Although most associated with Morocco, Marlene Dietrich's formal
cross dressing is also captured in some lesser known images. The still above is from her 1932 film
Blonde Venus while the picture below was taken at the
premiere of The Sign of the Cross that same year.
Dietrich stole the spotlight when she appeared on the red carpet dressed in black tie.
► Le smoking
This 1975 image is the one most associated with the Yves
Saint Laurent's groundbreaking women's tuxedo but it
actually depicts a pinstriped suit designed in the same vein.
For the complete story of le smoking see Vogue
Women's Tuxedos and Tailcoats
Pre-War: Androgynous Glamor
According to fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart, in the
mid-nineteenth century American female reformers caused so much
controversy by dressing in masculine attire that they abandoned the
practice for fear of overshadowing the social reforms they were
advocating. Yet many male impersonators rose to fame during
this time by adopting the very same garments. Probably the
most famous of them was Vesta Tilley, the highest paid woman in
Britain in the late Victorian era. Although she played many
characters her most popular ones were rakish men-about-town which
required her to regularly don male formal attire. These types
of acts, says Butchart, set the stage for future female performers
to similarly defy social convention:
being the operative word here. It was considered acceptable for
female stars to dress in male attire long before it was anywhere
near admissible for the general population, the assumption being
that the performative state of the wearer either on or off stage was
essentially a Get Out of Jail Free card for flamboyance.
As the popularity of vaudeville declined following World War I,
cross-dressing performances transitioned to nightclubs and burlesque
revues. Accordingly, the next woman to achieve celebrity
status in men’s formal wear was Gladys Bentley, an African-American
blues singer popular during the Harlem Renaissance.
She appeared in the 1920s at Harry Hansberry's "Clam House", one of
New York City's most notorious gay speakeasies, and headlined in the
early thirties at another Harlem club backed up by a chorus line of
drag queens, appealing to audiences of all races and sexual
orientations. Whereas Tilley went out of her way to maintain
respectability onstage and femininity offstage, Bentley was quite
the opposite as blogger A. Jasper explains:
She flaunted her
sexual orientation and reputation as a 'bulldagger' or butch lesbian
. . . She was a 250 pound woman dressed in men's clothes (including
a signature [tailcoat] and top hat), who played piano and sang her
own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling
voice while flirting outrageously with women in the audience.
Singer, actor and dancer
Josephine Baker was another Harlem Renaissance performer who was
open about her alternative (bi)sexuality. She gained her
greatest fame though when she moved to France in 1925 and opened in
an all-black revue in Paris where she was an instant success for
her erotic dancing and near nudity on stage. Then in 1932 she
starred in another revue called La Joie de Paris where she played
against type and appeared as a bandleader in white tie and tails.
She would go on to be the first African-American female to star in a
major motion picture (1934) and to become a world-famous
Around the same time that Baker was making a
splash in Paris, a German stage and screen actress was emerging as
the most famous formal cross-dresser in history. Marlene
Dietrich already had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in general
and men’s formal wear in particular when she starred in her
breakthrough German film Blue Angel in 1930. Her performance
caught the eye of Paramount Pictures who wasted no time in signing
her and releasing her first American film, Morocco, later that same
year. The film includes a now legendary scene in which
Dietrich, playing a cabaret performer, saunters onto the stage in a
Moroccan nightclub dressed in full white tie. Accustomed to seing
much more revealing costumes the cabaret audience boos the lady
with the audacity to cover her legs. However Dietrich's character
wins over the fictional audience with her gutsy act – including
kissing a woman in the crowd – just as the actress herself won over
film audiences and propelled herself to international stardom. The
discreetly bisexual star who once confided “I think I am much more
alluring in these clothes” continued to turn heads occasionally by
donning men’s formal attire both on screen and off.
so it was that
the initial chapters of the formal cross-dressing story all featured
a common theme: the women were performers and their attire almost
universally a literal interpretation of the male white tie dress
code. Despite countless inaccurate references to their attire
as tuxedos, female appropriation of black tie was in fact
extremely rare possibly because it too closely resembled a regular
men’s suit and therefore implied a normative fashion choice.
This restrained approach would be turned on its head during the
social upheaval of the 1960s thanks to an haute couture designer by
the name of Yves Saint Laurent.
Counterculture: Le Smoking
Saint Laurent’s le smoking debuted on the runways of Paris in
the fall of 1966. This suit for women – named for the French
term for “tuxedo” – pioneered minimalist, androgynous styling for
ladies. Rather than hiding the female form under boxy
male attire, the famous couturier had re-designed the attire to
complement a woman’s natural curves. Constructed of velvet or
wool the suit was originally presented with a cummerbund or a
matching waistcoat, high-heeled black satin boots and white frilly
blouse and was finished at the neck with an oversized silk bow.
