One of the most overused phrases in the fashion lexicon is "iconic".
Everything from a beaded ballgown, to a pair of distressed jeans, to a five-figure handbag named after a minor television celebrity, seems to have been summarised at one point or another by this throwaway phrase. But what really makes the cut? What are the real icons of style? The little black dress? Obviously. The bias-cut evening dress? Possibly. But of all the "iconic" items that have proliferated through contemporary fashion, none seem to have the enduring impact, notoriety and appeal of Le Smoking.
A garment that manages to bridge the divide between male and female, Le Smoking is a symbol of evening elegance in menswear and the seductive power of female cross-dressing.
It is, to all extents and purposes, a man's tuxedo – but once part of a woman's wardrobe the Gallic term stuck, not least for the endless Anglo-philistine puns it allows when describing the "smoking hot" appeal of a woman appropriating this most masculine of garments.
Le Smoking has been a stalwart of the well-dressed man's wardrobe for decades – but, until relatively recently, its adoption by women raised eyebrows and even hackles. It was Yves Saint Laurent who transformed Le Smoking into high fashion for women, showing an impeccably tailored tuxedo with cummerbund and bow-tie as part of his winter 1966 haute couture collection. It was a portent: the next season, they were the keynote garment of his entire collection and became the leitmotif of his career.
Saint Laurent can be credited with promoting Le Smoking as a fashion must-have, but the credit for its daring co-option by women can be traced back a good 40 years prior to that. In the Twenties, cross-dressing amongst the artistic set of inter-war Europe was all the rage, with literary figures such as Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall adopting tuxedos as bohemian evening attire. Its elevation to a mainstream style icon, however, can be traced to one woman: Marlene Dietrich. Generally credited as being the first woman to bring the tuxedo jacket to prominence – a neat echo of our own era of celebrity-fixated fashion reportage – Dietrich created a sensation when she sported her tuxedos in private life as well as on-screen. These garments fitted like a man's suit because they were a man's suit. Later reports claimed they were constructed by the couture ateliers of Christian Dior, but throughout her career Dietrich only trusted Knize of Austria, tailors to half-a-dozen archdukes and a few more crowned heads, to make her masculine garb.
It was those evocative, endlessly glamorous images of Dietrich that, in turn, inspired Yves Saint Laurent three decades later: he created a wardrobe of trousers for women, but Le Smoking remained the apotheosis of his vision of modernity.
Indeed, contrasted against the grand gowns offered by other couturiers, Saint Laurent's evening Les Smokings look rigorously modern even today. As if to underline that point, for 1970 he sent out his bride in a veiled hat and Le Smoking in purest white wool; a year later, Bianca Jagger wed in almost the same model.
These seem tame to our contemporary eyes, accustomed to seeing women donning Les Smokings as chic evening attire, but Saint Laurent's Smokings emerged onto the haute couture catwalk at a time when women in trousers were still routinely refused entrance to fashionable restaurants. Couture client and lifelong Saint Laurent devotee Nan Kempner was turned away from New York's La Côte Basque in a Saint Laurent Smoking – she stripped off the trousers, wore the jacket as a dress, and just about passed muster. Likewise, when Dietrich visited Paris in 1932, the chief of police attempted to ban her from wearing trousers in public – elegant Les Smokings included.
Why were these garments considered so shocking? The idea that respectable women did not wear trousers was the convention, but perhaps more provocative still was the idea of Le Smoking as the first truly unisex garb. Saint Laurent stated that he loved Les Smokings because "They look equally chic on men and women". That sexual ambiguity was certainly part and parcel of the Dietrich image, famously bisexual on screen and in life. The late Helmut Newton once stated: "Le Smoking... [is] exactly the way I wished my ideal woman was dressed. It is the glorification of the sixteenth-arrondissement bourgeoisie woman with too much money, too much free time on her hands and up to all sorts of tricks."
He immortalised the Saint Laurent woman as just that in 1975, clad in Le Smoking, cigarette poised between fingers, hand effortlessly resting in trouser-pocket – Jean-Pierre Derbourd, former technical director of Yves Saint Laurent, once said that the arms on Les Smokings were specially fitted to this slouched pose. That mood of transgression still characterises Le Smoking today – it's a rebel, certainly, but more sophisticated than blue jeans and les blousons noir, less wanton than the mini-skirt and less obvious than the safety-pinned t-shirt. Le Smoking is perhaps the only form of rebellion in dress that has never fallen into self-parody. Perhaps that is because the tuxedo jacket is now a fashion perennial – indeed, it is so ubiquitous that its appearance barely qualifies as a "trend".
Le Smoking is the perfect combination of sensuality and rigour; a formula for sleek evening elegance – and it's a formula designers are loathe to fiddle with. Why fix something that isn't broken, after all?
The components of Le Smoking rarely change, designers rediscovering each season the double-breasted cut, the subtle black-on-black contrast of satin against grain de poudre and the continuing sexual frisson of dressing a woman in what is still considered a man's garment.
The idea of reinventing the wheel seems to be what keeps designers inspired – the rules of Le Smoking are made to be bent. Autumn/winter 2011 proved no exception: Haider Ackermann showed slouchy Smokings belted over sinuous satin evening-dresses, the revived house of Mugler spliced them with corsetry and latex, while at Yves Saint Laurent, the house that started it all, Stefano Pilati showed Le Smoking true, albeit inverted in colour, a nod to Bianca Jagger's wedding suit as part of an all-white finale. In that spirit, Nick Knight's SHOWstudio.com and SHOW studio Shop have challenged a selection of designers to create their own post-modern tuxedo jackets, showcasing idiosyncratic interpretations of the fashion classic from labels as diverse as Nicola Formichetti's Mugler, NEWGEN knit wizard Craig Lawrence and London's favourite caricature couturier Giles Deacon. These are part of an exhibition, Practice to Deceive: Smoke & Mirrors in Fashion, Fine Art and Film, staged in SHOWstudio's gallery space in Mayfair. But, as that name suggests, there's a twist – the designers will be creating their jackets live on camera, offering a window into each label's creation of these one-off pieces.
"This series is all about dispelling the myths and misconceptions of the fashion industry, the smoke and mirrors if you will," says gallery director and curator Carrie Scott, adding that each designer's wares will be on sale following the broadcasts. Returning to that idea of "iconic" fashion, could there be a finer investment than these one-off pieces? An alternative could be a slice of vintage Saint Laurent haute couture – original Les Smokings occasionally surface on eBay or through vintage clothing dealers such as London's Kerry Taylor, reflecting the subtle evolutions of this hardy fashion perennial through the decades. Shoulders narrow and widen, waists rise and fall, the style remains.
When it comes to Le Smoking, an icon of the 20th century that looks set to continue into the new millennium, it feels fitting that M. Saint Laurent should have the last word: "For a woman, Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever."
Alex Fury is fashion director of SHOW studio.com; 'Practice to Deceive' is on until 16 July, 1 – 9 Bruton Place, London W1