Today is #PalaceDay, a social media celebration of royal residences and museums throughout Europe. To join in, I’m featuring a tiara worn by a princess for a special gala at the Palace of Versailles in 1973—an event that was a landmark moment not only for the palace itself but for French and American fashion, too.
The Network of European Royal Residences, which includes familiar institutions like Historic Royal Palaces, the Danish Royal Collection, and the Palace of Versailles, began celebrating Palace Day in July 2016 as a way to increase their digital visibility. While some of the historic buildings remain working royal residences today, others are now museums devoted to cultural heritage.
The Palace of Versailles was initially built as a hunting lodge for King Louis XIII in the 1620s, and it evolved over the next century into one of the grandest royal residences in Europe. It’s been used as museum at various times and in different capacities since the 1789 revolution. In the 20th century, the museum’s curators worked to establish a strong base of private donors to help fund renovations to the aging structure.
By November 1973, termites had burrowed into the palace’s wood, and the roof was leaking. A major fundraising gala was held to secure several hundred thousand dollars to put toward further renovation efforts. Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild headed up the committee that coordinated the gala.
It was a star-studded event, attended by the Begum Aga Khan, Heinrich and Denise von Thyssen, André and Liliane Bettencourt, Winston and C.Z. Guest, Catherine Deneuve, Maurice Druon, and members of the former reigning royal families of France and Austria. (With big money needed to restore the chateau, the invite list was strictly “millionaires only.”) The guest of honor, though, was a princess from a family with a throne: Princess Grace of Monaco.
Snow was falling softly outside the chateau when the 700 guests arrived for the gala. What awaited them was something special: a spectacular presentation of music and fashion from both French and American artists and designers. The event was the brainchild of American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gerald van der Kemp.
Members of the American press corps grilled van der Kemp about the lavish fundraising efforts during the 1973 energy crisis. He responded simply, “Beautiful things have to be maintained. Versailles must be heated. Beautiful things must go on.” Despite his comments, reports noted that the chateau was freezing that night, with socialites shivering in their gowns. There were no working telephones and very few available toilets, and all of the food was deliberately served cold.
The fashion spectacular, dubbed “the Battle of Versailles,” was staged in the palace’s Royal Opera Theatre, designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel during the reign of King Louis XV. One of the first grand events held in the theater was a gala celebrating the wedding of the future King Louis XVI and his Austrian-born bride, Marie Antoinette. The venue also hosted gala events for numerous important royal visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1855.
The ten fashion designers—five French, five American—mounted a pair of shows that were strikingly different in composition. The French designers went first. Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan, and Hubert de Givenchy showed “the hautest of the haute couture.” But the clothes were nearly overshadowed by the production that surrounded them.
“The French had two orchestras, four conductors, enough scenery and effects for four bad operettas at the Opera Comique,” one American press report sniffed. “The sets, by Jean-François Daigre, were so tacky they weren’t even camp.” Though the lavish production wasn’t to everyone’s taste, there was much praise for the performers who accompanied the models, including Rudolph Nureyev and Josephine Baker, “who drew the only bravos.”
After a champagne intermission, it was the American designers’ turn. “As for real energy,” newspapers noted, “the American show triumphed because of its simplicity and zest.” The five American designers showcased were Bill Blass (“super chic”), Oscar de la Renta (“warm and sensuous”), Anne Klein (“commercial and snappy”), Halston (“decadence”), and Stephen Burrows (“personality plus”). It was the first major American fashion show ever staged in France. “The French were good but the Americans were sensational. C’etait formidable,” declared Edmée de La Rochefoucauld. The New York Times noted, “The show was America and the audience ate it up.”
Halston’s good friend Liza Minelli added musical flair, but the American presentation was much simpler, with no sets and music provided via a tape player rather than an orchestra. The moment was a triumph for the American fashion industry, and if you’d like to read a truly excellent account of the development and impact of the show, I’ll nudge you toward Robin Givhan’s 2015 book The Battle of Versailles. (I know the show was also dramatized in the recent Halston miniseries on Netflix, but I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t vouch for it.)
After the show, the guests proceeded to the King’s Apartments for a cold supper of fish and duck, with $70,000 worth of wine provided by the Rothschilds. Because the apartments were under renovation, most of the furniture and artwork had been removed, and tapestries and carpets had to be brought in from other parts of the chateau. Eighty-five tables, draped with specially made blue and gold tablecloths, were trucked in from Paris.
Here, Baron Guy de Rothschild escorts Princess Grace during the gala. She diplomatically wore Monaco’s red and white colors for the evening. Even so, there was some partiality on display, as the American-born princess wore a gown from a French design house, Dior, for the evening.
She accessorized with a suite of diamond and ruby jewelry loaned to her by another French institution, Van Cleef & Arpels. She owned several pieces from the firm herself, and she’d also borrowed from them on other occasions (including the 1966 Century Ball, which we discussed here just yesterday).
The centerpiece of the jewelry suite was a kokoshnik-shaped ruby and diamond tiara. Princess Grace’s tiaras were generally on the smaller side, and this was one of the larger ones that she wore in public during her royal lifetime.
She also wore an interesting pair of climber earrings and a matching necklace, both similarly set with diamonds and rubies.
Grace wore dramatic opera-length gloves with her gown and jewels, which hid several more pieces of sparkle.
She wore a coordinating ruby and diamond bracelet on her left wrist and rings on both hands, including a large diamond-studded cocktail ring on her left hand.
The evening was a triumph, with $260,000 raised to go toward improvements to the historic palace. (I believe that’s something in the neighborhood of $1.7 million today.) Add this to the list of events I’d love to pop in on if I had a time machine—though I might remember to wear warmer attire than many of the stylish guests did!