Yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City some of fashion’s fiercest came together to celebrate the groundbreaking fashion show held at the Palace of Versailles in France in November 1973.
In ’73, all of the fashion glitterati were on hand for the revolutionary show. Venerable French houses Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, and Givenchy shared the stage with iconic American designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston and Stephen Burrows.
Despite each fashion house showing marvelous collections, that night in Paris belonged to the bevy of Black models who owned the runway.
Never before had the fashion world seen such a display of Black beauty grace the international stage, and nearly 40 years later, people are still talking about it.
“At Versailles, they had never seen so many flagrantly beautiful black women at one time, so that was a revolution,” said Barbara Summers, fashion historian and former Ford model.
“Black girls changed all that; they plugged fashion into what was happening now, and that meant R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, dancing, music, popular culture,” Summers told NPR. “They brought the electricity of popular culture into fashion.”
During the show, the star-studded audience sat in awe of the sheer numbers of Black models working the runway. While there were African-American models at the time, they were seen as rare and exotic. But after Versailles, many Black models served as muses and confidants for several French designers.
Since Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, Norma Jean Darden, Alva Chin, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison and others set Paris ablaze and opened the doors for Black models nearly 40 years ago, the lack of African-American models who have stalked the runways as of late is quite disheartening.
After reading about the details of yesterday’s event on the Twitter timelines of cultural critic Michaela angela Davis and stylist June Ambrose, I asked Ms. Davis if she thought that the celebration of the Versailles show would spur designers to use more Black models in print and on the runway. Despite the current climate, she remains hopeful it will.
“I hope so-lets see what Oscar [de la Renta] + Donna [Karen], and [Diane Von Furstenberg] do–they were all part of putting the event on–influencers need [to] use their influence,” Davis told me via Twitter.
One thing is for sure, however. There is no denying the indelible print African-American models have made on the fashion world. And yesterday’s event illustrates that couturiers still have love for Black women.
Listen to the NPR profile of the 1973 Versailles fashion show here.