Fashion show opens doors for Black models

Posted: April 10, 2013 in The Philadelphia Tribune

This November will mark the 40th anniversary of the Grand Divertissement à Versailles fashion show, which is credited for changing the course of fashion history. Award-winning writer and producer Deborah Riley Draper will premiere her documentary film “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” during a special screening at Drexel University on April 18 at 6 p.m.

The film recounts the 1973 fashion showdown between American and French designers at Chateau de Versailles that changed the global perception of African-American models and made a name all over the globe for American designers, including internationally acclaimed African-American designer Stephen Burrows.

Pat Cleveland — one of 11 African-American models — traveled to Paris with the five American designers who were eager to earn their ranks in the international fashion industry.

The designers – Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and Burrows – remain fashion distinguished icons today.Along with Karen Bjornson and Anjelica Huston, Cleveland belonged to Halston’s regular troupe of models, nicknamed “the Halstonettes.” Cleveland graced the cover of Jet magazine when she was fourteen. “Jet was the bible in the African-American society. This weekly magazine was sold everywhere and told who, what, when and why of that day.

Going from Jet Magazine to Vogue was a major career shift for Cleveland.

“The climate in the 1970’s was impossible. African-American women were not considered beautiful and there were racial issues still prevalent. I did not know I had even jumped barriers,” said Cleveland.

“African American women had their own rhythm then and now. The American designers let us have the runway and this meant just having our souls come through our modeling. Clothing is not just about fabric. Clothing is a good thing.

“Designers were inspired by the way we moved; we were inspired by the clothes,” she said. “I lived for that moment. This fashion show was my big moment; everything has worked up to that moment.”

Cleveland loved her career and enjoyed meeting people and traveling the world through modeling. “I did not have to sacrifice anything for my career because I worked hard to have it all. You have to work for anything, even if you are a cook or a stylist. There’s no difference in the fashion world. You have to structure your life and be responsible for what you want, if you really want it. Combing your hair or not, it is who you are and It represents a lifestyle.”

Drexel Historic Costume Collection will display a Halston-designed gown in The URBN Annex’s Pearlstein Gallery the night of the screening. Sandra Blumberg, owner of Philadelphia-based art consulting firm Blumberg & Harris, donated the gown.
“The Versailles Ball was a real highlight for me in the ‘70s. I was invited by Halston and Eleanor Lambert to attend,” said Blumberg, who also will be attending the screening and discussion.

The screening will take place in the URBN Annex Screening Room (34th and Filbert Streets). The event is hosted by the Design & Merchandising Program in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. It is free and open to the public.

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