In Paris this fall, you can't miss the posters for "Smoking
Forever," an exhibition of Yves St. Laurent's tuxedos
for women. They are all over the metro, and in the windows
of the cafes. You have no choice but to study them as
you eat your steak tartare (which you must eat, no one
in Paris believes in the possibility of mad French cows,
only peevish ones).
The poster features a Helmut Newton photograph of the
legendary couturier arm in arm with his muse, the glorious
Catherine Deneuve (who is also starring in a new movie,
"Palais Royal," with its own posters plastered
all over the city). A youngish St. Laurent is in a tux.
Deneuve is in "le smoking," her blond hair billowing,
her eyes encircled with kohl, her neckline plunging, her
legs wrapped in sheer black stockings.
She looks sexy and scary and
very grown up.
"What every woman needs," St. Laurent once said,
"is a black straight skirt, a black turtleneck and
a man to love her."
Catherine Deneuve doesn't look like she needs anything.
"Coco Chanel", St. Laurent also said, "freed
women, and I empowered them."
That's more like it.
Deneuve, dressed in black (St. Laurent's favorite color)
looks like she wouldn't stop at steak tartare. She looks
like she could eat human flesh. You can't imagine her
wearing "le smoking" in "Belle du Jour,"
in which she plays a French housewife who turns to prostitution
out of boredom. In "Belle du Jour", she dresses
to please others: lots of ruffles and bows, pretty colors,
soft curves. The kind of woman who wears "le smoking"
dresses for herself. She favors sharp edges, knife pleats,
black and white, and nothing underneath.
St. Laurent was hired by Christian Dior as a designer
for the House of Dior, and after the master's death, produced
the Dior collections until 1961, when he left to start
his own house. The first "le smoking" appeared
in his 1966 haute couture collection, and transformed
a staple of masculine dress into a symbol of feminine
liberation. St. Laurent did variations on the theme until
his last collection, in 2002: boleros, halter dresses,
jumpsuits, day suits. The exhibition, held at the Fondation
Pierre Berge-Yves St. Laurent, features fifty of them,
plus sketches, and a player piano in a darkened room,
which conjures hotel rooms for secret rendez-vous and
smoky boites for illicit assignations.
I left the show and took the metro straight to rue de
la Pompe in the 16me arrondissment, where some of my favorite
vintage stores are hidden, but alas, there were no "le
smokings" for me to try on. I don't necessarily want
to own one, but I want to know at least for a moment what
it feels like to be a maneater.
Good thing I purchased Valerie Appert's 104 page guide
to the best depot-ventes (vintage stores) in Paris.
My research has just begun.
I thought I'd learned a lot about men's fashion by living
for a decade and a half with a member of the species.
Men's clothes, to begin with, are limited in type. If
you are a reader of "Vogue Homme," you might
own a Jean Paul Gaultier skirt, and if you are a reader
of "Maxim" you might own more than one trucker
hat, but these are exceptions to the general Rule of
Three: you got your pants, you got your jacket, and
you got your shirt, which goes in between the first
two, unless you're a rap star, and then all bets are
Given the restricted field of play, it is the tiniest
details that matter: whether or not the cuffs on a suit
jacket actually button, whether or not the stitching
on the neckline of a cashmere sweater contrasts with
the color of the wool, the width of a pants hem. So
sayeth my husband. Of course, this is a man who finds
shopping to be an onerous duty, undertaken only when
ones khakis are in shreds or ones very plain black shoes
must be replaced by a new pair of very plain black shoes.
Why on earth would I ever trust him?
My re-education process was kick-started yesterday when
I spent several hours at an amazing exhibition of men's
fashions from the 18th century to the present at the Musee
de la Mode in Paris. The show opens with a pair of taxidermied
peacocks. One often forgets that it is the male of the
species that is beautiful and ornamented, while the female
is dull as dishwater. I tried not to take it personally.
The show proceeds chronologically, starting with the development
of the "habit a la francaise," the forerunner
of the man's three-piece suit, which became fashionable
under the reign of the Sun King, he of the very high,
powdered hair and fussy, skin-tight breeches, worn while
prowling the similarly ornamented corridors of Versailles.
This garment underwent numerous transformations during
the Age of Enlightenment, sparking the inventiveness of
tailors, silk producers, even button makers. Some of the
latter reminded me of miniature Op Art mandalas in various
shades of fuschia and bronze. And the embroideries! Entire
bucolic scenes of happy peasants milking happy cows! Dahlias,
roses, jonquils, gardens everywhere! The varieties of
fabrics and the lavishness of the handiwork truly boggled
The show was filled with all sorts of clever juxtapositions:
an array of pre-Revolutionary taffeta caps paired with
a contemporary ski hat made out of a child's cable-knit
sweater; diamond shoe buckles Harry Winston could have
only dreamed of paired with over-the-top white rubber
Nikes; heavily embellished swords, including one decorated
with real Wedgewood cameos, paired with a Louis Vuitton
soccer ball. After a while, you couldn't tell the Gucci
dressing gowns, with their decadent, kimono-like designs,
from their swoony 18th century counterparts. And to think,
we thought we invented metrosexuals in the 21st century!
Male fashion victims will no doubt cheer Vivienne Westwood's
royal blue satin clown suit; Walter van Beirendonck's
transparent pants tucked into ski boots, worn to best
advantage with a red fright wig; John Galliano's take
on tribal warrior meets the cast of the Rocky Horror Picture
Show; and Comme des Garcons's relatively restrained pink
pajamas as outerwear. But among the contemporary offerings
on view, none was more telling than a single, documentary
photograph of a group of young, African-American males
showing off their tattoos, cornrows, ripped pecs, nipple
piercings, and elaborate gold medallions. Here was proof,
in full, living color, that clothes make the man, even
when he's only half-dressed.
I guess this means my husband still has a long way to