It’s always been tradition for men and women to crowd the streets of New York to celebrate Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. People wear cutting-edge, eccentric garments that practically beg for a spot in the New York Times Style section. Bill Cunningham was a photographer for the Times for over 20 years. He rode his modest bike around Manhattan while wearing his recognizable, blue, half-zip sweatshirt. His 35mm camera was readily available in one handwhile he scoped out fashion that reflected the event’s atmosphere. Dating back to the Versailles show in 1973. He always had the ability to capture the essence of style. While the recent death of Cunningham on June 25th, 2016 left the fashion industry mourning, his accomplishments continue to be celebrated at the Savannah College of Art and Design. A collection of Cunningham’s work from the Versailles 1973 runway show curated by Alexandra Sachs, the director of SCAD Fash, the Museum of Fashion + Film, currently hang on the powder blue walls of Andre Leon Talley’s gallery in the SCAD Museum of Art.
Versailles 73’ marks the biggest battle in haute couture history. In efforts to restore the decaying Palace of Versailles, public relations executive Elanore Lambert pitted American designers Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephan Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston against French designers, Christian Dior, Hubert Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Yves Saint Laurent. Models were offered $300 and a trip to Paris in exchange for their participation in the show. Eleven of the 40 models were African American, the first time black models had appeared on a Paris runway. The palace itself was far from comfortable due to its lack of central heat; nonetheless the show went on.
A guide from the SCAD Museum of Art adds, “There just weren’t enough Bill Blass fur coats to go around.”
The prestigious audience assumed that French couture would trump the American Ready-to-Wear brands. American designers would practice at night while French designers would practice in the mornings leading up to the show. American designers had prepared a set only to realize it was built in inches rather than centimeters forcing the production crew to leave the stage empty. Due to multiple technical difficulties and last minute preparations, the American show was automatically infused with nervous, yet focused energy.
Cunningham’s photographs capture the glamour and liveliness of the event and are presented in chronological order. First the photos are focused on the designers’ preparation. Nancy North and Pat Cleveland are pictured at the airport, bags spread across the floor waiting to fly overseas. Alva Chinn and photographer Charles Tracy are shown in conversation during rehearsal while Burrows makes amends to the garments in one photograph.
Guests such as Andy Warhol, and Grace Kelly paid thousands for a seat at this posh event. Cunningham captured moments when the iconic guests, who comprised nearly 1% of the world’s wealth, crossed paths with the stoned models, and flamboyant new money.
Nancy North and Pat Cleveland are pictured singing at the pre-party at Maxim. Their bodies were hunched over the microphone and their dresses clung to their skinny framed selves as they reached for a champagne bottle. North later commented on how she may have had too much to drink to remember that she was even singing. The guests danced, gossiped, and shared a moment of glamour leading up to the show. Cunningham brilliantly depicts the exclusivity of the night.
Of all 65 8x10 silver gelatin prints lining the gallery walls, only five were dedicated to showcasing the French couture shows. Their productions were elaborate but stiff; this was most evident in the Yves Saint Laurent’s collection when Cage aux Folles performed during the show. The presentation lasted two hours and there was no music. Cunningham’s lack of interest reflected the French designers’ low energy.
American designer Stephan Burrows opened up part two of the unofficial battle. In Cunningham’s photographs, Nancy North and Karen Bjornson are shown powerfully walking down a bare runway with movement that was sure to liven up the crowd. As Bethann Hardison stuck her final pose at the end of the runway, the attendees immediately stood up and threw their programs in the air. This was what they had come to see.
Cunningham captured the differences between each American designer showcasing their individual voices. Karen Bjornson is caught twirling in one of Halston’s glistening evening gowns that gracefully worked with the lines of her body. He photographed Oscar de le Renta’s flowing taffeta dresses that accentuated the model’s feminine form. On the night of November 28th, 1973, Cunningham perfectly portrays the utter domination of American designers.
Bill Cunningham’s collection of work from Versailles 1973 tells the story of this night through glamorous visuals. He gives the viewer access to a cliquish experience that few were able to witness. Cunningham’s work was devoted to discovering style. He explored how fashion taped into individual lives. He attended these events with great humility, an attitude that sustained until the day he passed. Whether he was shooting modern fashion icons on the streets of New York or looking back on Versailles 73’, Cunningham always relayed iconic style to thousands and he kept moments like this alive forever.