Fashion

Understanding the Impact of Le Smoking

So how did Le Smoking turn from a laughing-stock to a museum exhibit? Read on to learn more.

In 1966, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent debuted the “Le Smoking” suit, the centerpiece of his fall-winter women’s collection. It was, in every practical sense, a man’s tuxedo. Saint Laurent designed Le Smoking for the female silhouette — with its narrow waistline and a slight curve at the rear waist — but it was still a man’s tuxedo. 

So, naturally, people hated it. 

Men wore suits. Women wore frilly dresses. That was the perception back then. So the reaction to Le Smoking was understandably salty.

Sixty years later, and Le Smoking is a cultural icon. Find it in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. After Levi’s 501 jeans, it could be the most significant garment of the late 20th century. 

So how did Le Smoking turn from a laughing-stock to a museum exhibit? Read on to learn more. 

The Early Years

To understand the initial reaction to Le Smoking, we need to consider the cultural context of the time. It was the late ’60s, the Cold War was still hot, and there were no human footprints on the moon. Gender roles remained unaltered from the ’20s, with women expected to be secretaries, teachers, or “happy” homemakers. Society still considered unmarried women “spinsters.”

But, in the background, something was brewing. A social and sexual revolution was on the horizon, and with it came a wave of change — a true cultural shift. Within a few short years came Woodstock, then Sgt. Pepper, and then the miniskirt — Mary Quant’s mid-thigh-long skirt that symbolized the feminist revolution of the late ’60s.

By the end of the decade, female fashion had become more progressive, especially in large urban centers. It certainly became more casual, with plaid shirts, slacks, and skirts replacing the full-skirted ankle-length dresses of the ’50s. But some people still struggled with the notion of androgyny. Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking blended masculine and feminine physical characteristics and created a non-binary gender identity, making people uncomfortable. 

It would take another few years for society to embrace the women’s tuxedo. 

An Iconic Style

In the ’70s, movie stars changed collective perceptions of Le Smoking and, eventually, the garment became a fashion must-have for many women. Catherine Deneuve wore one. Then Lauren Bacall. Bianca Jagger wore a cream version for her wedding to Mick Jagger. She later said: “This was a radical change for professional women, who could wear a practical suit which also looked elegant.”

Le Smoking borrowed its name and design from the smoking rooms of the 19th century, where men would retreat after dinner parties, leaving their wives at the table. These men wore smoking jackets with silk lapels that stopped cigar ash from dirtying the garment. Another influence was Niki de Saint Phalle, a French artist who wore a trouser suit with heels in the ’50s. Of course, women wore suits decades, perhaps even centuries, before this. One of the most famous examples is actress Sarah Bernhardt who wore a tuxedo in public in 1870.

Final Word

Le Smoking, which blends the masculine and feminine, remains a popular style choice for women worldwide. The tuxedo is synonymous with ’60s fashion, but it also has a timeless quality that serves a contemporary aesthetic. It took a while for some people to accommodate Le Smoking, but now this garment will never go out of fashion.

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