Victoria Beckham, recently spied in a sleek, black tuxedo suit en route to her Christmas party, effortlessly demonstrates the enduring appeal of a woman in a man’s evening suit. Beckham was knowingly referencing a rich fashion legacy with her sophisticated, own-brand tuxedo suit: recalling Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking and iconoclasts including Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Madonna and Marlene Dietrich who have all sported an androgynous tuxedo suit and disdained conventional glamour.
More recently, stars including Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, and Lady Gaga have attended red carpet events in streamlined trouser suits demonstrating how a precisely tailored silhouette in grain de poudre, wool crepe or satin is not only chic and subtly glamorous but also innately classic and defiantly modern. Hence the popularity of the tux as a trend this Christmas: there are iterations aplenty to choose from including accessibly priced versions from, Zara, H&M and Topshop while designers re-tailoring the tux include Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Joseph and The Row.
In recent years, contemporary champions of androgyny, such as Tilda Swinton, Stella Tennant and Emanuelle Alt (editor of French Vogue), have popularised boy/girl style and revived the suit as a serious fashion force. As party season launches, the tux is the perfect evolution to reflect this tomboy trend and one of the most attractive, yet seditious garments a modern woman can choose to wear. It can be styled in multiple ways – with a lace camisole, a crisp evening shirt or a silk blouse but looks best with sleeves pushed up, a sleek clutch and simple make-up and hair.
Subverting gender roles isn’t simple – women appropriating men’s clothing have often been condemned: 2,000 years ago, St Paul said that women in male dress were an abomination. Two millennia later, androgyny was still so contentious that Gloria Steinem observed: “nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.”
Androgyny as a fashion trend first manifested in the 1920s but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that trousers for women became both popularly acceptable and fashionable, courtesy of YSL’s Le Smoking, debuted in 1966. Saint Laurent injected both sex and subversion into the tuxedo when he created his feminised trouser suit, said to be inspired by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
Here was a new creature, a sexually adventurous and provocative woman who pushed at the boundaries of femininity and propriety. She was strong, sexually adventurous (courtesy of the pill) and financially independent (thanks to her career), and conferred trousers with a thrilling subversive allure. Women loved it for its challenging agenda as well as its streamlined elegance. As Catherine Deneuve explained: “The thing about the tuxedo is that it is virile and feminine at the same time.”
The subversive understatement of masculine styling on a woman looks subtly erotic and distinctly alluring. The very restraint of a tux is its defining and enduring characteristic. The tux doesn’t sell flesh – it sells charisma, personality and confidence; the very reason it is so popular with soignée women in their prime who possess the style, self-assurance and poise the garment requires.
Style is a visual expression of power and the tux is undoubtedly the most assertive garment a woman can wear. It makes both an entrance and a statement of intent. It adroitly undercuts society’s expectations of what is appropriate and feminine, challenging the male hierarchy by assuming literally the mantle of power (the suit) traditionally held by men. In a tux, a woman is fierce.
This is precisely why its appeal remains intact and stars like Janelle Monae champion it. Monae has stated: “I don’t believe in men’s wear or women’s wear. I just like what I Iike.”
Men and women will of course never be biologically gender neutral and distinctive masculine and feminine clothes will never become totally obsolete, but mixing things up by testing sexual stereotypes is stimulating and deliciously rebellious. The tux on a woman is a perfect expression of this sentiment. It is also far more enduring than any evening dress, making it one of the most sustainable fashion purchases you will ever make.