The Battle of Versailles

Oscar de la Renta’s show at the Palace of Versailles in 1973. | KAPLAN/ SIPA

I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to experience some truly fabulous moments, like working at Studio 54 on its opening night, partying there and at Paradise Garage and other legendary clubs after that; as a kid, seeing the 1973 “Elvis from Hawaii” concert and Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire; and being on hand for Azzedine Alaia’s debut American fashion show at the Palladium in 1985 and at Renée Fleming’s “La Traviata” premiere at the Los Angeles Opera.

But one occasion I missed was the fashion show held at Versailles on November 28, 1973, which became a competition between French and American designers in a benefit spectacle to raise funds for the palace’s restoration. Fashion insiders aver that it was not only unforgettable, but forever put the Americans, who, no question, triumphed, on the international style map.

The French, consisting of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro, gave a stodgily elaborate exhibition, marked by performances by Josephine Baker and Rudolf Nuryev, props galore, and rockets going off onstage. The Americans — Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and talented black tyro Stephen Burrows — by contrast, delivered a sleekly fluid show, its energy deriving from their easy, wearable, and colorful looks, worn by a bevy of gorgeously spirited models, many of them black, sexily working it to what were the beginnings of disco music. No less than Liza Minnelli, fresh from winning her “Cabaret” Oscar, led things off with a sparkling rendition of “Bonjour Paris,” directed by her godmother, the great Kay Thompson.

The soignée French audience, which also included Grace of Monaco, went positively ape-shit afterwards, throwing their costly programs into the air and shrieking like Beatles fans.

For anyone like me, Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” is a godsend. Thoroughly researched and benefiting from a bounty of interviewed survivors of the event, in Draper’s hands, you really feel like you are there, experiencing all the backstage fraught tension and ultimate glory. Draper was inspired to make it when she saw an ABC news story about a lunch at the Metropolitan Museum in January 2011, which reunited many of those aforementioned models.

“I started to research it,” she told me, “and became interested in the bigger story of how did these black models get to Paris in 1973? I thoroughly enjoyed making it and spending some time in the 1970s, as I was in diapers at that time.”

Draper, whose day job is ad executive for BBD&O in Atlanta, made use of what little footage exists of the Americans’ show: “They weren’t allowed to bring in cameras, so that footage was from CBS News. It was not like now, when we archive everything. I went to Paris where I got the Josephine Baker footage from their radio and television academy. As opposed to the notorious rudeness shown to the American designers by the French in 1973, everyone was adorably nice to me. The curator at Versailles let me into the archives. She had never been asked about this before, so she was happy to share.

“Once I start digging, I am like a bloodhound and have to sniff it all out. I hope my audience appreciates that letter with all the designers’ signatures on it, as well as the one from Marie Hélène de Rothschild [chairwoman of the event] to President Pompidou to let him know she’s having a fashion show and needs the castle and the Hall of Mirrors. Can you imagine?”

For me, there has never been anything more visually thrilling than the spectacle of all those sublime black supermodels of the 1970s and ‘80s strutting their stuff on international runways of the time, and Draper agreed: “This is for everyone who wasn’t there and missed out on something that was a cultural shifter. In 1973, things were so multiculturally mixed — biracial, gay, straight — it was everything. You had models like Alva Chinn who went to university in Massachusetts, and Norma Jean Darden, who went to Sarah Lawrence, as well as girls who didn’t go to college, a wonderful swatch of Americana.

“It was a true melting pot, with different skin shades and textures, shapes, and sizes. A lot of their hair was natural, as were their bodies. No silicone, but just the way they were born, with these beautiful, big ole badonkadonk butts! Today, someone like Bethann Hardison couldn’t get arrested, and there’d never be a show with her and Pat Cleveland. They now like the girls to look so much the same, with that same stomping walk that [82-year-old model] China Machado does not like and talks about. They all still look so gorgeous, too, defying time, and I don’t think the girls today are gonna be able to master that timelessness. They looked at modeling as being an ambassador, representing our country in the world throughout their entire careers.”

The lessons of Versailles — which not only released American fashion but also embraced the role of these beautiful black stunners in the business — seems somewhat lost today, what with that controversy about the light-skinned Zoe Saldana being cast to play the legendary Nina Simone.

