Style's strong suit: A womenswear classic

The male tuxedo is a womenswear classic that is both smart and seductively louche. Now 'Le Smoking' is ripe for yet another reinvention, says Alex Fury

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

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?