In November of 1973, five American designers and five French designers descended on the theater at Versailles to raise money for the restoration of the grand palace.
The event was initially intended to be a joint benefit, but by the time it unfolded in France with an audience of several hundred luminaries and the press, it had turned into a battle.
The American press treated the event as a showdown between French design and American design. “The European press was like, ‘Oh haha, you’re kidding me,'” said one of the models, Bethann Hardison, in a previous interview with the AJC.
By the time the American models, many of whom, like Hardison, were African-American, stormed down the runway, the mostly French audience began stomping and waving their programs in the air. The Americans had somehow managed to outshine their French counterparts.
In recent years, that seminal moment in American fashion has been having a moment of its own.
In 2012, Atlanta filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper released Versailles ’73, a documentary that offered details of the event from models, designers and others who attended.
The 2015 book, “The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History,” by fashion writer Robin Givhan is currently being turned into an HBO movie to be directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma).
SCAD FASH — the fashion and film museum of the Savannah College of Art and Design — has brought that night in Versailles to Atlanta with the exhibition “Grand Divertissement à Versailles, Vintage Photographs by Bill Cunningham.”
Curated by Alexandra Sachs, executive director of SCAD FASH, the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 21, features 66 exclusive images taken by the New York Times photographer at the 1973 fashion show. Cunningham’s photographs from Versailles have never before been shown publicly.
The battle featured five French designers — Marc Bohan of Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro. Each presented collections alongside five American designers including Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta.
The audience — about 700 members of the world’s social and artistic elite — included Princess Grace, Liza Minnelli, Josephine Baker and Andy Warhol. Not only did the evening catapult American fashion onto the international scene, it launched the careers of many designers and models and encouraged some European designers to concede that sometimes Americans can do fashion better.
In addition to Cunningham’s photography — which captures the glamour and excitement of the evening — the display includes an original program on loan from Nancy North, a model from the historic show.
SCAD FASH, 1600 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta, $10 general admission (free for children under 14). Noon to 5 p.m., Sun.; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues. – Wed. and Fri. – Sat.; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thurs. Closed Sun.