If you think Kanye West was the first to change the American fashion game, meet one of the flyest Black fashion squads in history.
Check out Robin Givhan’s book, “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History.”
The Nod is produced by Brittany Luse, with Eric Eddings, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Jorge Just and Annie-Rose Strasser. With editing help from Alex Blumberg, Pat Walters and Morgan Jerkins. Engineering from Cedric Wilson and Bobby Lord. Our theme music is by Calid B. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka. Special thanks to Argot Studios. Additional music by Dr Crosby, Little Richard, Philip Peterson and Bobby Lord.
Brittany Luse: From Gimlet Media. This is the Nod. I am Brittany Luse
Eric Eddings: And I’m Eric Eddings.
Brittany: So Eric, if I tell you to name some famous fashion designers, like what names come to mind?
Eric: Ralph Lauren. Uniqlo.
Brittany: Uniqlo is store not a person.
Eric: Gucci… Yves St. Laurent… True Religion… Marc Jacobs.
Brittany: See you got it. You know what this show is about? What is something that you notice that all of the people that you just named have in common that may be at odds with the premise of this show.
Eric: They are not Black.
Brittany: Yes, yes, yes. Most of the big designers… are in fact white.
Eric: Except for Kanye West.
Brittany: [laughs] That’s a good point. Fashion used to not always be like that though.
Eric: Really? I… I don’t know when this was.
Brittany: Actually, in the early 1970’s… things were a little different.
Stephen Burrows: It was very diverse and there were a lot of us designers at the time. And it was very open. You didn’t feel discriminated against or anything.
Brittany: So that’s a fashion designer by the name of Stephen Burrows.
Brittany: Can you describe the scene for me a little bit? Like what was it like to be in that world back then?
Stephen: [laughs] Work all day and party all night.
Stephen: We all ran around together, they would come to my house and steal all my clothes and we would all go out at the same time and create quite a scene.
Brittany: So you guys were like a squad, you guys were like a supergroup?
Stephen: Yeah, each designer had that kind of group around them. You had someone who was a DJ, someone who was the plant guy…
Brittany: You said the plant? You said someone who was the DJ, someone who was the what?
Stephen: The plant guy, the florist.
Brittany: Wait so why would you? Ha – Wha – you’d have flowers in the studio –
Stephen: – Everyone was into plants and flowers.
Brittany: Oh I got you, I got you. Lord I’m slow.
And when Stephen and his squad went out partying… Like they were easy to spot… I mean these clothes were LOUD.
Stephen: Turquoise hot pink yellow green red purple all in the same outfit.
Brittany: So Stephen’s clothes were perfect for a ‘70s nightclub. And his aesthetic was really popular at that time. Actually, the entire NY fashion scene had a lot of Black influence… OK so… let me give you a picture of how diverse the scene was back then… Are you familiar with Bergdorf Goodman, like the fancy New York department store?
Eric: In name only. I have never been inside, but I have heard that name and I passed it, so yes, I know that.
Brittany: So would you categorize Bergdorf Goodman as being like, well-known for its clothes made by Black people?
Eric: I- I would not, actually. I was about to be, “Yes, yes. I would.” No, not at all.
Brittany: Well, I talked to this fashion critic Robin Givhan. And she told me about this fashion show, in 1969, that Stephen and a bunch of other people from the fashion industry were at…. It was called “Basic Black at Bergdorf’s.”
Robin Givhan: You had all these socialites showing up and there was this jazz band where the members were dressed in Dashikis and they served chitlins and collard greens.
Brittany: Wait they served chitlins at Bergdorfs?
Robin: Yes they did. My hand to God. And that just delighted me to no end because it was just so strange and just kooky.
Brittany: I’m trying to picture something like that happening now. And I just — it’s not coming together. It’s not coming together for me.
Robin: It – you know it was it was a fascinating little blip.
Eric: That, that sounds way more lit than I thought it was going to be. I don’t know what I was expecting in that moment but I was not expecting dashikis and chitlins. I don’t know.
