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Le Smoking, the symbol of confidence and female empowerment

Le Smoking, the symbol of confidence and female empowerment

French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent changed forever women’s fashion when he introduced his iconic Le Smoking tuxedo, inspired by Marlene Dietrich.

YSL Le Smoking - Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain
Tuxedo dress worn by Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain. Spring-summer 1967 haute couture collection. Photograph by Gérard Pataa. © Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, known as Yves Saint-Laurent or YSL was a French foremost fashion designer and the founder of the eponymous fashion label YSL.

In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced the Le Smoking tuxedo suit designed for women. He combined elements from both men’s suits and women’s clothing and infused them with new ideas. As a result, the Le Smoking tuxedo was the first of its kind and earned attention in the fashion world and  popular culture.

While the other iconic French designer, Coco Chanel already designed loose trousers for women in the early 20th century, Yves Saint Laurent was the first high profile couturier to promote women’s trousers for high fashion black-tie event wear.

“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,” – said famously, Saint Laurent.

Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by  a photograph of the German-born American actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich from 1933. 

Marlene Dietrich and her Rolls Royce Phantom
Marlene Dietrich and her Rolls Royce Phantom I Convertible Sedan

In the image of Marlene Dietrich, she dressed in a tailored suit with one leg hoisted atop the running board of a 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom I Convertible Sedan that was given to the screen goddess by her Paramount studio bosses.

“I was deeply struck by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich wearing men’s clothes,” – said Saint Laurent. – “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 is not hers.” 

We should never forget that back in 1933, trousers were not accepted as a fashion item for women. Seeing Marlene Dietrich in her role as cabaret singer Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in the movie called Morocco (1930), was a scandalous bold move for some. But Marlene Dietrich was all about pushing boundaries.

Yves Saint Laurent’s visionary, yet timeless fashion Le Smoking tuxedo, debuted in his Autumn-Winter 1966 haute couture collection. This garment was originally reserved only for men and was meant to be worn in a smoking room to protect one’s clothing from the smell of cigars. 

Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo, however, was designed for females and it was very different from the normal male tuxedo. The waistline of the blouse was narrowed, adapted to the female body to show the body shape, and the pants were adjusted to help elongate the leg. Also, the collar was more feminine, as the shape and curve were more subtle.

YSL Le Smoking - Ulla Caremby
First tuxedo worn by Ulla Caremby. Autumn-winter 1966 haute couture collection. Photograph by Gérard Pataa. © Yves Saint Laurent

The first reactions were far from positive, dividing fashion critics. For example, influential New York Times critic Gloria Emerson deemed the collection “lumpy” and “outdated.” It was Yves Saint Laurent’s great task to revolutionize women’s fashion by popularizing the Le Smoking.

He once invited the French pop star Françoise Hardy to the Paris Opera dressed in one of his Le Smoking tuxedo. “People screamed and hollered. It was an outrage,” – recalled the experience later Yves Saint Laurent.

However, shortly after Yves Saint Laurent’s smoking made its first appearance in an haute couture collection, it started a revolution as a man’s article of clothing  became the symbol of female emancipation and power dressing. It was also famously seen through the lens of Helmut Newton in 1975.

Undoubtedly, he helped millions of women to find their confidence by looking both comfortable and elegant at the same time. Yves Saint Laurent was seen by many as having empowered women by giving them the option to wear clothes that were normally worn by men with influence and power.

YSL Le Smoking - Audrey Marnay
Tuxedo worn by Audrey Marnay for the last fashion show. Centre Pompidou, Paris, January 22, 2002. Photograph by Guy Marineau. © Yves Saint Laurent

Yet, the road was not easy. Most of the hotels and restaurants refused to serve female guests who wore  trousers, it was simply prohibited back then. Even the favourite New York City socialite, Nan Kempner was turned away from Le Côte Basque in New York while wearing her Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo suit. To protest this decision and also to mock the outdated dress code, she simply removed the bottom half of the tuxedo and waltzed into the restaurant wearing only the jacket as a thigh-skimming mini dress instead.

The Le Smoking quickly became the uniform of liberated women. Liza Minnelli, Diane Keaton, Bianca Jagger, Faye Dunaway, Charlotte Rampling, Lauren Bacall, were just a few among the strong women who contributed to this fashion legacy.

The iconic suit that offers a sophisticated new attitude with its sharply tailored, minimalist lines, continues to create a strong statement. The ever-lasting influence of Yves Saint Laurent’s classic designs is proven by the fact that even nowadays, everyone from Kim Kardashian, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Moss, Anne Hathaway, Ellen Page, Emma Watson, Hillary Clinton to former French justice minister Rachida Dati wears them  proudly. Even Hollywood star Angelina Jolie hit the red carpet at BAFTA in a slim-cut Yves Saint Laurent smoking, looking archly feminine next to her ex-partner Brad Pitt.

Le Smoking became such an icon — paving also the way to gender differentiation in fashion — that the brand ensured that some manifestation of it was included in every subsequent fashion collection. Yves Saint Laurent himself designed over 200 variations of Le Smoking in each of his collections until he retired in 2002. When he was  asked, it was still the original 1966 Le Smoking that remained his personal favourite.

The Le Smoking was just one of the many iconic, original looks pioneered by Yves Saint Laurent. In the same year, in 1966, he debuted the see-through blouse, featuring a risqué transparent fabric that revealed the model’s breasts to celebrate sexual freedom. The 1967’s collection revealed the deep influence of African art on his Haute Peasant creations. A year later he introduced the Safari Jacket. 

Yves Saint Laurent was credited as one of those who helped French fashion couture’s rise in the 1960s from its  ashes, and his works have continued to influence fashion designers’ collections ever since then.