Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in Orin, Algeria in 1936 to French parents. He became a fan of fashion early on through reading his mother’s fashion magazines. When he was 13, seeing a performance of Molière’s École des femmes (School for Wives) starring Louis Jouvet inspired him to begin sketching and making costumes. In the years following, in order to showcase his designs, Saint Laurent created his very own Illustre Petit Théâtre, a miniature stage set with paper dolls. These two-dimensional models came to life wearing hundreds of outfits that Saint Laurent both sketched himself and pieced together using his mother’s fashion magazines, plus secretly cut pieces of her clothing. By 1955, teenage Saint Laurent had created 11 dolls with 443 outfits and 105 accessories. Through these paper doll outfits, we begin to see the seedlings of the future Saint Laurent designs that would change fashion forever, including Le Smoking.
Though Yves Saint Laurent primarily designed dresses during his time at Dior and after starting his own fashion house in 1961, his 1966 Autumn/Winter “Pop Art” collection contained one standalone look that would revolutionize women’s wear forever. Dubbed “Le Smoking”, (because the word smoking in French quite literally translates to tuxedo), this sleek outfit was groundbreaking since no designer had ever presented pants as evening wear before. Le Smoking was unapologetically androgynous and blurred the gender lines in a manner that was entirely unheard of in haute couture. The look consisted of a black wool jacket with prominent front flap pockets and a silk-satin lapel, a ruffled organza jabot blouse, and slacks with a satin side-stripe, accessorized with a black floppy bow and cummerbund. This take on a men’s tuxedo reframed sexuality because its sleek and flattering cut allowed women to look and feel attractive and powerful without showing skin or wearing figure-hugging dresses. Le Smoking truly embodied the effortless, elegant, sophisticated chicness that French fashion is so famous for.
Yves Saint Laurent recalled that one part of his inspiration for Le Smoking had come from seeing images of Marlene Dietrich wearing men’s clothing in the 1930’s. He noted “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.”
Saint Laurent also drew significant inspiration for this Le Smoking from his friend and muse, model Danielle Luquet de Saint Germaine whom he met in the early 1960’s. Luquet recalled “One morning I arrived at the same time as Yves, dressed in a pair of pants and a men’s trench. After the presentation, he asked me if I could leave him my clothes for inspiration.” Saint Laurent later recalled that to him, Luquet represented the body and gestures of typical modern women and that she helped him to move past outdated references. Luquet would also inspire Saint Laurent’s first see-through blouse and the iconic la saharienne.
Le Smoking debuted just as the sexual revolution was taking off and women were beginning to express their newfound freedom with fashion. Despite this, many people still found the idea of women wearing a tuxedo as evening wear shocking and scandalous. Le Smoking was far ahead of its time. Even Saint Laurent’s couture clients rejected the look at first and only one was sold. On the contrary, the ready-to-wear, lower-priced, SAINT LAURENT Rive Gauche version of Le Smoking began selling like crazy to his younger clientele. Saint Laurent once said that his aim was “not just to make women more beautiful, but to reassure them and give them confidence.” It was clear that this daring design was succeeding in doing just that.
Though more women were adopting Yves Saint Laurent’s empowering outfit into their wardrobes, some faced backlash when wearing them in public. The gender confusion the look created made many people uncomfortable. French pop singer Françoise Hardy caused a stir when she wore her Le Smoking in the 1966 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on a float promoting her upcoming film Grand Prix, and was loudly heckled when wearing it to the Paris Opera.
The most legendary story regarding Le Smoking backlash happened in 1968 when socialite Nan Kempner was told by the maître d’ at La Côte Basque in Manhattan that she could not enter because her trousers violated the dress code. In response, she dropped her pants and proceeded to dine wearing just her long jacket as a mini-dress to prove their dress code was nonsensical. When Kempner passed away in 2005, Saint Laurent told New York Magazine, “Nan exemplified the true spirit of a modern woman.” Model Danielle Luquet de Saint Germaine had a similar issue, and recalled “The summer Saint Laurent created the tuxedo, I borrowed it for an evening to wear at the Casino of Deauville, but I was refused entry.”
Free-spirited women like Kempner and Hardy were attracted to Le Smoking because it exemplified their personalities. For other women, donning the look must have been an act of rebellion, freeing them from feminine codes of behavior. This kind of power dressing allowed women to look and feel sexy while leaving behind the objectification that came along with wearing a sexy dress. It made a statement that women could be equal to men in more ways than just wearing a suit.
By the time Saint Laurent unveiled his Spring/Summer collection in Feb. 1967, he had fully embraced the popularity of the Le Smoking aesthetic. This collection marked the release of his first pantsuit and also featured an updated Smoking design with a snug cropped dinner jacket touting a shawl collar and open neckline to reveal more of the ruffled blouse.
After the show, Women’s Wear Daily published a review stating “American women are going to want to burn all the clothes they have when they see this … Saint Laurent’s new Vastsuits in men’s wear fabrics are the sensation of the Paris season … What a show—it could have come right off Broadway.”
During the 1970’s Le Smoking saw a huge increase in popularity. In 1971 a Smoking jacket was worn by Bianca Jagger Perez-Mora Macias for her wedding to Mick Jagger. Numerous other celebrities including Liza Minelli, LouLou de la Falaise, and Lauren Bacall were known for wearing the look. There’s no doubt that without Le Smoking, we would not have had the power dressing trend that dominated the second half of the 1970’s through the 1980’s. This important movement was driven by the desire of women to feel both feminine and powerful in professional situations typically dominated by men.
Le Smoking was truly immortalized in 1975 when Helmut Newton captured its gender-freeing essence in a photo shoot for French Vogue, taken on the narrow street outside his Paris apartment. Here he juxtaposed the androgyny of Le Smoking with the femininity and eroticism of the naked female body. These photos made Le Smoking even more iconic, and their style would be emulated by fashion photographers for years to come.
The era that produced Le Smoking can never be recaptured, but its energy, exploration, and curiosity still ooze from the elegant lines of this iconic tuxedo, making us feel a hint of nostalgia. Its impact is so enduring that nearly every major modern designer has created their own version inspired by it. Yves Saint Laurent was keenly aware of the importance of Le Smoking. He included his own reinvented takes on the original in his collections every year until he retired in 2002. When asked about the success of Le Smoking several years later, Jean-Pierre Derbourd (former technical director at Yves Saint Laurent) noted that a special technique was used to help the garment achieve its distinct shape. “We never pinned sleeves according to an arm hanging down, but on to a bent arm, hand on hip.” Saint Laurent’s final creation at his couture house was to make an exact replica of the suit that had come to define his legacy.
Today, nearly 60 years after its creation, Le Smoking remains an empowering, edgy, and symbolic choice of fashion that is frequently worn by models and celebrities. Saint Laurent’s current creative director Anthony Vaccarello has made it a point to continually push the boundaries of Le Smoking in some of his new collections while honoring the elements that made it iconic. This revolutionary outfit changed the trajectory of women’s fashion forever more, and given its legacy and constant evolution, Le Smoking’s appeal will never be relinquished.