Women’s Tuxedos & Tailcoats

Femme a la Oeillett

“Femme à l’Oeillett” (Carnation Woman), 1981 fashion illustration by René Gruau.

I have finally delved into the last fringe aspect of black tie not yet covered in The Guide: Women dressing in tuxedos.  Or, more precisely, women dressing in men’s evening wear.  While there is an abundance of writing about the topic of women and menswear in general, this more specific subject appears to be devoid of any sort of comprehensive review (although one online article provides a solid starting point). Therefore I humbly offer up my summary as a new addition to the Supplemental section of The Guide.

As a bonus for blog readers, here are some wonderful photos that had to be left out of the new web page due to space restrictions.

Josephine Baker hamming it up.

Josephine Baker hamming it up.

Marlene Dietrich at a German press ball in 1928.

Marlene Dietrich at a Berlin press ball in 1929.  (Life)

Dietrich in another great publicity still from "Morocco".

Dietrich in another great publicity still from Morocco.

Renate Müller, the original Victor Victoria.  1930.

Renate Müller, the original Victor Victoria. 1933.

Another take on the original le smoking. (Getty)

Another take on the original “le smoking”. (Getty)

Actress Lily Elsie.

Actress Lily Elsie, 1907

This last photo is representative of a trend in Victorian and Edwardian British pantomime wherein the role of the “principal boy” would be played by a woman due to London’s child labour laws and the skill required for the role.  Typically the character was an adolescent or young man and called for the actress to wear tight breeches (knee-length trousers) and/or leggings.  Although the costume originated at a time when boys typically wore breeches (thus giving rise to the term “breeches role” in 17th century opera and Victorian burlesque) it eventually became an excuse to offer male audiences a rare view of a woman’s legs.  The photo shown here is from a pantomime called New Aladdin starring Lily Elsie, England’s most famous actress at the time.  Unlike other principal boy costumes, this particular outfit offered not so much as a glimpse of the actress’ gams.

Thanks to reader Donald G. for his contributions to this topic.


  1. RFLowings

    A very interesting new page! What I’ve always liked about The Guide is how you apply (often pretty academic) stylistic ideas to reality and the modern day. So an interesting discussion of women’s relationship with men’s formal dress in the past feeds into the meaning of real outfits at weddings and on the red carpet today.

    Top marks!

  2. jovantheun1337

    I love this new section!

  3. Jesse MacLeod

    I absolutely adore that second photo of Marlene Dietrich. Thanks for sharing it! Such a cool aesthetic to it.

  4. Anonymous

    Before YSL, basically women in menswear. after him formal wear with a feminine take (like womens suits).
    There is no men garment that women don’t appropiate, sooner o later.

  5. Nancy

    Before I comment, I just want to thank you for all the love and care you’ve put into this website over the years, Peter! I realize that it is under new ownership now, but I have spent countless pleasurable hours on here, absorbing every morsel of information on men’s evening wear. It is unparalleled in its scope and depth.

    Ever since I was a kid in the ’70’s I have had a vivid interest in men’s evening wear. Last spring, I finally traded in my “little black dress” for a dinner suit. As a petite middle aged woman, without going bespoke, this was no easy task. After much research, I finally ended up purchasing two dinner jackets (peak and shawl), two low cut waistcoats (black & white), onyx cuff links & studs, and trousers from Brooks Brothers, and a marcella turn-down collar shirt and self-tie bow tie from Thomas Pink. Finding the right shoes was quite tricky, as the closest thing I could find in my size was a pair of Cole Haan oxfords. I’m still looking for a better, more appropriate upgrade.

    I was greatly inspired by your post on the 1920’s party and your new acquisitions for it. Thus, I recently bought a 1920’s Swank 9-piece cuff-link, shirt and waistcoat stud set for my kit as well. And since it is difficult to find even the best made of evening shirts to properly fit a petite woman, I’m currently having a bespoke marcella shirt made to fit my proportions better. And I’m having so much fun with each embellishment!

    The interesting thing is that in my dinner suit, I feel more at home- more confident, powerful, relaxed, and oddly even more “feminine”- than I ever did in women’s evening wear. My partner absolutely adores the look, and I’ve gotten more compliments from both men and women in it than I ever did by wearing a dress. I’ve had the opportunity to wear the kit 3 times in the past year, and I’m constantly looking for more occasions. The ultimate would be able to have a white tie ensemble as well, although that will take some serious doing.

    I couldn’t have put together a classic kit without this site. Again, many thanks.

    1. Peter Marshall (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing your story. So glad I could help!


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