Brittany: This is – you know you’ve never been to Bergdorf’s, so they could still be doing this now.
Eric: It’s possible. I mean clearly, I’m at the wrong spot. T.J. Maxx has failed me in this moment.
Brittany: [laughter] Okay, so, that’s all pretty wild right? New York had this popping black fashion scene, with designers like Stephen — and they were putting on shows with chitlins at Bergdorf Goodman.
And that’s what I wanna tell you about – this incredible moment, when Black people were actually like an influential part of fashion… And how… at like the peak of that time, they actually helped put American fashion on the map, but like WORLDWIDE.
It all happened one night in 1973, and it was called the Battle of Versailles.
Brittany: OK so in order for me to tell you this story, you first have to understand a little bit of where exactly the American designers were on the fashion food chain, like internationally.
Brittany: So the French designers – like they ruled the whole fashion world. And they took their fashion shows very seriously. So like, usually a show is totally silent… The models would come out, you know, very little expression, very stiff. And they would hold the number that would represent their outfit while they were walking up and down the runway…
Eric: So it’s not like America’s Next Top Model.
Brittany: It’s not like America’s Next Top Model.
Eric: Cuz that’s good.
Brittany: Yeah, no, so the Americans were kind of new to the whole fashion in the 1970s. Whereas the French… they had a long history of dominating the fashion world. Soo…
Brittany: You’re familiar with the Palace of Versailles…. in France?
Brittany: You’ve heard of it. Maybe?
Eric: Uhh I’ve heard of it.
Brittany: It’s where the French royalty lived like way, way back… like Marie Antoinette?
Eric: Let them eat cake.
Brittany: Yep exactly. She lived there and she was a huge trendsetter… She was in a way like the Rihanna of her time… and as result of her being who she was, Versailles became the epicenter of French fashion. Ok so now, the Palace of Versailles is like one of France’s most popular tourist attractions… But in the 70s, it was long overdue for some major repairs, it was just jacked up… So The French were trying to raise money for a huge restoration. And so when the Americans heard about this… they were like… “mm this is our big opportunity… Like what if… We organized a benefit? You know, we get the American designers and the French designers to come together… And put on a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles. And then that way, like the French people can raise a little money, and the American people can finally level up.”
Eric: Get some shine.
Brittany: Exactly, get some shine.
Brittany: Soo the Americans brought up the idea to the French… and French were totally down.Here’s our fashion expert again, Robin Givhan.
Robin: They did not particularly see it as any kind of competition because they didn’t see the American designers as being competition for them.
Brittany: So they weren’t even on their radar, basically?
Robin: Yeah I mean it would be a little bit like Serena Williams doing a charity tennis match against you know the top player from the local college.
Robin: It’s this idea of ‘Oh great you know we’ll raise some money, it’ll be entertaining but really I’m going to win this match it’s no big deal.’ [laughter]
Brittany: So each side was told to pick five designers… And Team France, I mean they assembled an all-star team: They had Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent. Uh, even if you think you’ve never heard these names before, I mean like go back and listen to like every Lil Kim song ever recorded… three of five names are gonna come up:
… I drop, 30 or more in Christian Dior
They gotta, close the store and let me shop some more
….In designer outfits, while sellin’ the tag
Yves Saint Laurent boots, Yves Saint Laurent bag
(Swaa) a hundred bodies in Versace
(Swaa) head shots in Givenchy ooo…]
Brittany: But the Americans had nothing close to that kind of star power. See like for a really long time America had like no original designers. Basically, they would like copy what came down the Paris runways, and bring them back to American department stores.
Brittany: But then, starting in the 60s, American fashion got A LOT more legit. Designers like Stephen came on the scene and they started making really interesting, original designs. Like club clothes…
Robin: His clothes didn’t really offer a woman a lot of help, if you know what I mean? You know there are a lot of clothes that you know you put them on and maybe they help suck you in a little bit to make you feel a little bit more toned. Stephen’s clothes didn’t do that. I mean they sort of slithered over your body and revealed it.
