Women in tuxedos

Go to a holiday party, any party, during the next week or so, and odds are you will see at least one woman in a tuxedo. It has become, for many of us, the failsafe black tie outfit of choice. It was not always thus, however. How women appropriated male styles, on their own or through the dictates of designers, along with other motivations for gender exchange in fashion from 1760 to the present, is the subject of His & Hers, a recently opened exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Visit it and you’re unlikely to think of a black-tie gala in the same way again.

Comprising 70 garments and accessories, all sourced from the Institute’s rich stores by curators Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley, the show begins with a pair of similarly ornate brocaded and embroidered 18th-century court dresses, one male, one female, and ends with Christopher Bailey’s 2010 khaki military-style jackets for Burberry Prorsum. Breakout styles are well documented – Gaultier’s 1987 navy felt wrap skirt for men and Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1936 knockout broad-shouldered tweed and velveteen suit for women, for example – but the majority of the work on display traces the evolution of men’s sombre evening wear, and its ongoing effect on women’s fashion.

An 1860 black wool frock coat, for example, paired with an 1857 black silk taffeta bustled dress, demonstrates the creeping influence of masculine tailoring in the tight bodice, which resembles nothing so much as a collared jacket. Next to it, the groom of a nearby 1898 bridal couple is decked out in a formal tailcoat. Then there’s Persall Tailors’ 1936 tuxedo with satin lapels, which could only be worn at private affairs since it was not a socially acceptable substitute for white tie and tails at public functions (this even though an English tailor designed such a suit as early as 1886 for a wealthy young American who outraged guests by wearing it to a ball in Tuxedo Park, a suburb of New York City). As for the short formal tuxedo jacket, it had its roots in the casual smoking jacket, here exemplified by a red velvet style.

Later, building on elements described as unisex, Oscar de la Renta designed a tuxedo in 1975 that was really a black jumpsuit with a ruffled white cotton shirt worn under the traditional evening jacket. Once pants became accepted female daywear Yves Saint Laurent devised his slithery version for women dubbed “Le smoking ensemble” (1982 version on view). With her acute historical sense, Vivienne Westwood caught the look for women in her black wool and silver Lurex suit with its cutaway jacket harking back to the 19th century. (She is only one of two women in the show who also designed for men.) It all culminates in a 2010 deconstructed tailcoat by Lynda and Daniel Kinne of A la Disposition, worn as a diagonal sling across the torso with a side closure at the bust line: two masculine and feminine halves of a whole.

And also, it must be said, a very provocative party look.

‘His & Hers’ until May 10 2011, at The Fashion Institute of Technology, Seventh Avenue at 27 Street, New York, www.fitnyc.edu

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