Le Smoking

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.

Strutting Their Stuff

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 off.

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 mind.

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 go.