Film documents America's fashion independence day

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There are certain events that change the course of history. A night in Paris 40 years ago did just that for U.S. fashion.

The award-winning documentary “Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution” shines a light on what happened that glorious night when American designers and black models wowed and won over the crowd, gained new-found respect and recognition, and turned the tide for fashion for years to come.

The film will be shown Sunday night at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. The special screening will be presented by FashionAFRICANA in conjunction with the GLAMAZONIA photography exhibit for a special evening.

“I can't express how enthusiastic I am about Pittsburgh being presented with this opportunity to screen this wonderful documentary,“ says Demeatria Boccella, a member of the planning committee and founder and artistic director of FashionAFRICANA. “It is such an important part of the history of American fashion.”

That date was Nov. 28,1973. On a stage where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, in front of a who's who audience of royalty, jet-set millionaires and cultural icons — including Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol, Christina Onassis and Josephine Baker — the American designers claimed victory.

The show was initially conceived as a fund-raiser orchestrated by American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp to raise money to restore the Palace of Versailles. However, fierce competition between the lions of haute couture – Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro — and what the French considered easy prey, a group of American designers eager to become household names on the European fashion scene — Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Halston — turned the event into ready-to-wear's coming out party.

When African-American models Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, Jennifer Brice, Ramona Saunders and Amina Warsuma boarded a plane from New York to Paris, they had no idea they would be part of a new world-fashion order.

The film is a great fit with FashionAFRICANA, Boccella says, because it promotes diversity in fashion.

“It will be a night to bring us all together to celebrate the history of American fashion,” Boccella says. “I am hoping to attract a diverse audience. Pittsburgh has great style. And it is a city of inclusion, not exclusion, when it comes to fashion. There is a wonderful fashion community here.”

A portion of the proceeds will support FashionAFRICANA's education program, The Utopia Project, a fashion program designed to empower youth with knowledge of how art and commerce function together in the field of fashion.

Writer and director Deborah Riley Draper, model Pat Cleveland and Essence Magazine editor-at-large Mikki Taylor will host the screening.

“The story is larger than life, and audiences and critics are excited about it,” says Riley Draper. “With 10 legendary designers, the fiercest models ever and a storied palace, this pivotal moment in fashion history inspires and entertains. It is an honor to present the moment that changed American fashion forever with incredibly talented people who lived it.”

That night secured America's fashion place in the world, Taylor says. And it's a story that needs to be told.

“The power of what happened at Versailles continues to impact us,” Taylor says. “It became more than a fashion show. It is very emotional and an inspiring story about American fashion. It is a must-see for fashion history buffs. It looks at civil rights in the '70s and how that played out abroad. It is about great clothing and breaking the color barrier. It is a must-see.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7889.

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