In 1973, 10 designers from France and the United States gathered their collections and models at the Palace of Versailles to showcase their best designs for a publicity stunt intended to raise money to restore the dilapidated palace to its former splendour. Fashion media also saw the event as a moment for American designers to prove that the fashion world was moving away from what many saw as the conservative conventions of French design. It became known as the Battle of Versailles.
As Robin Givhan details in her 2015 book on the event, world politics of the 1960s brought about a change to what people saw as culturally valuable, and many were beginning to regard the pomp and circumstance of the French fashion as increasingly alienating. Conversely, American designers like Stephen Burrows, one of the Americans who went to Versailles, were coming up with designs that excited the public precisely because they felt accessible and wearable.
Previously, American designers had pulled inspiration from their French counterparts, sometimes engaging in what the French designers saw as outright plagiarism. However, by the 1960s, American fashion was making its own waves, often intentionally ignoring French convention. In conversation with Brittany Luse, co-host of podcast The Nod, Burrows claims that ahead of the 1973 show, he “wasn’t too up on who all the French [designers] were”, and instead drew his inspiration from the world around him. He drew particular inspiration from the black women who modelled his clothes, describing them as “dominant [in the industry] in New York at the time”, and “more museful [than other models]” for him as a designer.
This perhaps explains why 10 of the 36 models the American designers brought to Paris in 1973 were black women. As Givhan explains, the American fashion industry was heavily influenced by the rhetoric of the Civil Rights and Black Is Beautiful movements.
Despite experiencing a litany of setbacks, including the French designers monopolising rehearsal time and the American set designer confusing metric measurements for imperial ones, the American designers and their models stole the show. During Burrows’ show, Hardison and her colleagues walked to the tune of Bill Withers’ ‘Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?’, moving their bodies in a way that Burrows described as proto-voguing. As a result, European fashion houses began hiring black models and the fashionability of ‘blackness’ became widespread. For American fashion during the late ’60s, ‘blackness’, as a concept, was as fashionable as heroin chic would become in the ’90s. In fact, Hubert de Givenchy was so inspired by the way the American models looked on the runway at Versailles that for a period of time he almost exclusively hired black models.
However, as the fashionability of ‘blackness’ became less marketable, Givenchy and the rest of the industry abandoned what seemed to be a promising advancement of diverse representation in the fashion world. In fact, the fashionability of ‘blackness’ in the ’60s and ’70s may be exactly the reason that the industry has a diversity problem today. While progressive ’60s discourse on black identity did serve to empower the black community, Givhan explains that this also created an accepted form of ‘blackness’ that became a way for mainstream culture to exoticise and exploit the very people it claimed to empower.
As fashion historian Rikki Byrd details in her piece for The Fashion Studies Journal, “Fashion is an industry that doesn’t like to talk about race, but… doesn’t mind dabbling in it for the purposes of marketability.” In effect, the fashionability of ‘blackness’ did not amount to true inclusion of the black community within fashion, rather the lasting power of that diversity was only sustainable so long as it remained profitable. By the mid-’80s, designers like Burrows and the models he used had fallen from favour, prompting Bethann Hardison, a star at the ’73 show, to devote her post-modelling career to promoting further diversity in the industry as she had experienced its decline.
Recent coverage of New York Fashion Week praised its historic diversity, but further investigation demonstrates that diversity on the runway still only goes so far, often excluding body types that aren’t seen as commercially beautiful based on age or weight. With recent criticisms of pinkwashing during the 2018 Pride season, wherein brands were accused of using Pride iconography to draw in customers without actually contributing to causes that benefit the LGBTQ community, consumers are taking a closer look at motivations behind diversity initiatives across all industries.
It is becoming increasingly evident that while representation itself is an important part of increasing the acceptance of marginalised peoples within mainstream culture, that diversity also needs to have staying power. As Paris Fashion Week rolls out, it will be interesting to see how the fashion world responds to continued criticism of the industry’s fair-weather commitment to inclusivity on the runway, and whether their commitment to diverse representation is motivated by more than incentive to bring in more revenue.