The game-changing photographs taken at rue Aubriot, the street in which Helmut Newton hade been living for fourteen years and where he took them, as he said, like a paparazzi, without adding any more light than was already present
THE TUXEDO AS A SYMBOL
There is an anecdote, I’m not sure whether apocryphal or not, that I love. It seems that once during dinner, a designer told Karl Lagerfeld: “In our world, the world of art…” And the Kaiser answered: “Oh, you no longer design dresses?” I, like him, don’t consider fashion as art. I don’t think anybody’s life, or the way in which they see the world, could have been changed by a fashion show, and neither has it made them know themselves any better. Fashion, I believe, is a minor art form. You can take pleasure in the work of a designer, of course, but in the same way you enjoy a visit to the Museum of Arts and Crafts. This said, it’s true that there have been particular times in which fashion has gotten closer to art: when it has established exceptional alliances with the female liberation movement and has had real social transcendence; years in which a simple mini skirt or a two-piece suit could become a political statement. To this category belongs Yves Saint Laurent’s “le smoking”, or female tuxedo suit.
In his fascinating biopic about French designer Saint Laurent, cold and beautiful as a haute couture model, Bertrand Bonello brings to life in a street night scene with a fixed shot the legendary photograph with no flash that Helmut Newton shot for Vogue Paris: Danish model Vibeke Knudsen (all aloofness, dandyism and self-confidence) sports le smoking close to another model that is completely naked in an alley of the Parisian Marais neighbourhood. An iconic image that in 1975 consolidated the female version of the tuxedo as a cultural landmark. However, when this garment saw the light of day, nine years before the photograph, its reception was somewhat unenthusiastic. The press and the clients frowned before Saint Laurent’s new stylistic pirouette.
It goes without saying that 1966 wasn’t the first time in which a woman dressed as a man, with trousers and blazer. In 1930, Marlene Dietrich wore them during a music number in Morocco, one of Josef Von Sternberg’s baroque movies. Even before that, at the end of the 19th century, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt dared wearing trousers on the stage, causing a small scandal. Coco Chanel, likewise, was one of the pioneers of the androgynous look with her sailor trousers, wearing them herself first and then having all the admirers of her style wearing them too (Katharine Hepburn or Greta Garbo, among them).
Androgyny was fashionable in the roaring twenties, when World War I and the Spanish flu considerably lessened the world’s population. The proportion of women in relation to men was three for each one. Many girls knew they would never find a man, so why not do what they did instead? Work, drink, fuck with no strings attached… Bachelor girls, as these pioneers of female liberation were named, bandaged their breasts, cut their hair garçon style and concealed their hips with straight cut dresses. All the garçonnes were high class; only they could afford this kind of rebelliousness. In their case, adopting a male look was a kind of protest, and some of them were even banned from public places. Soon afterwards, in Hollywood, Greta Garbo and Dietrich did the same and started sporting trousers as part of their daily looks.
The impact of the androgynous look, thus, was for a long time a privilege of the wealthy classes. The real revolution started in 1961, when the first contraceptive pill was distributed. A new era began in which all women, no matter what social class they belonged to, could for the first time decide about maternity. At the same time, in the work place, some of the glass ceilings started to crack. So the general impression was that women in the sixties started depending less on men and started to rule their own lives.
This was the social milieu inhabited by the selected people filling up number 5 avenue Marceau when Saint Laurent premiered le smoking in 1966, within his Pop art collection. At first it was considered a provocation, but only at first. For a fashion designer to transcend, it isn’t enough to be talented. He or she also needs to impose his own vision to the needs of the times, so much so that the trends that would have been considered outrageous some years before, suddenly became a necessity. The designer creates the necessity, but this needs to be a reflection of the unconscious desires of the times.
In 1966, young people started being the main protagonists of a social revolution that was hinted at for years, and gender differences in youth fashion started to become more and more diffuse. Boys and girls grew their hair, wore t-shirts, necklaces and jeans. Likewise, the feminist progresses questioned the idea that the goal in life for a woman was to become a wife and a mother. And the female tuxedo was the perfect portrait of the zeitgeist. It talked, from the haute couture, about a new female role model, of a more powerful woman. More than a garment, le smoking was a symbol.
The first reviews were horrible, but some of the celebrities of the times didn’t care. Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Lauren Bacall, all faithful followers of the designer, started wearing it. Saint Laurent kept on re-interpreting the tuxedo all throughout his career and women adopted it as a weapon of the feminist struggle. Diane Keaton, Madonna, Tilda Swinton, Angelina Jolie, Cara Delevingne… They have all worn it at some point or another. A special mention goes to Patti Smith, who chose it for the cover of her revolutionary album Horses in another mythical photography, dated 1975 as well, but this time taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Fifty years after an uprising that originated in elegance, the tuxedo is still one of the freest garments of the female wardrobe. Devoid of its political message, it’s now an example of elegance and sensuality. As the great Yves said himself: “Le smoking has to do with style, not fashion. Fashion comes and goes, but style is forever”.
Although Greg Kot said that this look was a mixture between “Baudelaire and Sinatra” and Camille Paglia celebrated it as “one of the greatest pictures ever taken of a woman”, Patti Smith downplayed the icon by saying that “it wasn’t a declaration of principles, just the way in which I used to dress”