As the summer party season begins and the red carpet is rolled out for the Cannes Film Festival and the Queen’s diamond jubilee, the Victoria and Albert Museum opens its exhibition of ballgowns from the 1950s to today (see Belles of the ball).
While show-stopping numbers, such as the Alexander McQueen ostrich feathered gown by Sarah Burton, on view at the museum, still dominate the dress code on the red carpet, tuxedo looks for women are proving an elegant alternative. This year, for example, there’s been Tilda Swinton in Haider Ackermann’s soft lilac tux jacket and matching fishtail skirt at the Golden Globes, Gwyneth Paltrow’s plunging black tuxedo jumpsuit by Boy by Band of Outsiders at a Women in Film cocktail party in February, and Rihanna wearing little else but a Stella McCartney print tuxedo, shades and strappy heels in London in March.
“Tuxedos are incredibly chic and extremely sexy in a less obvious way,” says Natalie Kingham, international womenswear buyer for online retailer Matches. “They make you stand out in a crowd among others in a party frock.”
Florence Muller, curator of the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, which is at the Denver Art Museum until July 8, says the appeal of the tux suit still lies in the same combination of male and female styling as it did when YSL first created Le Smoking to controversy and acclaim in 1966. “It’s the sensuality and feminine suppleness of the silhouette mixed with the strength and structure of masculine garments,” she says.
This season, tuxedos are flying off the shelves, with sales at Liberty in London, for example, increasing by 25 per cent in the past six months. Hudson’s new tux-style jeans, named LouLou after Saint Laurent’s late muse, Loulou de la Falaise, have been so popular that Selfridges has had to re-order them twice. Online retailers, such as mytheresa.com, are also doing brisk tuxedo business with pieces from jackets to jumpsuits à la YSL’s sexy black halterneck having sold out within a week.
Today’s tuxes have evolved since the 1960s, though. Antonio Berardi, for example, has amped up his tuxedo suits with sporty-style trousers in softest kimono silk and chiffon or tailored trousers with pleats down the side instead of toeing the traditional tux line. He says: “I took away the rigour and structure of what we normally expect. The bias-cut jacket becomes like a cardigan, so it moulds to your body and looks more fitted than it is.”
Then there are Haider Ackermann’s suggestive cutaway jackets in jewel tones and ruby red, black and white checks that “shouldn’t really work”, says John Skelton, creative director of hip east London boutique LN-CC. “Yet twinned with the very much oversized and ethnic shape of the pants and styled tucked in on one side, they take on a very sleek and refined overall aesthetic.”
Meanwhile, French label Carven has added long black goat fur sleeves to its fitted tux jacket; for Karl, the new line by Karl Lagerfeld, the designer cropped his black tuxedo jacket, layering it over white for an edgier monochrome effect; and at Moschino Cheap and Chic the tux became an all-in-one crêpe and wool jumpsuit with detachable bow tie, jaunty cap-sleeved white shirt and classic black satin cummerbund. “It’s all done for you, so you slip straight into it,” says Gary Edgley, womenswear buying manager at Selfridges.
For her part Stephanie Jones, womenswear buyer for Liberty, favours the new “tux dress”, as seen in Lanvin’s fitted silk piece, 3.1 Phillip Lim’s sleeveless wrap-over or Temperley London’s crêpe evening dress with its silky satin tie at the waist.
“The tux dress is much more feminine than a jacket,” says Jones. “It’s very pared down and very chic. Wear with a subtle embellished clutch, which will stand out, and bi-colour sandals with a chunky heel.” Then on the high street there’s Whistles hot pink tuxedo suit.
Emily Collins, a property executive, collects tuxedos. She wears them for any occasion, with baggy tuxedo trousers rolled up to the ankle, Vivienne Westwood gold heart shoes or body-con American Apparel T-shirt dresses. “Tuxedos look very feminine, which isn’t always the case with women in suits. They make me feel sexier and more sophisticated, especially if I’m wearing a tux over a short dress, with bare legs and high heels, which could look tacky without it,” she says.
Psychology student Ana Carolina Minoza says wearing tux jackets is a smart choice in her male-dominated, academic environment. Minoza’s favourite piece is a vintage Yves Saint Laurent black and satin tux jacket from the 1970s that she tends to wear with black leggings, tank top, heels, elegant bracelet and big rings. “I only wear it on special occasions,” she says, “‘like my birthday as it carries all this glamour with it. It’s a memory piece because it’s vintage and was my mum’s.” As designer Berardi says: “The tux is pure power dressing. This is just the beginning.”
Fit for a queen
In honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, Harrods is hosting a pop-up ballgown shop with 13 dresses made for the store and priced from £2,199 to £28,800 by designers such as Marchesa, Jenny Packham (a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge), Elie Saab and Valentino. The latter, for example, offers an embellished, full-skirted lace gown, while Alessandra Rich’s design is paved in navy sequins, writes Jane McFarland.
“When asked to create a ball gown to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee, we were extremely honoured, not only because Harrods is a British institution but because we love and admire British culture and its capability of blending tradition with an innovative spirit,” says Maria Grazia Chiuri of Valentino.
“With this lace-and-tulle-embroidered delicate ball gown, we feel that any women could live a princess moment.”
The dresses will be on display in Harrods’ Brompton Road window, alongside an exhibition of ornate crowns. Based on a replica of the St Edward’s coronation crown, the 31 crown designs by brands such as Prada, Tiffany & Co, Fabergé and Mulberry are for display purposes only, and will be archived after the exhibition. Indeed, some of them might be a little difficult to wear.
As Mulberry’s creative director, Emma Hill, says: “For the Mulberry crown we decided to keep it sweet: we covered ours in my favourite childhood cake decoration, hundreds and thousands, and kept all the colours in line with our current seasonal colour palette – candy pastels and summer seaside shades. Even the cushion it sits on is a Victoria sponge cake.’’
‘Ballgowns & Crowns’ will be on display in-store and in the Brompton Road windows until June 15, www.harrods.com