Black Models Celebrated As Runway Revolutionaries Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. and France staged the couture equivalent of a throw-down at the Palace of Versailles. The result sent seismic waves through the fashion world, largely because of the presence of several black models who walked for the American designers.
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Black Models Celebrated As Runway Revolutionaries

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Black Models Celebrated As Runway Revolutionaries

Black Models Celebrated As Runway Revolutionaries

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Tomorrow in New York, a fashion revolution will be commemorated. In November 1973 at the Palace of Versailles, a select group of African-American models made American fashion a contender on the world stage.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports that around 200 people will gather tomorrow afternoon at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, to celebrate.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It was the fashion equivalent of a first-class prize fight - the Thrilla in Manila, only with high heels, not boxing gloves.

In this corner, the titans of French haute couture: the houses of Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin -elegant, proper, traditional. Josephine Baker, the iconic American expatriate, opened for them.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JOSEPHINE BAKER (Singer): (Singing in French)

GRIGSBY BATES: And in this corner, some of America's best and brightest: Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston and a swiftly rising star, Stephen Burrows. Liza Minnelli did the honors.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LIZA MINNELLI (Singer): (Singing) I want to step out down the Champs D'Elysees, do some window shopping on the Rue de la Paix. That's for me. Bonjour Paris.

GRIGSBY BATES: The audience was star-studded, too: plenty of American socialites, one of the richest women in France, and the former Grace Kelly, now Princess Grace of Monaco.

But as important as those ladies were, the event was transformed by the presence of several African-American models. At evening's end, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, who dreamed up the event, described it this way:

Mr. HAROLD KODA (Curator, Met Costume Institute): She said, you know, it was as if on this cold night, all the windows of Versailles had been blown open.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Met's Costume Institute. He interviewed many people who were at Versailles.

Mr. KODA: And they all said that what made the event so special - and what made the presentation of the Americans so riveting, magical and overwhelmed the presentations of the French - was the presence of African-American models.

GRIGSBY BATES: Sandi Bass began her European modeling career the same year as the Versailles event, and remembers how excited she was to hear about black models triumphing in the cradle of the French fashion establishment.

Ms. SANDI BASS (Model): There was a certain kind of walk that we had at the time - and I'm just going to say, it was pretty much the black girls' walk. We were free, we were spirited, we would smile. We would even almost kind of - it was like a little trot down the runway.

GRIGSBY BATES: Bass says that after Versailles, a number of French designers turned to black girls as models and as inspiration. She worked for Givenchy for several years.

Ms. BASS: We had no holds barred. The personalities just flourished and opened, and this created an excitement for the designers as well as the audience.

GRIGSBY BATES: Fashion historian Barbara Summers enjoyed a 17-year career with Ford, one of America's top modeling agencies. She says the models at Versailles caught the world's attention, in part, because of their numbers. While there had been black models before, they were considered exotic rarities.

Ms. BARBARA SUMMERS (Fashion Historian, Model): At Versailles, they had never seen so many flagrantly beautiful black women at one time. So that was a revolution.

GRIGSBY BATES: The turning-heads kind of revolution, not the chopping-heads kind.

Summers says the Versailles audience was used to the chilly remoteness of the models who showcased European couture.

Ms. SUMMERS: Black girls changed all that. They plugged fashion into what was happening now.

(Soundbite of song, "My First, My Last, My Everything")

Mr. BARRY WHITE (Singer): (Singing) My everything...

Ms. SUMMERS: And that meant R&B, rock and roll, dancing, music, popular culture. They brought the electricity of popular culture into fashion.

GRIGSBY BATES: The Costume Institute's Harold Koda says Versailles came at the moment the world was changing. It was getting younger; there was lots of social upheaval; and people were ready for change.

Barbara Summers believes the black models who presented at Versailles were pioneers in overturning a restrictive, outmoded aesthetic.

Ms. SUMMERS: They weren't planning on being revolutionaries, but they happened to be at the right place at the right time. And for a revolution to take place at Versailles - let me tell you: For these little black girls to be running around, kicking up a fuss and, you know, showing off, it had to be absolutely thrilling.

GRIGSBY BATES: On Monday, the grown-up version of those little black girls will gather to be applauded again for their contribution to the fashion world. Viva la revolucion.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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