Women’s Wear Daily
04.20.2014
fashion
fashion

Ringside Seat: The 'Battle of Versailles' in WWD's Eye

Women's Wear Daily did more than give the fashion showdown its historic moniker — the paper was on hand to detail the blow-by-blow.

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WWD November 29 1973

WWD November 29, 1973

Photo By Fairchild Archive

WWD November 29, 1973

Photo By Fairchild Archive

WWD did more than give the “Battle of Versailles” its historic moniker — the paper was on hand to detail the blow-by-blow, starting with Gerald van der Kemp, the curator of Versailles, who, WWD reported, had been fielding “embarrassing questions from the American press about the energy crisis.”

Oil embargo or not, van der Kemp concluded, the palace would be ready for the show.

“Beautiful things have to be maintained,” he said. “Versailles must be heated. Beautiful things must go on.”

RELATED STORY: Famous Runway Showdown Revisited in 'Versailles ’73' >>


Go on it did, as the hostess Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild (who donated the tables, cloths, food and wines for the evening, estimated at some $70,000) reigned over an almost impossibly glitzy fete worthy of the court of Louis XIV.

WWD was there to watch the feathers fly, noting a dress-rehearsal foot-stamping snit from Halston (kept waiting for four hours) and a subsequent troop-rallying motivational speech from Oscar de la Renta.

“The French and American segments were as different as the Chateau of Versailles and the Seagram Building,” WWD reported. “The French had two orchestras, four conductors, enough scenery and effects for four bad operattas [sic] at the Opera Comique. The sets, by Jean-Francois Daigre, were so tacky they weren’t even camp….The Americans just brought a tape recorder and no sets…and the American mannequins knew how to move in the clothes they showed. The French just stood there bewildered while the acts went on around them.”

Rothschild openly complained that the Americans hadn’t spent enough money on their presentations.

Josephine Baker was there to headline for the French, and Liza Minnelli for the Americans. Zizi Jeanmaire performed during the YSL show. Dressed in drag, she danced with two of the models before “two fat men dressed like women came in and danced with [her],” she sang “Just a Gigolo” in English. “There were even strippers from the Crazy Horse Saloon,” WWD noted, “Only the clothes of Dior, St. Laurent and Givenchy were strong enough to surmount the spectacle.”

Those not so lucky? WWD was unimpressed by Ungaro, who featured an Alpine double-bass player “sawing away,” a “rhinoceros looming, pulling a gypsy cart” and “Jane Birkin in her undies followed by Louis Jordan as a pussy cat.” Of the Cardin presentation, WWD wrote only, “Would you believe a rocket in the forest at Versailles? Would you believe men in sleeveless jersey jumpsuits with vinyl jock straps? Would you believe thrust for takeoff?”

According to WWD’s reportage, the American designers came out swinging and stole the show: “Bill Blass loving super chic; Oscar de la Renta, warm and sensuous…all for evening in 25-Howard Johnson colors of satin or chiffon; Anne Klein, USA all the way, commercial and snappy; Halston, super effort decadence…Very Visconti. Surreal. Decadent, women in a world without men; Stephen Burrows, personality plus.”

For all of Rothschild’s efforts (“One night, and pouf! It’s gone,” she told WWD), there were other parties to get to, and one with an even more exclusive guest list: Baron Alexis de Rede held what WWD called “the chicest party of all…a dinner for 50 at his private mansion.”

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