When Ava DuVernay books a new job, I swell with pride like I know her personally. I don’t. She’s just my imaginary mentor/ bestie. So when news broke this week that Ava would be directing The Battle of Versailles, a film about the real-life epic fashion showdown between France and America that went down at the freaking Palace of Versailles in 1973, I peed a little bit from excitement.
The story is fascinating. The film will be based on the book The Battle Of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into The Spotlight And Made History by acclaimed fashion writer Robin Givhan. The book details the fashion show that pitted five iconic French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior) against five then virtually unknown American designers (Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows) in a high fashion pissing contest. Oh yeah, guests of the event included Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor. No big deal.
The show would go down in fashion history as the event that gave America its international style credibility and sparked a conversation about diversity on the runways. As the story goes, part of the reason America (spoiler alert!) won the contest was because it daringly chose to include 10 black models out of 30. At the time, it was seen as a bold and radical move because people of colour were essentially non-existent on high fashion catwalks.
This is part of why I love Ava DuVernay. She doesn’t just preach representation in film; she lives, breathes and creates it. Another reason I love her is that she’s stupidly good at making movies. Selma was a revelation. That film is art. I am so excited to see what she’ll do with material that lends itself so well to striking visuals.
Ava is also really great at creating work that gets people talking. The Battle of Versailles shed light on the lack of diversity in the fashion industry in the 1970s. That problem has not gone away forty years later. While it has gotten slightly better, according to a report in 2014, white models still make up almost 79 per cent of the models on runways at New York Fashion Week. Black models came in at almost 10 per cent while Asian and Latina models were hovering around 9 per cent combined.
"It’s disappointing to hear that models of color are still encountering these same issues all these years later."
When Vogue wrote about the news that Ava would be directing The Battle of Versailles, the racial significance of the event was barely mentioned. Yeah, this is still a problem.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma gave us Glory, the John Legend and Common song that became the soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement. The themes and messages in that film set in the 60s were still relevant in 2015. I think The Battle of Versailles will have similar impact. There’s nothing like a big HBO movie to spark headlines and get people wondering why so little progress has been made in 43 years.