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Everything You Need to Know About the Battle of Versailles on the 50th Anniversary of the Event

The Organizers
The Grand Divertissement à Versailles was certainly a team effort, but the idea was first floated by Eleanor Lambert, a champion of American fashion, who is credited with coming up with things like the Best-Dressed List, the Coty Awards, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She also handled public relations for many designers, and naturally made sure her clients were well represented in the American contingent. Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, appointed honorary chairwoman, took the lead in France. The social powerhouse and famed hostess (the De Rothschilds held a must-talked-about Surrealist ball in 1972), had the finesse to manage high-strung creative egos, and the clout to get President Georges Pompidou to sign-off on the use of the Chateau.

The number of people invited to the event was determined by the event’s location, the Théâtre Gabriel, a blue and gold-gilded opera house built by Louis XV and inaugurated at the wedding of the dauphin (later Louis XVI) to Marie Antoinette. The extravagance of the event was intended to rival that of the 18th-century court; though some observers viewed the “let them eat cake” attitude with cynicism.

“The American press had been asking Gerald van der Kemp, curator of Versailles, embarrassing questions about the energy crisis. His reply: ‘Beautiful things have to be maintained. Versailles must be heated. Beautiful things must go on.’ ”
— “Extravaganza Draws the Elite.” The Bradenton Herald, December 21, 1972.

“Rivaling the show on stage, hundreds of famous and wealthy women sat in the tiered, basket-shaped marble, velvet and gold Versailles opera among their black-tuxedoed exports, looking like flower bouquets in feathered chiffons, or with the glitter of mermaids in sequins. More dazzle came from a breath-taking show of jewels that justifies walkie-talkie plainclothes men scattered among the helmeted Gardes Republicans and the 100 footmen in 18th-century livery.”
— “Fashion Kings Merge in a Surge of Elegance,” by Monique. The Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1973.

“The leaky, termite-ridden palace needs $60,000,000 for restoration; the gala raised $260,000. The gowns worn for the event were worth about $2,500,000.”
— “People,” compiled from News Dispatches. Newsday, November 30, 1973.

Jean-Louis Barrault and Josephine Baker

Photo: Daniel Simon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Home Team
The French, as hosts, were first to appear. Jean-Louis Barrault, actor, director, and mime, who was reportedly brought in at the last minute, was responsible for the proceedings, which featured many famous performers, all of whom were unpaid. Yves Saint Laurent’s “act” featured Zizi Jeanmaire singing “I’m Just a Gigolo,” and model/actress Capucine appeared for Hubert de Givenchy, for example, and there were performances in between as well. The centerpiece of each designer’s vignette was a parade-like cardboard float (Cardin, the futurist’s, was a rocket, Dior’s a Cinderella-referencing pumpkin). Everything was grand and the pomp and circumstance was time-intensive.

“Givenchy actually came off best with a romantic flower basket that was lowered from the ceiling, but discordant music spoiled the effect of his flower-colored chiffon evening gowns. Givenchy thought so himself, so no toes have been stepped on.”
— “Yanks Pull Off Fashion Heist in Paris,” by Eugenia Sheppard. Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1972.

“Anne Klein comes through as an American classic. Halston, Bill Blass, and Oscar de la Renta are the equivalent of the French couturiers and Stephen Burrows is the most promising talent in New York.”
— “Americans Steal the Show at Versailles Gala,” by Hebe Dorsey. The International Herald Tribune, November 30, 1973.

Liza Minnelli, in a beaded degrade dress by Halston closed the show. She was joined by models wearing looks, as with the intro, by all five American designers.

“…none seemed aware that the proceeds might be used to get rid of termites riddling the glorious 18th century carved woodwork that provided the spectacular backdrop for the best-dressed crowd on earth.”
— “U. S. Fashions at Versailles,” by Monique. Daily News, November 29, 1973.

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