Embracing the woman tuxedo

by - 15.3.17

In this modern day and age, menswear influences in women’s clothing are practically day to day staples. “Boyfriend” jeans, muscle tees, blazers and collard button up shirts are as integral to a woman’s wardrobe as a good pair of heels and little black dress, and nothing stands out more on a red carpet or at formal affair than a well-tailored women’s tuxedo. There are endless ways to make this look as sexy or as demure as you would like; A plunging tuxedo jacket with no shirt underneath has become a celebrity favorite, or a simple silk shirt buttoned up to the neck, perhaps with a delicate bow. Pants can be worn skimming the floor or cigarette style, hugging the leg to a slim, tapered bottom. Regardless of what your personal preference is for this timeless and classic look, women have one man to thank for creating this liberating style, Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent. 

At the fall 1966 couture collections in Paris, designer Yves Saint Laurent displayed Le Smoking, the first ever tuxedo style suit made for women. The name was simply derived from the French equivalent of the British term for a tuxedo, and references 19th Century men’s smoking jackets, so called for their silk lapels which were designed to repel the ash from an after dinner cigar. The collection was not initially well received by critics at a time when the women’s liberation movement was still in its inception. The idea of a woman wearing pants for a formal event, or even for day to day use, was still a radical notion for the public to swallow (socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from a New York City restaurant for wearing Le Smoking, when she famously took matters into her own hands by stripping off the pants and dining in the suit jacket alone, et voila, the jacket mini dress was born) but for Saint Laurent, it was one of the most important collection of his career.

Although Saint Laurent was the first designer to create a tuxedo for a woman’s use, there had certainly been previous women in history who had worn the brazen style, most notably the actress Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 movie Morocco, as well as Saint Laurent’s muse, the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who enjoyed wearing men’s suits with high heels. The concept of taking menswear and giving it to women was so liberating at the time that it started a revolution and eventually evolved from Le Smoking to the power suit, to the pantsuits that are worn by women today. Saint Laurent had the vision to understand that a new era in womenswear was being ushered into relevance and at the core of those changing times were pants for women and pants for formal wear. The original design was a rather literal version of a men’s tuxedo, being offered in black wool or velvet with a crisp white shirt, a feminine black bow at the neck, and a wide cummerbund. German photographer Helmut Newton became fascinated by Le Smoking and featured the style in several of his black and white photographs, drawn to the androgynous and masculine nature of a woman in a tuxedo. He went on to collaborate with Saint Laurent on several of his ad campaigns. 

Over the decades, Le Smoking has been transformed many times and many ways while always upholding the spirit of the original design. Saint Laurent himself reinterpreted his concept multiple times over the years, creating tuxedo inspired dresses, skirts and shorts while reworking the lapels or buttons on the jacket. The trend proved too powerful to ignore and almost every relevant designer since the 1960s has created their own reimagining of Le Smoking. Hedi Slimane, who currently runs the show at Saint Laurent, has reworked the tuxedo in a more rock and roll chic manner and not a runway goes by without some version of the original design strutting down the catwalk. Le Smoking has become so popularized over the years that women’s tuxedo styles are now mass produced even in the discount clothing market. 

The concept is as sexy as it was liberating and famous women throughout history have elevated the exposure of Le Smoking, interpreting the style in their own manner. Bianca Jagger famously wore a white version of a tuxedo jacket paired with a white skirt for her highly publicized wedding to Mick Jagger in 1971. Diane Keaton revolutionized menswear for women dressing mainly in fitted suits derived from the original Le Smoking, most notably in Woody Allen’s classic film “Annie Hall” in 1977. And Angelina Jolie wore a modern version of Saint Laurent on the red carpet in 2014 with her shirt unbuttoned at the top and an untied bow tie hanging around her neck. It takes a strong, confident woman to wear a tuxedo, one who is at peace with her sexuality and doesn’t mind giving the boys a run for their money. Yves Saint Laurent was certainly ahead of his time with his concepts in 1966, but what makes him the genius we know him as to this day will always be his connection to the future of fashion and his dedication to empowering women through clothing. 

Text by: Elizabeth Kramsky
Photographs: elle.com 

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