From LBD to the mini, several once-scandalous women’s garments have melded into the fashion industry seamlessly over the past decades. In a celebrated league of its own however, is ‘le smoking’, the first tuxedo for women, designed half a century ago by the iconic Yves Saint Laurent.
Of any androgynous fashion staple, it’s tough to imagine one that has gained as exalted a position on the runways (and everywhere else) as Le Smoking. Since its 1966 debut, Yves Saint Laurent’s epicene suit has been reinvented by just about every designer in the business, immortalized by Helmut Newton, and still remains a red carpet favourite of many. It is one of the most enduring and powerful fashion creations of the last century, and on its 50th anniversary, it continues to inspire one and all.
In a season of hi-luxe virile womenswear, there is only one celebrated piece that comes to mind: the tuxedo jacket, or to use its decidedly chicer French appellation “Le Smoking”. Introduced in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent presented a revolutionary tuxedo-style suit during a time when women wearing pants was frowned upon by all, the iconic style has now gained a cult status symbolising confidence and female sexual empowerment.
Born in 1936, Yves Saint Laurent lived his entire childhood in Oran, Algeria. At the age of 17, he travelled to Paris where his drawings were presented to Michel de Brunhoff, director of Vogue, who published several of them immediately. Following a stint at fashion school, Saint Laurent was introduced to Christian Dior by de Brunhoff and he went on to work with the legendary fashion house for several years to come.
After taking over as art director for Dior, Saint Laurent launched his first collection for the company, the Ligne Trapéze. It was a booming success and won him a Neiman Marcus Oscar. In 1960, he created his radical “Beat Look” collection which used couture techniques to polish street style fashion. However, his designs proved to be too bold for the house of Dior and a year later they lifted bars on his national service. In 1962, Saint Laurent set up his own fashion house, deftly continuing his reign in the couture world.
His most radical and celebrated couture collection was in Autumn Winter 1966-67 called “Pop Art”. It comprised of a jacket and trouser in black grain de poudre, the first with four button down pockets and the second cut straight, piped in satin, cuffed and worn short over Spanish heeled boots – for the first time in the history of haute couture a women came out in the catwalk wearing a smoking suit. Fast-forward 50 years, and it’s clear that what was unveiled that day at 5 Avenue Marceau, Paris was one of the most significant and powerful designs in 20th century fashion history. Fashion had witnessed a major event and French newspaper Le Monde congregated the suit as an emblem of the 60’s.
By appropriating male apparel and allowing women to wear it, Saint Laurent had effectively transferred attributes of power from one gender to another – at that instant he successfully crossed from the aesthetic domain to the social one. It pioneered long, minimalist, androgynous styles for women, as well as the use of power suits and the pantsuit in modern-day society. Le Smoking became a controversial statement of femininity – a sexuality that did not rely on ruffles or exposed skin, but instead lingered beneath the sleek silhouettes of a perfectly cut jacket and trouser.
There is an enigmatic fascination about a woman in the most masculine piece of clothing. Marlene Dietrich, with her love of on- and offscreen cross-dressing, embraced it. Offering a sophisticated new attitude, Le Smoking, with its sharply tailored, understated lines, became the pioneer to the power suit. Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Charlotte Rampling, Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway figured among the constellation of strong women contributing to its legendary magic.
Fashion photography further echoed the influence of this suit at the vanguard of feminine modernity and liberation, in shoots that featured androgynous models with slicked-back hair and mannish three-piece suits, a style that was first popularised in photographs by Helmut Newton.
It was Newton who elevated Le Smoking to its iconic status with his shot for French Vogue in 1975, taken in a dusky Parisian alleyway–Rue Aubriot–in pure elegant simplicity that became the epitome of panache. In a crisp white cravat, cigarette, entwined with a model dressed only in black stilettos in stark monochrome simplicity, Newton created a piece of iconography that to this day has never gone out of fashion.
The Saint Laurent women adapts to masculine silhouettes to highlight her femininity. As a result, the fashion house emphasised on couture as a social phenomenon that is aimed at the widest possible audience. It reflected life and not a fantasy world. So, dressing in a YSL trouser suit declared that the wearer was irreverent, daring and on the cutting of fashion, whilst suggesting their alliance with escalating feminist politics—it successfully demanded: “If men can wear this, why can’t I?”
Le Smoking remains as relevant today as it was in 1966. Reinterpreted again by current creative director Hedi Slimane, the Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket is sold in 10 variations, from the single-breasted classic through to the full coat. Saint Laurent himself attributed the enduring appeal and iconic status of Le Smoking to the fact it encapsulated an attitude or mode, rather than any particular details of the garment.
“For a woman, le smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever.” – Yves Saint Laurent