The Battle of Versailles

February 24th, 2016  |  Published in February 2016


November 1973, the Palace of Versailles. In what is now known as The Battle of Versailles, five American designers took on five French designers in a runway show originally organized to help raise funds for the iconic palace. Everyone was there, and truth be told, it was well assumed that French designers Marc Bohan of Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, and Pierre Cardin would outshine their American counterparts immeasureably. For, at that time, French designers were the pinnacle of fashion.

Let us remember though what happens when we assume things. In a stunning showcase of the wave of design nurtured in 1970s New York, American designers Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Stephen Burrows, Anne Klein, and Bill Blass presented modern collections of American sportswear that not only won them the night, but the respect that was lacking by the international fashion community. The pieces were a stark contrast to the traditional designs on show by the French, as was the at-the-time revolutionary inclusion of 10 African American models in their Liza-Minelli-helmed celebration of what makes American design unique.

Now we find ourselves back to New York Fashion Week, 2016, where designer Peter Copping showed his new Fall 2016 collection for the much-beloved Oscar de la Renta fashion house. Mr. Copping was hand-picked by Mr. de la Renta personally before his death and he has done a wonderful job thus far as the only other designer to serve at the helm of de la Renta’s company.

For his latest showing, The Battle of Versailles served as a major inspiration for Copping as he worked to infuse the de la Renta aesthetic with his own brand of modernity. Combing through the archives of the 1973 show, Copping noted that at the time Oscar’s designs were much more minimal than they were at the height of his career. This further spurred the designer to pair traditional Versailles inspiration with modern techniques.

The feeling of Marie Antoniette-style Versailles was felt in the fabric choices, some use of exagerated shapes, and the color pallette. The designer mostly adhered to a palette of dove gray, deep pink/reds, and blue. French blue, of course. Modern knitwear was paired with these traditional elements throughout, which elevated them to something more suitable to the 2016 de la Renta woman. Another innovative modern twist? Updating the look of 18th century-style toile de Jouy by “putting them through a technical, pixelated process.”

And for the those who adore Oscar de la Renta, the brand, for its gowns fit for the red carpet, the designer did include a plethora of frothy dresses. His modern intepretation was the use of some two-piece designs with a bustier and full skirt, in comparison to the full-on ball gown. The bustier has become a signature of Copping since his time at Nina Ricci and that blended beautifully both into the de la Renta staple and the Versailles-era fashion.

A note on the corsets presented in the collection as well: Some were boning, while others were made of the more modern and sportswear-friendly fabric of stretch wool. The leather pieces where you could literally see the corset below was quite reminiscent of the skeleton-like design of the master Charles James. There is so much more going on underneath the garment in terms of design than what the eye can see.

Overall, the collection was a lovely marriage of the past and present. It’s a joy to see Peter Copping begin to step out of the shadow of the late designer, although no one will ever truly replace Oscar.

Looking past the obvious pairing of the modern with the traditional, this particular reference by Peter Copping couldn’t have been more relevant to today’s cultural landscape. According to Robin Givhan, author of The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, this epic runway show “was a reflection of what was going on politically and socially in terms of race relations. The Americans emphasized ready-to-wear, sportswear and fashion as a kind of entertainment and a women’s freedom to choose her own style of dress.”

It may not be 1973 any longer, but the issues of race relations and women’s rights are two of the key political issues facing America today. From the material disseminated about this collection, it’s clear Copping was not making a statement about American civil rights. But why not take it as a active reminder that the struggle is still very real. And fashion, so often a signifier of what’s happening in the world today, could once again act as a beacon of change.

–Jenny Perusek is a freelance Brand Manager, specializing in fashion and the creative arts.

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