Brittany: But still even with all of these hip designers like Stephen coming on the scene, the Americans couldn’t shake their reputation as copycats. So they saw this show at the Palace of Versailles as like their chance to kind of like prove to the world like, “Hey! We know what we’re doing we deserve to be here.”
Brittany: So the Americans picked a little dream team of their own. And some of these designers are pretty famous now, but back then, they were really fresh to fashion to the fashion world… They had Halston, Oscar De La Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and of course, Stephen Burrows. Here’s Robin again:
Robin: You know I mean he was the hot, buzzy young designer. And he wasn’t inspired by French fashion. He had no hang ups about having to prove himself in comparison to the French designers.
Eric: It kinda sounds like Space Jam… am I wrong or?
Brittany: No I mean no – it kinda like the Americans are the Looney Tunes, the underdogs?
Eric: This guy from Jersey is Michael Jordan.
Brittany: Is Michael Jordan. Exactly, and then the French people at the monstars.
Stephen: I wasn’t too up on who all the French were. So I only really knew about St Laurent.
Brittany: Yves. Saint. Laurent. See, Yves St. Laurent didn’t follow the rules of French fashion. Which was appealing to Stephen. Stephen didn’t care about French designers, or society life or anything like that. He got the inspiration for his clothes from like his life… Just being a young guy in New York City. And he was really inspired by all the Black models working in the industry back then.
Stephen: Black girls were dominant in New York at the time.
Stephen: They just were more exciting more museful, I’d have to say museful.
One of Stephen’s muses was a woman named Bethann Hardison.
Brittany: What was the role of the model in fashion in the 70s?
Bethann Hardison: The fashion model, and especially the runway model, she was queen. I mean she was the one who basically you know helped deliver what was being seen by the world.
Brittany: What was it like to be a Black model during that time?
Bethann: It was good in a sense because it was all… everything was happening, everything was creative, everything was wonderful at the time… so things could just happen naturally. And remember we just came off the civil rights movement, too, with Black is beautiful, that whole theme happened, so it was… it was to a point that you didn’t think about “Oh, that’s a Black girl.”
Brittany: Bethann was Stephen’s house model and one of his assistants. And I mean I guess to give you a picture of what she looks like… She was skinny, she had this deep brown skin, she had these huge like brown doe eyes, and she had like really closely cropped hair… like a tiny little afro, it was so pretty. And you know before she became a model, like Bethann was just a girl from Brooklyn. Like she used to like street fight when she was a kid.
Brittany: Yes! No when she was 9, 10, 11, like she used to get into street fights. But she also put a lot of energy into dance when she was a kid. And she knew how to serve a look.
Bethann: I was well-known to be really a good entertaining model.
Bethann: And I always knew about the stage and how to win a crowd. Cuz as a child I was a child tap dancer. And once I hit the runway that became like home to me.
Brittany: So, the way Bethann explains it, Black girls brought something special to the runway. Like, when a Black girl was modeling, she wasn’t just like coming down the runway like some sort of mannequin… like when a Black girl was coming down the runway, those clothes were hers.
Bethann: So when it came down to us on that runway the white girl had the white work twice as hard as her black counterpart because the Black girl that was like freedom for her to be up on our stage.
Brittany: So the Americans picked 36 models to join them at Versailles. TEN of them were Black, including Bethann. And you know now that they had their models, the dream team was ready to go. So they start preparing for the show, you know, renewing passports, choosing outfits, and their getting excited, the anticipation was building. And right before they’re supposed to leave… they find out that Women’s Wear Daily — which, Eric – is basically like the “Bible of fashion”, so Women’s Wear Daily, they’ve been writing these previews of the show… and they kinda started playing up this rivalry between the French and the Americans.
Bethann: They started saying it’s a Battle of Versailles. [laughter] It went from a nice little church meeting so to speak to an all-out brawl in the Harlem bar. You know, everybody who was involved was getting little nervous like what what what do you mean? We didn’t think we’re going to battle. We didn’t think we were going to compete. You know, now the pressure’s on.
