It has masculinity at it’s core, yet when she puts it on the shirt clings to her bust, the top button is left undone to show her slim neck, and the sleeves are pushed up to reveal her dainty wrists. She wears the suit with the highest of heels and reddest of lip, or with boyish brogues and a bare face. She is stylish and she bites her thumb at men.
Chanel created the zeitgeist when she first started adapting menswear for women. First, there were men’s sweaters and trousers based on sailor’s bell bottoms. By the 1920s, she was on a roll: men’s shorts, shirts, blazers, overcoats, and of course the suit, were all now, for women too. When Chanel said, ‘I want to create classics’, she did just that. A woman wearing something that was once exclusive to men, and wearing it well, will always make statement.
Then came along Yves Saint Laurent, and in 1966 he gave us Le Smoking tuxedo. It was tailored and tactfully cut. It was the right tux at the right time. Helmut Newton captured its class, allure and androgyny on camera and you could cut the sexual tension in the photo with a knife.
Rebecca Lowthorpe, Fashion Features Director at ELLE Magazine agrees, ‘It’s a perennial classic, ever since Helmut Newton’s photographs of Yves Saint Laurent tuxedos on dark street corners in Paris, designers feel the look is iconic and continue to serve it up’.
Lowthorpe is not wrong, and suits were strong on the catwalks this spring. ‘The 1970s revival trend was key this season’, says Amanda Lawson, Labels Buyer at ASOS. ‘We have bought into the tailored styles in particular. To get the proportions right, think Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo; the waist is high and the shoulders are slim. Wide leg palazzo pants, neat fitted blazers and silk shirts in muted colours are all perfect’.
Yet whatever trend a suit nods to, it will still do the same thing: the wearer becomes smart, sophisticated and seductive. Lowthorpe points out, ‘I think everyone that is anyone has tried on a man’s style tux and looked great in it, from Kate Moss to Courtney Love. It’s a fall-back fail safe option’. Joana Preiss, the Parisian actress, model, singer and muse to Balenciaga once said, ‘I have five tailored Yves Saint Laurent men’s suits: they’re chic, but I feel totally myself in them’.
Women choose what they wear not just for how it looks, but also for how it feels and what it represents. 1960s singer Marianne Faithfull contrasted her pea suits with her pillow lips and Bambi eyes peeking out from her fair flowing hair. Similarly coquettish was Sandie Shaw, the barefoot pop princess of the 1960s, who wore slim fitting suits and tailored trousers on stage with nothing on her feet. Annie Lennox set off her elfin features with boxy, mannish styles. And of course, let’s not forget Bianca Jagger looking sensational in her white wedding suit in 1971.
When you think of Faithful, Lennox and Jagger, it’s the photos of them suited up that we remember. Modern day style icons are no different. Alexa Chung wore her 3.1 Philip Lim tuxedo to last year’s Metropolitan Costume Institute Gala, with blood red lips and a ribbon bow tie. Coco Sumner wears suits by London men’s tailor Adrien Sauvage, with her shaggy hair in a boyish side parting and a chunky man’s watch on her slim wrist. Tilda Swinton continues to look her best on red carpets in suits and tuxedos with her red hair slicked back. When you see Chung, Sumner and Swinton on the red carpet next to revealing dresses with frou frou and frills, it is they who stand out.
Pop newcomer Jade Williams of British band Sunday Girl, is becoming as famous for her style as she is for her Dusty Springfield voice. When she was recently asked about her look, she explained that the reason she goes for masculine, tailored pieces is because, ‘I like the challenge of dressing like a boy yet still looking feminine’. And like any woman, she says that, ‘if I had the money, I would wear a Chanel suit every day of my life’.
It is still subversive, but it will always be stylish. If a woman wears a suit, she is wearing it for herself. Coco Sumner once commented, ‘I look ridiculous in anything too girly or frilly. I just wear what I like’.