Danish model Vibeke Knudsen stands in a hazily lit Parisian alleyway, her hair slicked back almost like a boy’s; in one hand she dangles a cigarette, the other is tucked into the pocket of her mannish trousers, holding back the three-buttoned jacket to reveal a fluid white bow-tied shirt. Helmut Newton’s image of Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo suit from his 1966 Pop Art collection is immutable. It lives on in the memory of all who love fashion, and it did as much for “le smoking” as the suit itself. If anybody ever doubted the power of the tuxedo to project a woman’s smouldering sexuality, one look at that iconic photograph convinced them.
“With ‘le smoking’,” wrote one critic of the day, “Yves Saint Laurent has dropped ‘le bomb’.” “Le bomb” had explosive repercussions that reverberate to this day. It showed women everywhere that there were more interesting ways to explore their femininity than by wearing frills and ruffles or exposing acres of flesh. If Chanel gave women freedom by providing them with flowing, easy jersey pieces and a comfortable working wardrobe, it was Saint Laurent who gave them power. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s long-time companion and business partner, put it into words when he said that he liked “le smoking”, “because that was the moment when Yves empowered women”. It was a look Saint Laurent returned to time and time again, re-interpreting and refreshing it, creating it in velvets, silks, lace, cashmere and satin – though the original “le smoking”, it is rumoured, was always his personal favourite and the one to which he most often returned.
Of course, Saint Laurent wasn’t the first to be fascinated by the mysterious power of women playing around with the codes of men’s clothing – George Sand, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and many others had got there before him – but what Saint Laurent did was to refine it and remodel it for the new age that was just opening up. He showed the liberated women of the day, who were beginning to break down barriers in the workplace and in society, that here was a bolder, more sophisticated way to dress that was perhaps even more alluring than traditionally feminine furbelows. All the leading style icons of the day – Catherine Deneuve (“The thing about a tuxedo,” she memorably said, “is that it is virile and feminine at the same time”), Betty Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise, Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton – embraced the new look and in their time created images of their own that became almost as memorable. Who could ever forget Bianca Jagger on her wedding day in a low-buttoned white tuxedo jacket, looking sultrier and sexier than any bride dolled up in lace?
The great charm of the tuxedo is that it is never out of fashion. It is timeless and it always, always works. It can be worn at any age and it can be worn a million different ways. You can wear it with a white cravat, Yves Saint Laurent-style, or (like Betty Catroux and Bianca Jagger) with nothing underneath at all. You can soften it with some lace or chiffon, add pearls or some glitzy stones. Put a woman in a beautifully cut tuxedo next to one in a ballgown and she will not only hold her own in the glamour stakes, but win every time for grown-up sophistication. That’s why at this year’s red-carpet events more and more of the chic and knowing are turning to the tux instead of to floaty ballgowns. Designer Nicole Farhi, for instance, chose to wear a three-piece tuxedo suit of her own devising to this year’s Met Ball. It was made of white viscose linen with a silk lapel and a matching waistcoat. The buttons came from a flea market and were more like brooches, echoing Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous insect necklaces. She so loved wearing it and had so many compliments that she’s put one into her next spring/summer collection (which means, I’m afraid, that you’ll have to wait until early next year for it). Tilda Swinton wore a Haider Ackermann tux jacket (£1,483) to the Golden Globes, while Livia Firth wore a black Paul Smith tux suit (jacket £885, trousers £440) to the Baftas earlier this year and outclassed all the Hollywood stars in their girly gowns and dresses. When Pauline Smith and her husband Paul were invited to a dinner in Paris in 2005 in honour of Smoking Forever, an exhibition celebrating tuxedo style, she wore the very last couture tux made by the house of Yves Saint Laurent before Saint Laurent retired in 2002. And at Liberty and Selfridges almost anything with a tuxedo reference has been flying off the shelves.
Stella McCartney, one of the great exponents of the genre, loves the fact that a tuxedo is so timeless. “You can do so much with it,” she explains. “You can have several different conversations with the codes that make up the tuxedo. You can shift a button by 2cm, change the colour of the thread on a cuff, play with scale on the lapels, exaggerate the shoulders – deconstruct the elements.” Not, she warns, that it is easy. “There’s so much craft in a good tuxedo, but that’s what appeals to me – the search for that perfect simplicity.”
