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Le Smoking

In Paris this fall, you can't miss the posters for "Smoking Forever," an exhibition of Yves St. Laurent's tuxedos for women. They are all over the metro, and in the windows of the cafes. You have no choice but to study them as you eat your steak tartare (which you must eat, no one in Paris believes in the possibility of mad French cows, only peevish ones). The poster features a Helmut Newton photograph of the legendary couturier arm in arm with his muse, the glorious Catherine Deneuve (who is also starring in a new movie, "Palais Royal," with its own posters plastered all over the city). A youngish St. Laurent is in a tux. Deneuve is in "le smoking," her blond hair billowing, her eyes encircled with kohl, her neckline plunging, her legs wrapped in sheer black stockings.

She looks sexy and scary and very grown up. "What every woman needs," St. Laurent once said, "is a black straight skirt, a black turtleneck and a man to love her." Catherine Deneuve doesn't look like she needs anything. "Coco Chanel", St. Laurent also said, "freed women, and I empowered them." That's more like it. Deneuve, dressed in black (St. Laurent's favorite color) looks like she wouldn't stop at steak tartare. She looks like she could eat human flesh. You can't imagine her wearing "le smoking" in "Belle du Jour," in which she plays a French housewife who turns to prostitution out of boredom. In "Belle du Jour", she dresses to please others: lots of ruffles and bows, pretty colors, soft curves. The kind of woman who wears "le smoking" dresses for herself. She favors sharp edges, knife pleats, black and white, and nothing underneath. St. Laurent was hired by Christian Dior as a designer for the House of Dior, and after the master's death, produced the Dior collections until 1961, when he left to start his own house. The first "le smoking" appeared in his 1966 haute couture collection, and transformed a staple of masculine dress into a symbol of feminine liberation. St. Laurent did variations on the theme until his last collection, in 2002: boleros, halter dresses, jumpsuits, day suits. The exhibition, held at the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves St. Laurent, features fifty of them, plus sketches, and a player piano in a darkened room, which conjures hotel rooms for secret rendez-vous and smoky boites for illicit assignations. I left the show and took the metro straight to rue de la Pompe in the 16me arrondissment, where some of my favorite vintage stores are hidden, but alas, there were no "le smokings" for me to try on. I don't necessarily want to own one, but I want to know at least for a moment what it feels like to be a maneater. Good thing I purchased Valerie Appert's 104 page guide to the best depot-ventes (vintage stores) in Paris. My research has just begun.

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