Dietrich and the Tuxedo

By Emily Patterson

The re-appearance of the tuxedo on the catwalk this fall instantly sent images of a young Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) to my mind. In her debut film role, Dietrich stood on stage, a magnificent androgynous sexually charged female, dressed in long black pipe trousers, a white shirt, and smoking jacket, and was rocketed to international fame in an instant. This was to be an iconic moment in history where fashion and gender clashed and confronted one another on an international stage. Flashes of the German starlet in the famous Moroccan smokey room were certain to occur whenever a lady attempted to wear a tuxedo thereafter. Her exotic wardrobe in the film styled by Travis Banton was to become one of the greatest star and designer collaborations in the history of film. It is referenced and recreated time and time again, as we can see with Gucci, Jean Paul Gaultier and Prada this season. Contemporary designers are echoing the trend with their tailored feminine suits, accentuating the female form with their powerful clothes and silhouettes in homage to this time in film history.


How could it be that by wearing a suit, all definitions of what it was to be a woman were suddenly being challenged? Questions were raised in the public hemisphere as to why such gender stereotypes in clothing existed all together. An enormous buzz surrounded the film upon its release. Women did not wear trousers at the time; they wore pretty dresses and skirts. A traditionally male uniform, to which a man’s connotations of economic worth and nobility were attached through the aesthetic quality of the fit and material, the tux would only be worn by men to formal affairs. For a woman to masquerade with such pseudo masculine messages was perceived by her contemporaries as actively seeing herself as equal to a man. In this defiant moment, Dietrich stood strong and bold, completely comfortable in her sexuality, almost predatory as though she dominated the men and women around her. The comfortableness in her sexuality whilst confused messages were being disbanded around her gave the illusion that Dietrich was overly aware of a secret that those around her, both on screen and off screen, had yet to discover. This proved to be sheer magic on screen. Perhaps her comfortableness derived from cross dressing being relatively normal amongst certain circles at the time for both male and females in Dietrich’s hometown of Berlin. She was no doubt immersed in a thespian-fueled bohemian atmosphere that prevented her from foreseeing the global shock resulting from the film’s release.

The tuxedo itself was customized by Dietrich’s husband’s tailor in Germany, purposely accentuating her female attributes. This would be a trend that would not take off on a mainstream level until the 1940s with the practical militant inspired fashions of World War II. It wouldn’t be until 1966 that Yves Saint Laurent introduced the tuxedo to women with his ‘Le Smoking‘ campaign famously shot by Helmut Newton. It would seem Dietrich and Banton were incredibly fashion forward and together, perhaps unintentionally, broke gender barriers. They took some of the first public steps that led the way to the more liberal world that we live in today. Yes, this film did incorporate the same-sex kiss where Dietrich openly flirts with another lady in the audience. However, I still stand by the notion that it was the suit alone that truly mesmerized the crowd and made film history. Her overall aggressive and male demeanor whilst captivating her audience with her effortless androgyny would not have been as powerful if the suit had not aided her in this disguise. A cocktail dress never would have had the same desired effect. The Tuxedo’s symbolic representations of gender combined with her character’s female strength worked together to empower women very early on in the 20th century.

If you do decide to wear your tuxedo this season, please do consider Dietrich and Banton when doing so. After all these years of supposed sexual equality, is it possible for a woman today to feel this same sense of empowerment when she wears stereotypically male clothing?

Photos: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14627 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Commons, and

One Response to “Dietrich and the Tuxedo”
  1. chameleonic says:

    incredible post! {I love reading about the history of these cultural fashion icons!}

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