Brittany: So, the week of the show arrives, and the Americans get on a plane to Paris. According to Robin, these models were like LIVING. IT. UP. on the plane, like they’re smoking a little bit of weed… you know… to take to edge off. For a lot of the models, this was their first time in Europe, leaving the country. I mean like, it was exciting!
Brittany: I mean just imagine, you know, you’re pulling up to the gates of like one of the most beautiful, ostentatious, most famous European Royal Palaces….
Stephen: We were in a cold castle. There was no heat and the designers threw a fit and they had to bring food in and toilet paper. There was not even toilet paper for the girls in the bathroom!
Brittany: So, right off the bat, there’s a LOT of drama. The French were running around the theater and they were rehearsing with all these different set pieces and costume changes, and they ended up not leaving any time for the Americans to rehearse. So, the American choreographer had barely any time to work with the models. So Stephen and a few other designers were actually forced to just like, make up some last minute choreography.
Eric: Off the dome.
Brittany: Right, off the dome.
Brittany: And to top it all off, there was the problem with the scenery. The American set designer totally screwed up. The set that he built didn’t fit because he measured it in feet instead of meters.
Eric: Fuckin’ metrics system, man.
Brittany: Exactly. And so the French people were looking at them, and they were like y’all suck!
Stephen: They were very critical of us during the week. Like, what are they doing? They didn’t do very much. We hadn’t done anything, like scenery like they had…
Brittany: Did they say these things to you guys or did you just kinda hear whispers?
Stephen: Yes, they did.
Brittany: That’s rude. That’s not–
Stephen: It’s rude but it’s very French.
Brittany: So things are getting pretty tense at this point.
Bethann: But they could see my you know my calm and they were counting, they kept saying they were counting me which puts more pressure. I knew that what we had was good for all I knew. But you don’t know what the other guy has. But you know that whatever they’ve always had has always been brilliant.
Eric: It’s not looking good. At this point.
Brittany: It’s not looking good.
Brittany: Alright so, Team America has no set, no moves, and no time whatsoever to impress a bunch of stuffy French people. How in the hell are they going to pull this off? You’ll find out right after the break.
Brittany: OK so to set the scene: it’s November 28, 1973, it’s the evening of the Americans’ big debut.
Robin: It was actually quite a sort of romantic and dramatic night because there was this very light snowfall.
Brittany: And as our fashion expert Robin Givhan was telling me–all these lavishly dressed, high society guests are like, gliding into this beautiful theater.
Robin: The pathway leading through the courtyard and to the theater, I mean it was lined with these men wearing sort of the full livery of the you know the red jackets and the powdered wigs.
All the women were wearing designer gowns from people like Madame Gres and St. Laurent…. And there were incredible jewels that a lot of these women you know had pulled from the vault. Some of them are wearing tiaras. I mean they really pulled out the stops.
Brittany: So in the audience, you’ve got a ton of European superstars, like the Princess of Monaco–you know like Princess Grace? Like she was there! But then it’s time for the show to start.So the curtains open and the French are up first.And they’ve got like a live orchestra… And like really elaborate sets. It all starts with this Cinderella theme, and there’s this giant pumpkin carriage on stage.
Bethann: They had performance after the performance after performance after performance…. thought they’re gonna shoot somebody out of a cannon after a while. It was so much going on we were like Whoa!
Brittany: It was kind of like a Broadway show. Very over the top. And even though the rest of the show was very over the top,like you know the models were much more subtle more like statues in motion just showcasing the clothes, instead of characters. I mean and they had this show planned out to a tee like…They had Josephine Baker come out and sing this song about how much she loved France, and France was her country forever.
Eric: That’s shade. Cause Josephine Baker is actually American.
Eric: That’s a little dig, even I see that.
Brittany: I thought that was shady too.
[music: Josephine Baker’s “J’ai Deux Amour”]
So that was their big closer. The whole show overall lasted for almost two hours.
Robin: And there was an intermission, a sort of blissfully boozy intermission, which had them close to you know midnight practically. And then it was the Americans turn to perform.
Brittany: So the Americans, they didn’t have a live orchestra. Their music was on tape. And it was all reel to reel.
