Vive <i>le smoking</i>: how YSL invented the female tuxedo

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This show is devoted not to the designer's nicotine habit but to le smoking, the French for tuxedo, and one of the designs that Yves Saint Laurent did best - for both sexes.

Derived from the original English term "smoking suit" - a suit intended for indoor use - it was originally a term for menswear. But, with his Spring/Summer Haute Couture collection of 1966, the French designer turned the fashion world on its head. His legendary smoking redefined the female silhouette and created a new wardrobe staple for generations to come.

"Yves Saint Laurent transformed woman into a queen who, in her smoking, dares to check the king," explained the show's organisers.

Helmut Newton's 1978 photograph of Catherine Deneuve and Yves Saint Laurent himself captures the attitude of the exhibition, with the young designer gripping the lapels of his jacket and the actress looking outwards with a steely gaze. All at once, France's most feminine starlet has become predatory, androgynous, and irresistibly elegant. Deneuve is quoted as remarking that her smoking, first worn in the early 1980s, "really does make you feel different as a woman, it changes the gestures".

Newton's iconic image provides a striking backdrop to the first roomful of the silhouettes, set against black walls and placed on a chessboard floor.

Yves Saint Laurent's androgynous creations changed the way women saw themselves. As Jean-Pierre Derbourd, the former technical director of Yves Saint Laurent's couture house, explained: "We never pinned sleeves according to an arm hanging down, but on to a bent arm, hand on hip."

This gesture of power goes hand in hand with the smoking. Playing his own part in the sexual revolution, Yves Saint Laurent emancipated women with his clothes.

Though the designer established himself as a couturier under the ultra-feminine New Look, his love-affair with the dinner jacket seems to have been inspired more by the label's arch-rival, Coco Chanel. Chanel gave women freedom, seems to be the message of the exhibition, but Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.