THE HISTORY OF THE HERO: YVES SAINT LAURENT’S LE SMOKING
The iconic tuxedo debuted almost 60 years ago.
This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com
“Fashions fade, style is eternal.” You’re probably familiar with this Yves Saint Laurent quote, but did you know that the French designer was talking about Le Smoking, the tuxedo suit he designed for women?
“For a woman, the tuxedo is an indispensable garment in which she will always feel in style,” said Saint Laurent. Considering Le Smoking is nearly 60 years old and something of a legend (to put it lightly), it seems he was right.
Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic suit wasn’t officially debuted until 1966, but the seeds for the idea were being sown many years earlier. Inspired by a performance of Molière’s ‘School for Wives’, a 13-year-old Yves created his very own Illustre Petit Théâtre – a miniature, hand-painted stage set complete with 11 paper dolls. There was even a fictional fashion house called ‘Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent Haute Couture Place Vendôme’, featuring clothes and accessories sketched and assembled by Yves – some of which included fabric that had been secretly snipped from his mother’s clothes.
By 1955, Saint Laurent’s paper dolls had a wardrobe of 443 tiny outfits – including early iterations of what would become known as Le Smoking – and the young designer was living in Paris and working for Christian Dior. It was under the couturier’s tutelage that Saint Laurent learned the secrets of haute couture, going on to become head designer at the iconic house after Dior’s death.
Saint Laurent’s paper fashion house had been prophetic, because in 1961 the designer launched his namesake brand and just five years later, he realised one of his miniature designs in life-sized form. Le Smoking – a suit for women – was launched as part of Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 ‘Pop Art’ collection. Its name, which roughly translates to ‘tuxedo’ in French, pays homage to the precursor to modern black tie – the silk-lapelled smoking jacket, designed to protect men’s clothes from ash in the late 1800s. YSL’s Le Smoking was inspired by a men’s tuxedo, but cut with a sleeker collar and a gently tapered waist.
“A woman wearing a suit is anything but masculine,” said Saint Laurent. “A strict, clean cut accentuates her femininity, her seductiveness, her ambiguity.”
Like so many of our History of the Hero subjects, Le Smoking’s origin story isn’t clear. Some say YSL was influenced by the androgynous style of model Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain – his longtime muse. Others assert that he was inspired by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose personal uniform consisted of a man’s dress suit with heels. We also have Marlene Dietrich to thank, at least in part, for the creation of Le Smoking.
“I was deeply struck by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich wearing men's clothes,” the designer said. “A tuxedo, a blazer or a naval officer’s uniform – a woman dressed as a man must be at the height of femininity to fight against a costume that isn’t hers.”
Le Smoking was radical, not least because it was unheard of for women to wear trousers as eveningwear, and the designer’s couture clientele were far from impressed. But YSL wasn’t easily defeated. Two months later, in September 1966, he opened a ready-to-wear boutique on Paris’s Left Bank and unveiled his more affordable – and aptly named – Rive Gauche line, which included a lower-priced version of Le Smoking. It was an instant hit amongst the label’s younger, more forward-thinking customers.
That’s not to say Le Smoking was immediately accepted by society at large, which was not helped by the fact there was a French law in place forbidding women from wearing trousers (surprisingly only overturned in 2013). When Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain borrowed Le Smoking in the summer of 1966 – mere weeks after it was released – the model was refused entry to a well-known casino in Normandy. Meanwhile, Françoise Hardy was heckled when she wore the suit to the Paris Opera.
“People screamed and hollered,” Yves Saint Laurent told WWD in 2005. “It was an outrage.”
The reaction simply emboldened YSL’s Smoking-wearing women. In 1968, when socialite Nan Kemper was stopped from entering Manhattan’s La Côte Basque, she chose to dine trouser-less, styling her jacket as a mini dress.
By the 1970s, thanks to YSL and the women who championed the designer’s groundbreaking creation (Betty Catroux, LouLou de la Falaise, Lauren Bacall, et al), trouser suits were par for the course. Le Smoking was, as Saint Laurent asserted, “the very symbol of the modern woman.”
“This was a radical change for professional women, who could wear a practical suit which also looked elegant,” wrote the designer’s friend and longtime muse Bianca Jagger, speaking of the legacy of Le Smoking in her obituary for YSL in The Guardian. Jagger was no stranger to breaking sartorial codes herself; she eschewed a traditional wedding dress for a white YSL smoking jacket and coordinating skirt for her 1971 wedding to Rolling Stone, Mick.
Le Smoking was most famously immortalised in a series of photographs by Helmut Newton for a 1975 issue of French Vogue, cementing the suit’s place in popular culture. The photos depict a woman wearing a pinstriped Le Smoking, a pussybow blouse and a pair of heels, cigarette in hand. It’s a powerful, arresting image – and one that captures the defiance of Le Smoking and all that dared to wear it.
The outfit in Newton’s iconic photos wouldn’t look out of place in 2023, and certainly, look #1 in Saint Laurent’s Autumn/Winter ‘23 show – a pinstriped jacket in the house’s signature grain de poudre fabric – seems to pay homage, albeit in exaggerated form. From Tom Ford to current Creative Director Anthony Vaccarello, each of YSL’s successors has reimagined Le Smoking, and even in its most faithful re-iterations, it doesn’t seem to date. After all, fashions fade, style is eternal.