For black models, the defining moment of change took place on November 28, 1973 in Versailles, France. For the first time ever, a group of Black American models walked off a runway and onto the pages of history.
On the stage of the Opera House at the Sun King’s imperial chateau, five American fashion designers were invited to show their work along with five French designers. The Americans, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta would have a fashion face-off with French designers Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint
Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro.
The European designers took the home court advantage but the American designers played a card that generated jaw-dropping shock and wonderment. Striking, exotic, alluring and African-American women were the surprise element to American’s success. Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, Ramona Saunders and Amina Warsuma were the sensational beauties that changed the game. The women strutted and sashayed down the runway, moving to the beat of disco and R&B music. The appearance and energy was a vibrant contrast to the fashion models of the day that walked devoid of personality.
The most dramatic moment came when Bethann Hardison stalked down the runway in a tight-fitting yellow silk halter by black designer Stephen Burrows. Hardison held a floor-length train by a tiny ring on her pinky, wrote reporter LaVerne Powlis. “When Hardison reached center stage, she made a dramatic turn and haughtily dropped the train. The audience exploded in a frenzy of approval. They stomped, screamed and tossed their programs into the air.
According to NY Daily News photographer-Bill Cunningham: “The bejeweled Paris audience was stunned by the showmanship of the black models from America. The aristocrats were even thrilled.”
Fashion was never to be colonized in the same ways again. And Black American models, who had moved over the previous 25 years from near invisibility to grudging recognition, now commanded center stage, never again to be ignored.
Alva Chinn described the Versailles gala as a “gift from God. Our side was so simple. We didn’t have props and things, we just had us.”
Norma Jean Darden added, “Stephen Burrows stole the show. People were just clapping for days.”
Charlene Dash said simply: “We killed them!”
The walking beauties led the Americans to such and overwhelming uncontested victory that an American presenter at the gala enthused: “Not since Eisenhower liberated Paris have the Americans had such a triumph in France.”
The models involved in the French walk-off made history, planting seeds that blossomed for women of color all over the world.
In January 2011, 40 years after the famous fashion showdown at the Palace of Versailles, two of the original designers Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows co-hosted an event at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate history of American fashion design and the game-changing models.