Women’s Tuxedos & Tailcoats

Posted on January 24, 2013

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.