Robin: Once you turned it on that was it. And so there were built in pauses to account for when one designer’s show would end and the next designer’s presentation would begin. But if anything was off… you know if models failed to walk out at precisely the right moment you could end up with everything kind of going awry.
Brittany: So one of the other American designers goes first. And thankfully, none of her models messed up the music cues. And then it was Stephen’s turn.
Brittany: What did you tell them in terms of how to walk like how to move down the runway?
Stephen: Oh I didn’t have to tell them anything. They knew… That’s why they were there because of the way they walked.
Brittany: How did they walk?
Stephen: Oh ho ho!
Stephen: Strong, confident, sexy. Having fun, smiling.
Stephen: We just would send out girls one by one and then all the girls walked forward to the stage front and start vogueing. Of course we didn’t call it vogueing then, it was just posing. Lift your arms and throw your hip out. It’s just showing off in front of a group of people.
Brittany: Stephen’s models are wearing his signature bright, body-hugging clothes. And they were twirling, voguing and posing, and jutting their hips…I mean it coulda been the club. And one of the last models out was Bethann Hardison. This is the Brooklyn girl, the tap dancer, the street fighter. And she’s wearing this gorgeous, sun yellow gown… like it reaches down to the floor and it extends way way back, it has this long long train. And it’s not like Stephen’s usual jersey fabric… this is like silk and woven. Like it kind of has like a couture feel, but something completely new. She was ready to make a grand entrance. Unlike the classical music that the French used, the Americans made the decision to bring in regular people music… music of the moment, like stuff you’d hear at the club. Songs like, the Creative Source cover of the famous Bill Withers song “Who Is He and What Is He To You”.
Bethann: When I came down, coming down fierce, I came down to win, I came down to let him know that we were here. And I mean in every step I took I rumbled. I could hear a drum. The beat of the per- it was almost like I could hear percussion in the music. And I used that percussion that way I walked. I can hear a melody out of my head you know and walking to it. In Stephen’s presentation, all our dresses were done with trains and he had a pinky holder where we had it on our fingers when we walked. And by the time I got to the end of the stage, I threw mine down and stared the audience — until… I wouldn’t move until they felt the experience.
Bethann: I was shaking. Tears were in my eyes when they stood there. But I knew the purpose.
Stephen: At first I thought something went wrong.
Stephen: But then it turned out it was applause.
Stephen: It was… they were completely freaked out.
Bethann: And that’s when they started to stomp their feet and
Bethann: And you know Bravo. Bravo. Brava.
Stephen: And then they said get Stephen, get Stephen and Stephen comes running over and I’m staring the crowd down.
Bethann: It was it was it was quite something.
Stephen: The French are usually so uptight. It was wild.
Bethann: We didn’t think anything that could happen after that that would be as great as that moment. And believe me we knew that we then had not come to fail we had come to win and we, we were we were winning.
Stephen: The French show took two hours our show took 37 minutes and we killed them.
Brittany: Josephine Baker found Bethann Hardison, and she was like, “I want to come backstage and meet the girls.”
Bethann: Beth, you have to take me back! You have to take me backstage. And I took her backstage to meet the girls. And of course the girls died they were so inspired that they met Joe Baker. And Josephine was saying oh my god this is — I’m so proud of everyone… because she’s originally American and of color — and to see these girls do what they did and how how they were showcased. It meant everything.
Brittany: So the Americans, they’ve won back Josephine Baker and they’ve shown the French that they’re not just copycats… that they actually have something original to bring to the table.
Brittany: How did you feel after the show?
Stephen: Triumphant. Because St. Laurent told me I made beautiful clothes.
Brittany: What did that mean to you, Yves Saint Laurent telling you that you made beautiful clothes?
Stephen: It made my trip!
Brittany: [laughs] So if you’re thinking about it like a battle, then it seems like the Americans won.
Brittany: What did you notice as far as immediate responses? Like how was it talked about in the media?
Stephen: It wasn’t. There may have been a little blurb in Women’s Wear, the society page, but that’s about as far as it went.
