly Johnson on the cover -- a first for the magazine.
 
 
Versailles '73 is a brilliant retelling of a fierce moment in time when American fashion was finally looked upon favorably. Before the show at Versailles, American sportswear was really just an afterthought in fashion circles. But from that point forward, American fashion was in the spotlight in a HUGE way. The film is also an excellent primer on the 10 designers involved, and paints a compelling picture of the changing times of the early 1970s.
 

 

You can purchase the film on DVD or watch it as an instant download on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, or XBOX. It's the perfect weekend watch -- full of glamour, gossip and suspense. I promise you won't regret it! And I'm sure Marie Antoinette, who never met a party or a frock she didn't like, would totally agree. 

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison