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Published on February 19th, 2013


A Flock of Peacocks: A Film Review of Versailles ‘73

 Versailles ’73 is a documentary retelling a poweful moment in fashion history between France and America that took place in Versailles 1973. The goal of the promoters of the event in 73 was to raise some portion of the $60 million dollars it would take to restore The Palace at Versailles to its former glory.

If you have ever dreamed of doing anything which, because of whom you are and where you come from, is beyond your grasp, you will be able to identify with the American designers as well as their models, who all become Cinderella for one night, when they are invited to participate in the Versailles Fashion Show. Intentionally and deliberately competitive from the earliest beginnings, reinforcing the magical quality of the experience for, especially, the Americans, was the inclusion of predominantly African-American Models who, before the Versailles ’73 Fashion Benefit, had had no voice or “presence” in the fashion industry. At $235 dollars per person  about 650 people were invited to the event.

The French chose their top designers: Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, and Mark Boil to compete against the Americans. The American designers selected were Jimmy Galanos and Geoffrey Beene, but they both declined. Next selected were Hals ton, Oscar De La Renta, Anne Klein, Steven Burrows, and Bill Blass. They, in turn, selected the models they wanted to take with them: Each one selected had to be “picked” by three designers with each designer selecting ten models in all to travel to France and to be a part of the benefit-fashion show.

While the French show was immersed in pomp and ceremony, including the use of Josephine Baker and Rudolph Nureyev as part of their presentation, the Americans not to be outdone had Liza Minnelli and Kate Thompson on board to entertain the audience. The American models for the most part were graceful, young, fresh, feminine, and full of life and energy. While it took the French 2 hrs. and thirty-five minutes to perform their segment of the fashion show, the Americans finished making their presentation in thirty-five minutes; and to rave reviews. That the models were predominantly black; that the American designers were as good, if not better, than the French Designers; and that the presentation of the clothes on” attractive models” (Pat Cleveland) was exclusively used to sell the designs was the revolution in runway modeling.

“Versailles ‘73” presented by Coffee Buff Pictures in 2012 and produced, written, and directed by Deborah Riley Draper is told in a simplistic manner. Through a series of interviews with the American Models (Black, White, and Asian) some of the designers, and representatives from French society and culture, the experience of Versailles ’73 is recreated. Using still footage, which is interwoven throughout the interviews, is provocative yet does not fulfill the audience’ need to experience the benefit-fashion show, as would have live footage of the models walking down the runway; as Versailles ’73 Top Model Pat Cleveland says, “…like Peacocks” on stage.

Another problem with this documentary is the absence of appropirate music (‘e.g. Barry White music used during the benefit) to establish the same ambiance or atmosphere as it was in Versailles ’73. Had appropriate music been used, the producer/director would have possibly seen the wisdom in using live footage as opposed to still photography.

Finally, the ‘revolution’ in fashion alluded to in the title of the documentary, is the use of almost all black models in the show. This fact is subtly alluded to towards the end of the documentary, but is never explicitly stated, as it should have been, from its very beginning. The African-American models were able to overcome centuries of racial oppression and abuse, not only to prove that they were pretty and desirable , but to prove that they also demonstrated the ability of women and people of color to work the “mainstream”. Although I watched the film repeatedly, on a scale of from one to ten, I give “Versailles ‘73”a rating of seven point five (7.5).

About the Author: Cleo Brown is the movie reviewer for She lives in Manhattan and has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis and has done work on a Ph.D. in education at The University of San Francisco. She has published several poetry books and is featured in Who’s Who in Poetry.

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