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

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own