Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review: The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan

The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan
Book Review by Joyce Jones

It’s 1973. Versailles is crumbling, and the French government doesn’t have the funds for restoration. What to do? Will a national treasure succumb to termites, mildew, mold, and decay?
Enter the Baroness de Rothschild and her plans for a Fashion Show fund raiser that will pit five established French designers from the world of Haute Couture against five American designers known for ready to wear casual and work place comfort, and even jersey fabric.
But how to attract the moneyed set and elevate the event from the norm to the unexpected?
Perhaps, Eleanor Lambert, American fashion publicist, who is itching to show what American fashion is all about, might be interested in a show down of sorts.
The French have the tradition of haute couture; the established elegance and prestige, and five weighty designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan).
The Americans have clothing designed for the American middle class; sportswear, safari suits, and five designers who include one woman, Anne Klein, one black man, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta.
Staging by the French designers includes a full orchestra, Rudolfo Nureyev dancing to Swan Lake, and a two hour production of manicured models gliding down the runway at a leisurely and practiced pace.
Left with only 35 minutes of show time, the Americans send out Liza Minelli for an upbeat song and dance routine to invigorate the staid crowd. Taped Barry White and Al Green songs rush from the sound system as a cadre of unknown American models, 1/3 of whom are black, prance, strut, and move to the music in a parade of quick garment changes.
After all the petty squabbles, grand standing, politicking, and back biting, the Americans emerge victorious. Thunderous applause from the audience ushers in the realization that American fashion does not have to compete with the French. Americans have created clothing that reflects the tensions of race, feminism, and freedom of the 70’s as well as the comfort and practicality pulsating in the American culture at the time.
Well written and researched, The Battle of Versailles will appeal to those interested in fashion, history, and American culture. A read that won’t disappoint. 

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