Bethann: It was a great thing that we went over and did it. And then we came back they said yea yea right on! Clap clap. And then you went back to your job.
Eric: That’s rough man.
Brittany: It is rough. But, slowly in the months after that, all of a sudden these Black models start working.
Eric: Word. In France or in-?
Brittany: In Europe.
Stephen: They had never seen so many Black girls in one place at the same time, performing, especially in a fashion show.
Brittany: There were a lot of girls who became like muses for European designers… like Givenchy?
Brittany: After he saw those girls at the Versailles show, he like started booking them for his shows. He had an entire group – they called it a cabine, his whole cabine was Black girls.
Eric: Yeah. Cause they had the sauce.
Brittany: Cause they had the sauce. So like they started getting work, and then after that you know, you have models like Iman.
Eric: I know Iman, yeah.
Brittany: Yes. Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb. …. And Bethann? She also got a ton more jobs after the Battle of Versailles…
Bethann: The model of color was recognized in a proper way. So there’s a lot that happened from that show that was more than you know just going and winning and walking away.
Eric: And that’s deep considering like not many people actually knew that this thing happened.
Brittany: Exactly. But the thing is… that bump in popularity? It only lasted until the mid-90s. See like fashion is all about trends, and for a while, Black models were like all the rage. But then, in the 90s, the “Eastern European” look starts to become more popular, like “heroin chic”, which is basically just a lot of skinny white people.
Eric: They openly called it “heroin chic”?
Brittany: It was called heroin chic. Yeah.
Eric: That’s questionable.
Brittany: Yeah, that was the trendy thing, and the “Black cool” look kinda fell out of style.
Eric: Wait but what – what happened with Stephen Burrows?
Brittany: So, Stephen Burrows… he’s still designing now, but the height of his career pretty much happened in the 70s.
Eric: That kinda sucks, he seemed to be on track on be like “the man.”
Brittany: I mean, the thing that really gets me is like… this show was HUGE, you know? So you would think that like a whole bunch of other Black designers would come up after him and also be able to make it really big. Don’t get me wrong there are quite a few Black designers that are making high fashion and doing really amazing things but like, there aren’t as many as I think as there should be that have really big careers. There’s no one having that like, Battle of Versailles moment, you know? It’s no chitlins at Bergdorf’s.
Eric: Yea. And that’s a travesty. I’m serious. The version of the fashion industry that existed in the 60s and 70s as you described it, sounds really fucking cool.
Brittany: You know, it’s rare to be able to look to, like, far in the past and like long for the opportunities of yore, as a Black person.
Brittany: That’s not really… that’s not really our birthright. But Black people had it halfway decent. And I find myself in a very peculiar position as a Black person of wishing for the past, or wishing some of the sweetness of the past, and that is, it’s weird.
Eric: Yeah I agree, I want to go back to that. And I want to go back to chitlins and Jazz bands.
Brittany: Maybe we should bring some to Bergdorf’s and be like, ‘Oh I thought this was…’
Eric: …This is where it’s supposed to be.
Brittany: Do you know your history? [laughs]
Eric: Exactly. Let me tell you a little story.
The Nod is produced by me, Brittany Luse, with Eric Eddings, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Jorge Just and Annie-Rose Strasser. With editing help from Alex Blumberg, Pat Walters and Morgan Jerkins. Engineering from Cedric Wilson and Bobby Lord. Our theme music is by Calid B.
Additional music in the show by Dr Crosby, Little Richard, Philip Peterson and Bobby Lord.
Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka. Special thanks to Argot Studios.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Battle, check out Robin Givhan’s book, “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History.”
Brittany: After the Battle of Versailles did you see… start to see more of your own influence in the fashion industry?
Stephen: Yes well a lot of people got into knits, color, and sexier clothes… which today is the reigning thing. [laughter]
Brittany: It is it is.
Stephen: it couldn’t get any tighter.
Brittany: It couldn’t get — I mean now tell you what I started working at 21 years old and I when I started work, I had no appropriate office clothes. I had 11 spandex dresses.