On November 28, 1973, American designers Halston, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein won over the French fashion world with a show in France that made history.
The occasion was a joint French and American fashion show at the Queen’s Theater in Versailles to raise funds for the Versailles Restoration Fund.
Halston was one of five designers chosen to represent America. The other four were Stephen Burrows, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta.
The French contingent comprised Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emmanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior.
As to be expected with all this talent in one room, there was major drama. According to ‘Halston, An American Original’, from which this account was sourced, the French rehearsed until 10 p.m. without providing the Americans food, water, ashtrays, even toilet paper in the dressing rooms.
When the Americans finally had the stage to themselves, the French electricians left (union hours, naturellement) and the heat was turned off.
The gauntlet had been thrown. The American designers stopped bickering for once to plot their revenge, and the only way to do that was to have the better show.
It was decided that the American segment, which had a Halston-clad Liza Minnelli for its opening and closing acts, would feature clothes from all the designers at the beginning, followed by the individual collections. Minnelli would then close the segment.
The night of the show, every seat had been sold out at the theatre. The French designers went first with an elaborate 20th century version of what would have been a show at the court of Louis XVI.
It had a live orchestra, floats, French actress Capucine, dancer Rudolf Nureyev and a finale featuring 67-year-old Josephine Baker accompanied by strippers from the famous Crazy Horse Saloon. It was an hour and a half long lavish production that spared no detail.
In contrast, the American designers presented a zippy 35-minute segment. It opened with Minnelli singing Bonjour Paris, the models dancing down the runway in beige and off-white raincoats and umbrellas. There were no sets; just lighting, simple scenery, and the hot music of the day.
The individual collections were three minutes long. Minnelli closed the show singing Cabaret and Au Revoir Paris, clad in a black and silver Halston gown while the entire cast was seated at white tables onstage, all dressed in various shades of black. It was Broadway slick, better than any concert, and completely brought the house down.
Even before the Americans made their last bow, the usually sedate French audience was shouting and throwing their programs in the air. St. Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge were screaming their heads off in joy. Ungaro was unhappy. “We should have realized that the Americans would know how to put on a show,” he groused later to Time magazine.
Perhaps the best compliment was paid by an anonymous French socialite in Newsweek, who said of the American designers: “They are like someone who gets invited into your home for dinner and then runs off with your wife and the silverware as well.”