On Nov. 28, 1973, Parisian haute couture faced off against the upstart American designers, and the Americans blew them away. In her debut book, Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post fashion critic Givhan delivers a delightful, encyclopedic exploration of the players and leaders in the field.
The differences between the Paris world of fashion, with its strict rules of handmade quality and personal fit, and that of the ready-to-wear American, were hard and fast. In France, the term “haute couture” is a legally protected designation, and the established houses dictate every aspect of fashion. In America, it was the department stores determining the latest looks. Enter Eleanor Lambert (1903-2003), whose work establishing American fashion changed an entire industry. She was public relations representative for all the best designers, and she established New York’s first fashion week, in 1943, as well as the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It was at a lunch with the curator of Versailles that the idea of a fashion fundraiser was born. Though it was never meant to be a competition, five American and five French designers came together that November evening, and the American style of design and show was established. The French—showing Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Dior’s Marc Bohan—followed their established style of exhibition. The wealthy onlookers took notice when the American sportswear designer Anne Klein (whom nobody wanted there) showed off her models with snappy movements and attitudes. Excitement built with the black models, who really made the show. African-themed outfits by Stephen Burrows were free, whirling and vital. Halston, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta also showed well, and the world of fashion never looked back. These days, writes the author, fashion “feeds a constant cultural conversation with intermittent spikes of media saturation and personal punditry.”
Readers need not be fashion mavens to enjoy this entertaining episode of history, enhanced by Givhan’s effortless ability to illustrate the models and designers (particularly Lambert) who changed how we dress.