This season, many designers are taking another look at the tuxedo and redefining it. They’ve adopted the language and the references and reworked them to give us a whole new series of options. Many of them have only given us jackets, which is a timely reminder of the other charm of the tuxedo – both pieces can have happy and separate lives all their own. Some may remember that Saint Laurent famously teamed a tuxedo jacket with a pair of Bermuda shorts, thus showing us that we don’t have to reserve it only for evenings, and that it can be a source of fun as well as formality. A beautifully cut jacket can be worn with jeans and a crisp white shirt, over day or evening dresses (they tone down the girliness of a floral tea-dress brilliantly), while a fine pair of trousers is always a fine pair of trousers. The high-waisted ones look particularly feminine and sexy.
Apart from McCartney, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, Antonio Berardi, Alexander McQueen, Phillip Lim and Yves Saint Laurent all design great tuxedos. Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren nearly always have something tuxedo-related in their collections, too. According to Ruth Chapman of Matches, a great fan of tuxedos, Yves Saint Laurent is best for those looking for a more traditional tuxedo suit; this winter it is offering them in black (suits about £2,500). Alexander McQueen has created a super-sexy evening tux with a built-in peplum that gives a very flattering silhouette (£2,220), and in his resort collection he has a beautiful variation in deep aubergine, which Sarah Burton has reworked with just a bit more of a flare to the leg (£1,495). Rag & Bone has two beautifully cut jackets, one in black, one in silver (£445 each), while Céline (“the best option,” says Chapman, “for the laid-back cool girl about town”) has a suit that comes with dark green touches on both the waistband and the jacket pocket (£2,360). Stella McCartney (“she cuts just the best blazers,” says Chapman) has designed a very sexy jacket in black with brilliant blue lapels – the kind of jacket you’d want to last forever (£1,075). And one of the fashion world’s best-kept secrets is that many a chic woman (French actress Isabelle Huppert and film-maker Valérie Donzelli to name just two) buys her classic black tuxedos at Dior Homme, which has a line called Petite Taille, featuring jackets and trousers scaled down in size to suit the female form (£2,040 for a complete suit, only available from the Dior concession in Selfridges).
Since the charm of a tuxedo depends upon the play of masculinity versus femininity, and the suit itself takes the codes of masculine tailoring, the rest of the look should be quite feminine. Hair should be groomed, make-up polished. The suit itself can be worn – Bianca Jagger-style – with nothing but a bra underneath the jacket, or Yves Saint Laurent-style with a frilled or soft blouse tied at the back with a black velvet ribbon. A corset or a bustier would work, too, as would an embroidered or beaded cummerbund.
Carmen Busquets, the ineffably chic owner of CoutureLab, believes that those who have both the money and the time should go for a bespoke version in a wonderful fabric. In her opinion, Alexis Mabille’s are among the most beautifully crafted around (order through CoutureLab, from £7,000) although she admires London-based Edward Sexton, a men’s tailor who also makes suits for women (a two-piece suit is about £5,200; a three-piece about £5,900). “The perfect tuxedo should be classic and masculine in structure and fabric, but tailored to fit the curves of the body perfectly,” she says. “It has to look as good from the front as it does from the back. Also, if you intend to wear jewellery with it, the sleeves shouldn’t be too long. I’m very excited to see what Hedi Slimane is going to do – I loved the suits he did for men at Dior and so can’t wait to see the ones at YSL.
“I wear mine with either white or black fitted shirts, but not done up all the way, and I might wear a long diamond necklace to cover the décolletage – very 1970s,” she says. “Or with the jacket done up and an amazing lingerie body underneath that just peeks out. If I want to make it more feminine I wear it with silk camisoles with amazing lace, which I buy at Nina Ricci (from £296) or L’Wren Scott (from £345, both at CoutureLab), or Sabbia Rosa in Paris (from £700). If I want it to look very 1950s, I wear a corset in silk satin made from Mr Pearl, or others that I have from Jean Paul Gaultier. A spectacular brooch – either contemporary or vintage – always looks wonderful on the collar. And never economise on the dry cleaning or iron the material directly – so many tuxedos get ruined that way.”
Claudia Crow, a director of Talk PR, has also always loved a tux. “If I had to pack one outfit only it would be my tux. You can dress it down with a T-shirt and Converse trainers or dress it up with a drape-front silk shirt and heels.” Crow has an old Donna Karan version that has a short jacket with a shawl collar, and slim-leg trousers with a black silk stripe down the leg. She will wear the jacket separately with a pair of jeans and a crisp pleat-front shirt (she finds great ones in Cos, around £59), or the trousers with a knit and correspondent shoes in cream canvas with black toe-caps (£175 from Toast).
As a general rule, for glamour, tuxedos need high heels or an elegant pump with a bit of flesh showing – a clumpy, closed-in shoe is too heavy. For a more relaxed look, ballet pumps work well. And finally, it’s worth remembering Saint Laurent’s own words on the subject, which help explain his perpetual fascination with the tux:
“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.”