When designer Yves Saint Laurent introduced his first version of le smoking—a black tuxedo for women—during a presentation of his couture collection on this day in 1966, the outfit didn’t have fashion editors falling out of their chairs. That came later. On that afternoon at 5 Avenue Marceau 44 years ago, the only jackets that caused a bit of swooning were “thin-girl” fur coats, which fit snugly over plaid shirts and pants, and a reshaped version of his tailored pea coat. A group of Pop Art–inspired dresses featuring imagery from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein paintings drew a few giggles. But none of the major magazines rushed to feature le smoking in future editorials and buyers weren’t tripping over each other to order copies for their stores. Gloria Emerson of the New York Times, perhaps cranky after several days of Paris shows, called the collection “outdated” and “lumpy,” and suggested the designer “strains too hard to convince the world he is hand-and-hand and eye-to-eye with the very young.” But for Saint Laurent, the collection was a turning point. With the introduction of le smoking, he’d uncovered his definitive muse: the liberated, unfettered, independent woman. The critics that day were oh, so wrong. The tuxedo would be included in Saint Laurent collections for the next 30 years and literally revolutionized the way women dressed forever on.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that throughout the Sixties, a woman wearing pants outside of her home was considered gauche, if not scandalous. Even into the 1970s, very few “good” restaurants or hotels allowed entrance to a woman in pants, and it is certain she would be turned away from any formal event in them. (Le Côte Basque in Manhattan famously turned away Saint Laurent devotee Nan Kempner in le smoking; she stripped off the pants right there and marched into the restaurant wearing only the jacket, re-appropriated as an ultra-short minidress. Undeterred, in 1969 Le Côte’s manager affirmed, “Pants…do not belong in a restaurant any more than swimming suits. …We will continue our policy.”) Saint Laurent himself admitted two years later—when his tuxedo was already considered a revolution—that nobody understood the idea when he introduced it in his fall/winter 1966 couture collection. But when he brought it out in ready-to-wear just weeks after its first showing, le smoking was a success. “It was a good experience for me,” Saint Laurent later told a reporter in his hesitant English. “I saw the spirit of the people who bought ready-to-wear is more adapted to the life of today, more receptive to change.” And they were. Saint Laurent’s strength—he had many of them—was exactly what Emerson accused him of: He recognized the power and the beauty of the youth revolution, and created clothing that reflected that. Pants, he understood, were the direction of womenswear. He had already created pantsuits for daytime; le smoking broke the last barrier: women in trousers—just like men wore—for evenings.
“I thought the smoking was more modern than an evening gown. It played with a certain ambiguity,” Saint Laurent reflected to WWD decades later at “Still Smoking,” an exhibition of 40 years of his iconic jacket. “What I would have loved to have done with the jean, I achieved with the smoking suit. That’s to say, I created something that looked equally chic on men and women.”
On that day 44 years ago in Paris, the first le smoking—which is simply the French pronunciation of the British term for a tuxedo—came in black wool or velvet. It paired with a ruffled white shirt, a big black bow at the neck, and a wide cummerbund of satin with satin stripes down rather wide pants. It was said to have been influenced by the style of artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, who often wore men’s suits with heels, as Greta Garbo had done 30 years earlier. After that first collection, the smoking became a recurring theme for Saint Laurent, with many evolutions and styles, sometimes paired with skirts and shorts or shaped into a full dress. No matter what the interpretation, the androgynous style resonated with women. “It’s one of the things I did best,” Saint Laurent told WWD. “Because it was always a success and I never had difficulty getting a smoking right.”
Today the style is still perfectly chic. Alexa Chung, who would have served as a muse to Saint Laurent had she been born 30 years earlier, frequently appropriates her own versions of le smoking. Like a little black dress, it is a style that is never out of style. In fact, there’s a often-repeated quote from Saint Laurent that serves as the last word in his most timeless contribution to fashion: “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.” —Ali Basye
Photo credits: Top left: Helmut Newton’s iconic 1975 image, “Le Smoking,” perfectly captured the spirit of Saint Laurent’s tuxedo for women. Bottom right: The very first le smoking: Foundation Pierre Bergé / Yves Saint Laurent