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

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
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

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015