They didn’t really know it at the time, but the black models who walked in the Versailles fashion face-off in France in 1973 carved a path on the catwalk for generations to come.
Lately, though, there has been some erosion – not just for black models, but for models overall, says Bethann Hardison, one of those trailblazers who now spends most of her time on the other side of the business as a casting director, agent and adviser.
“The ‘fashion model’ has become extinct. They are no longer muses, they are girls with clothes on them,” says Hardison. “In the early and mid-’90s, things started to change and diversity got lost.”
She’s talking about skin color, body types, hairstyles – anything that shows personality, she explains. “Now designers, they don’t want models to be so recognizable. They are picking girls you wouldn’t notice. They want the girls to walk front to back, and tell them, ‘Don’t smile, don’t swing your hips, don’t do anything but walk.'”
Back at Versailles, when a group of upstart American-based designers, including Halston, Anne Klein and Bill Blass, unexpectedly beat French couturiers in a fashion competition that really put the U.S. sportswear industry on the map, Hardison says she was expected to work the crowd. “Halston said, ‘Bethann, we’re counting on you.’ At rehearsal, I couldn’t bring it, I was so nervous, but in the show, when the moment came, fear made me go down there and do it for the team, and I did it.”
There were almost a dozen black models on the runway, which was unheard of at the time. It showed the Americans as modern, especially compared with the more old-school, rarified styles of Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy.
Many of the models continued with steady catwalk work through the 1970s and ’80s, perfecting unique looks that designers would use as inspiration.
Hardison says designers weren’t using them to make a social statement; they were trying to reflect the new global audience they were speaking to. Some designers and brands continue to do that today, she observes, but too many are caught up in having that blank canvas they think won’t distract from their clothes.
Hardison recently took a turn in front of the cameras again, joining Alva Chinn and Pat Cleveland, among others, in a spread celebrating that almost 40-year-old fashion show in the May issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. She says it was great fun to do – remember, she’s from the generation that likes hamming it up – but, more important, she hopes it was a life lesson in confidence for the up-and-coming, younger black models, including Joan Smalls and Kinee Diouf, who shared the pages with them.
The genesis of the story and photo shoot was a chance request by The Huffington Post for O editor-at-large Gayle King to present the Versailles models with one of its Game Changer awards last fall. That was a few months after the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored them and just before ABC News did a segment. A book and documentary are also in the works, says Hardison. All the attention is nice, if unexpected so many years later, she adds.
“I guess we thought of it as a big ‘another day’ in fashion (in 1973), but it was also just another day. We didn’t know it was iconic or historic, but nothing ever is until after it’s done. You need the context at some given point in time, and people learn about something and say, ‘Wow.'”
The Versailles models understood how to use their own unique looks and personalities to sell clothes, says Adam Glassman, O’s creative director. These women were perfect for the magazine’s age issue, he adds, because they are aging beautifully and with spunk.
“Had we not had these legends, I don’t know where we’d be today in American fashion,” he says.
Also On Black America Web:
This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (10/15-10/21)
31 photos Launch gallery
1. Just a NY girl with BIG dreams....
1 of 31
2. HAPPY CHILDREN=QUALITY PARENTING. We don't always see eye to eye on everything and that's normal. We're human beings. But we come together and do it right for what's important, the kids. We are not enemies, we are parents. And we are parents 1st. S/O to @monyettashaw for making Mason's bday memorable. S/O to @itscrystalsmith at home taking care of our other lil' Prince. ❤️❤️❤️ THIS IS WHAT CO-PARENTING LOOKS LIKE. #Blessed #Happy #AboveTheDrama #BiggerThanUs
2 of 31
3. So happy to finally be able to share with you all that I’m the new Global Brand Ambassador for @Revlon! Follow my day on RevlonSnaps. Yay! Choose Love, Everybody! #RevlonXCiara #chooselove #ad
3 of 31
4. Glam on point!!!@makeupbymotoko & @shaylinjoneshair #easybreezy @lifetimetv #beachesmovie #january2017 😘
4 of 31
5. ✨True love ✨📸: @jessiemarrerophotography
5 of 31
6 of 31
7. Today was not easy..but by the grace of God we all got through it. Words cannot express our gratitude for all of your Prayers, Positive thoughts and Support for us throughout the years. Tommy will be missed but most certainly never forgotten...And PLEASE don't ask "Where's Martin?.." he was there too...just not in this picture. Lol! God bless you all.. #LoveConquersAll #MartinShow
7 of 31
8 of 31
9. West coast get ready for #RockyHorror. I will be live tweeting again. #letsdothetimewarpagain
9 of 31
10. #THEKEYS pre order yours now ... Available everywhere #NOV22 #WeTheBest 🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑
10 of 31
11. We about to ROCK at #KCABlackBall!! All for our life-changing effort to end 🌎 AIDS.
11 of 31
12. Today's #SNAPJACK is brought to you by @yazzthegreatest 😂😂😂💋💋💋
12 of 31
13. Damn girl you kinda old to be headed to the Go Go. You coming in at the age they leaving. LMAO
13 of 31
14. Daddy daycare B-Boxin with @acewellstucker @shopraisingace
14 of 31
15. #FBF Naviyd & URV "LIL MONSTERS"
15 of 31
16. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ONE OF THE BIGGEST LEGENDS IN OUR HIPHOP HISTORY! @snoopdogg CONTINUED BLESSING AND LOVE FAMILY!!!!! REAL OG!
16 of 31
17. Thank you for a beautiful night VSU! Let's do it again! #HOMECOMING
17 of 31
18. Had a great time this morning with my familia Erica, Griff & Truth!!
18 of 31
19. Check out my interview on @essence facebook live. #inmyownwords #nycpromo #day2
19 of 31
20. #She💋 #tbt #TheCoveAtTheAtlantis #DawgPawsAndAll
20 of 31
21. Bae #retailtherapy
21 of 31
22. Why me and @coryhardrict got the same pose... and notee... new mouth #naked
22 of 31
23. When my husband is my personal 'hype-man'! it kills me every time! 💜😂 #WHATNOW #lostfiles📷
23 of 31
24. Diggy Simmons
24 of 31
25. Hand full of @jacquieaiche 💙💎💍 @esnail_la 💅🏾
25 of 31
26. SuperSoulers! You can watch my interview with Carl Lentz live from my Facebook page, tomorrow at 11a ET| 8a PT. #SuperSoulSunday
26 of 31
27. 💋 .. When the friendship is easy like Sunday morning. ☀️
27 of 31
28. Sunday mornings are the best........... hugs and cuddles with my angel
28 of 31
29. #huggar16 #hellohuggars
29 of 31
30. My gym is everywhere!.. #RnBMoney #TheGeneral 📸: @twelvepastseven
30 of 31
31. Nothing I would rather be doing... Rocko setting up our movie, Romelō working on a puzzle & Laiyah singing and sharing all she's learning at school... I'm so grateful for the joy they've brought into my life ... Praying for peace , joy & love in the home of EVERY family ♥️ #HeadScarfPJSunday LOL 😂
31 of 31