Black Models Hailed As American Fashion’s Revolutionaries

The Met celebrates black women who helped put American fashion designers on the world stage.

By Jorge Rivas Jan 24, 2011

On Monday evening the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will host a celebration to honor the black models who helped put American fashion on the world stage 40 years ago.

In November 1973 five up-and-coming American designers were invited to show their collections alongside established French designers in a benefit to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles in France. NPR’s Karen Bates compared the event to a first-class prize fight, "the Thrilla in Manila, only with high heels, not boxing gloves," she said in a story that aired over the weekend.

It was a star studded event, both in terms of who put on the show, and those who attended. The French fashion houses of Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin were showing with American designers Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston and Stephen Burrows.

The French designers represented classic inspired handmade one-offs made for millionaires, while the American designers showed a more contemporary and attainable collection that was able to compete with the established houses. After the shows The Duchess de la Rochefoucauld told the press that the "French were good, but the Americans were sensational."

Yet as Bates points out, it wasn’t just the American designers’ clothes that pulled this off; it was the models walking down the runway wearing the clothes, many of them African-American. In 1973 French runways didn’t include black models, and even to this day black models say there is no work for them in France. Back in those days "an ethnic woman was someone who was southern European," Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art told the NY Times. In 1964, Paco Rabanne was the first fashion designer to send a black model down a runway. She wore a wedding dress made of white plastic.

Oscar de la Renta describes the scene to the New York Times:

"What made our show different was that in Paris no one had ever seen a black model on a runway. And while there are those who might dispute the assertion, there is no arguing with contemporary reports that described the presence of black models as a major factor in the transformation of American fashion, which the French had derided as mass-produced goods, into a global force.

Fashion historian Barbara Summers puts it more succinctly, saying the black models at Versailles "plugged fashion into what was happening now, and that meant R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, dancing, music, popular culture," she she told NPR. "They brought the electricity of popular culture into fashion." 

"They weren’t planning on being revolutionaries, but they happened to be at the right place at the right time," Summers said. "And for a revolution to take place at Versailles, let me tell you, for these little black girls to be running around, kicking up a fuss, showing off, it had to be absolutely thrilling."

An estimated 200 people are expected at the Costume Institute this evening to celebrate the black models at Versailles in 1973.