Draper bemoans this fact, as well as having to cut out so much of her film to get it down to a reasonable 90 minutes: “But I think it reaches its natural end, with Alva saying, ‘We won!’ At the end of the day, it didn’t matter if they were black, white, or in-between, like China. We won and changed things so that, to this very day, fashion is such a billion-dollar industry. We weren’t exporting our clothes in 1973, as we are now, only importing.”

Draper will be back in New York with her film (due for a DVD release on November 28;, which just wrapped up a run at the IFC Theater, in February, to show it as part of Black History Month at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I’m gonna bring Patty Cleveland back, as well as all the New York girls, like Norma Jean, Barbara Jackson, and Charlene Dash, who came before her and don’t get as much recognition. Charlene broke out in 1957, and had her Vogue spread in 1969!”

On September 19, the New York Times’ terrific GLBT & Allies Network and VOCES, its Latino Heritage Network, sponsored a wonderful event as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. “Orgullo Latino,” an episode of the PBS “In the Life” series profiling “out Latino leaders living the American Dream,” was shown as part of a luncheon program. Among those featured in it is Daniel Hernandez, the heroic gay 20-year-old who stayed by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Gifford’s side when she was shot early last year in Tucson.

Calixto Chinchilla, Carlos Anaya, Carlos Mayorga, and Erik Piepenburg at a September 19 New York Times panel on LGBT Latino lives held in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. | COURTESY: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Afterward, Calixto Chinchilla, founder of the New York International Latino Film Festival, moderated a panel discussion that included the episode’s producers, life partners Carlos Anaya and Carlos Mayorga, and Erik Piepenburg from the Times’ theater section.

Mayorga said, “I met Carlos last year. I came to New York from San Francisco with the dream of being a journalist. I come from a multicultural family, as my father is from El Salvador, my mother is Swedish, and my stepfather is African-American. I have light skin and often surprise people when they learn of my Latino background.

“We are next working on a show called ‘Negrita,’ which is to be about the Afro-Latino community, people with other complexions. We are so diverse — Latinos in Florida from Cuba, mostly, and then you have LA, with mostly Mexicans and Central Americans. Multiple realities, like we show in our film — the lesbian couple who is living the American Dream with their own business, mansion, and children, but you also have people struggling.

“You can’t just put us in one box anymore. We’re all over the board, a mix, and diversity creates profits. We live this duality of two cultures at the same time, and it’s really an advantage.”

Award winning Telemundo journalist Anaya, who is Colombian, explained, “When PBS came, wanting an LGBT show, I was looking for a bicultural expert with a journalism background, and Carlos came with his master’s in journalism. It was a perfect marriage, for us both.

“One in every six American now is Latino, so as we grow, our LGBT community will also grow. It’s the new American reality. We now have NBC Latino, Fox Latino, and Univision is launching a new channel to target us.”

Piepenburg also comes from a bicultural background, having a German father and Colombian mother: “I did a story about Harmony Santana, from the film ‘Gun Hill Road,’ which was a little autobiographical, about her experience growing up in Inwood as a transgender. Santana was nominated for an Alma [American Latino Media Arts] Award this year, the first time a transgender has been nominated as a female actress.

“Increasingly, there are transgender actors playing these roles, where in the past, it would have been a straight actor in drag. Santana told me that she felt very accepted in her neighborhood, not that she doesn’t have to watch her back sometimes, as any transgender has to. But she felt very welcome, and I think that story needs to be told.”

Anaya said, “I honor all Latinos who have had the bravery to come out, some of them years before Ricky Martin, in the 1990s, when it was much less easily accepted. Visibility is really important — when you affirm your identity, you affirm your dignity.

“I came out at 21 to my father, who said, ‘Don’t worry. You have like 15 cousins I haven’t told you about.’ When I came out publicly on Telemundo, that was huge and it came out in But I have no regrets. It’s been such a great ride, and I won’t work for any company who doesn’t support my lifestyle. At the end of the day, no one cares. As [out TV journalist] Jane Velez-Mitchell says in our film, ‘There were two or three days of gossip in the office, but that was it.’

“Also, Latinos are really not as homophobic as many think. Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico all have marriage equality, more than we do here. It’s really surprising how much a myth homophobia is in the Latino community.”

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