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.
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This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (11/26-12/2)
30 photos Launch gallery
1. Little Legend and Puddy 😍😍😍😍
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2. "You on point Phife?" "all the time,Tip". 💥 #bannedfromnormal
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3. Vegan! The Impossible burger at Crossroads
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4. Lawrence #BeforeandAfterEpisodes 1-4: 184lbs 13% body fatEpisode 8: 196lbs 8% body fat S/O @coachdaveboxing with the works outs and @kildareriordan with the nutrition
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5. Jus haaaanngin out
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6. Meanwhile back at home in Atlanta GA someone mad they not on the 🛳. 😳
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7. No limits... Photo cred: Chris Bridges @ludacris
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8. new new
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9. Apparently my 260lbs is too much for the actual vines in the Hawaiian jungles to hold me without breaking and me falling hundreds of feet. So for safety purposes, I'm forced to swing thru #Jumanjj on wires strong enough to hold 12 adult buffaloes and 1 adult Rock. #OnSet #Jumanji #IronicallyIEatBuffaloDailyForLunch #MoreManThanNatureKnowsWhatToDoWith
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10. hey ma! 🎎#wcw 💙
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11. Surprise visit to our factories!!! #GoodAmerican #USA
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13. Peachy Keen 🔥✨⚡️
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14. If this don't look thankful I don't know what does. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. #UltraBlessed #24kMagic #SweetPotatoFly
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15. Late nights @nbcmarlon with the writers... we in here!!!
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16. There goes my baaaaaaaaabbbbyyyyy #QueenKingMagic!!! We're up to something! Ira BIG!!! Stay out our buisness -
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17. You want to win every game you play but when you come home to these faces... who cares. #ILoveYouGirls best part of my day, everyday!
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18. Steady,steady..... full size jenga.. "I got this one "???? Or do I ?
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19. Cornrows kind of day 😉@dontaysavoy2 you convinced me and I love. ❤️️
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20. #BrotherlyLove #tbt
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22. #basel #TeamLOVE @kingcombs
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23. Just introduced a special screening of @directher 's groundbreaking (must see) documentary @13thfilm with my brother @themichaelealy | @unitedblackout #blackoutblackfriday
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24. Me & Vanessa Williams giving #DuckLips #Pose on the set of #DaytimeDivas @vh1 - Coming Soon to a tv near you. Lol. - My make up done by @makeupsurgeon
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25. This picture just makes me wanna praise the Lord, you hear me!!!!!! Yes Lord brotha #TEDDYCAMPBELL What a #man !!! You are everything right on this picture husband ......... #gorgeous #stylish #classy #strong #masculine #king #sexy #debonair #gentlemenstyle And that #bible in your hand just seals the deal for me (probably cause i know that, that is what helped you become just as amazing as you look😘). While my heart and mind experiences the goodness of God at #church on Sundays, my eyes experiences the goodness of Teddy😍. Amen somebody🙌🏽. "Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name" #myman #myhusband #goodman #blackman #dapperman #godlyman #goodfather #mybestfriend
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26. Yesterday was my mama's 53rd birthday!!!!! Got to celebrate with her all day. If this is what I have to look forward to I can't wait. Looking like a soft bucket a cocoa butter. Yaaaaaaaaaas! 😍😍😍 love you mommy!
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27. "Shout out to @PureAtlanta for getting the family right"....I'm loving this jogger. 😍😍
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28. This pic warms my heart ❤️ #myLogiebeans and aunt aunt umba @itowandabraxton 😘
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29. You will always be my baby😜. #HappyBirthdayReginae #mybaby18
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30. GC "Gods Child" Red on Red SweatSuit available now at www.MonicaApparel.com ... Take Your Crown wherever you go!! I'm pictured in a Medium... Go to the site now for other options ... cc: @trukernell
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