Saint Laurent’s innovation was met with shock and consternation at a
time when women in trousers was still very much frowned upon and in
some places was even illegal. However it was also a time of
female liberation which made for a perfect match. In
handing women their own version of a suit previously reserved for
society’s dominant males, Saint Laurent inspired his partner to
state that “Chanel gave women freedom, but YSL gave them power.”
French actress Catherine Deneuve provided a more intimate
perspective: “The thing about a tuxedo is that it is virile and
feminine at the same time. It really does make you feel different as
a woman, it changes the gestures.”
Soon after his
paradigm-changing creation appeared on the couture runway, Saint Laurent
launched his hip ready-to-wear Rive Gauche label with affordably
priced “smoking suits”. The suits – quickly dubbed “pantsuits” –
were a big hit with young women and have continued to influence
fashion designers' collections to the present day. Like any
other fashion, interpretations of le smoking have varied with time.
They have ranged from formal suits so skimpy they practically
resembled lingerie to very masculine cuts offset by high heels and
worn over a bare chest (Studio 54 regular Bianca Jagger was famous
for this look). This kind of versatility attests to the suit’s role
as attire that’s more dressy than formal.
women’s tuxedo continues to be popular on the red carpet and in
fashion spreads with Ellen Degeneres and Tilda Hinton being arguably
its biggest proponents. Now the latest celebrity to champion
the women’s tuxedo is young soul singer Janelle Monáe. She not
only featured it in the video for her 2010 debut hit “Tightrope” but
has made it into the basis of her signature wardrobe. Said
Monáe in an interview with Honey magazine:
I bathe in it, I
swim in it, and I could be buried in it. A tux is such a standard
uniform, it’s so classy and it’s a lifestyle I enjoy. The tux keeps
me balanced. I look at myself as a canvas. I don’t want to cloud
myself with too many colors or I’ll go crazy.
Lesbian Weddings: Gender Inversion
The latest development in the story of women and tuxedos lies
not at Hollywood galas or Paris couture houses but in backyards and banquet halls
hosting a 21st century phenomena: same-sex weddings. A random sampling of online photos of lesbian
ceremonies reveals that the apparel at such
weddings is generally divided into three categories:
Among this third subset, the male attire is part of a much
broader gender identity (often labeled as “butch” versus “femme”)
whereby the corresponding partner adopts other masculine traits,
most notably closely-cropped hair and lack of make-up. By
consciously dressing themselves as grooms these partners reject the
appropriation of symbolic male apparel
and celebration of the female mystique that is embodied in
Saint Laurent’s le smoking and its imitators. Instead, their
choices harken back to the pre-war custom of employing men’s
formalwear to conceal a woman’s body and, by association, her
femininity. In many ways they are modern day Gladys Bentleys.
- traditional wedding gowns for both partners
- other types of conventional women’s clothing for both partners
- gowns or conventional women’s clothing for one
partner and tuxedos or other conventional male attire for the
The butch/femme lesbian wedding phenomenon has actually
become popular enough to give rise to at least
one online retailer
specializing solely in women’s tuxedos and accessories.
However, based on the improper fit of the formal suits in the
photos of such weddings, the majority of masculine
lesbians appear to prefer standard rental tuxedos designed for men. This may be
due to a typically male indifference towards (or ignorance of) how
tailored clothing is supposed to fit. Or it may simply be a matter
of fiscal prudence as few men can justify the purchase price of a
formal kit in today’s informal world, let alone women.
With the rising popularity of tuxedos at lesbian weddings it is
quite possible that lesbian proms may not be far behind. Take, for
example, the case of a lesbian high-school student in Mississippi
who sued her school in 2009 for the right to wear a tuxedo rather
than a gown for her graduation photos. (She won . . . sort of.
The school district decided to instead ban either type of
traditional formal dress in favor of gender-neutral graduation gowns.) As school-sanctioned discrimination towards gay
students is increasingly legislated into history, a whole new market
may be opening up for tuxedo rentals.
Victorian-era male impersonator Vesta Tilley
Gladys Bentley circa 1943
Josephine Baker circa 1932
Marlene Dietrich circa 1930
Le smoking, 1966.
Rihanna in Dolce & Gabbana at the 2009 Met Ball.
Janelle Monáe at the 2011 Grammys.
Lesbian fiancée picking out a tailcoat.
High school student Ceara Sturgis sued for the right to wear a
tuxedo in her yearbook graduation photo.