Until recently, the most famous fashion moment involving a woman in a black tuxedo came in 1966 when the socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from La Côte Basque restaurant in New York because she was wearing one of the 'Le Smoking' trouser suits which Yves Saint Laurent had recently introduced. In defiance, Kempner whipped off her trousers and took her table wearing only the jacket as a mini blazer dress.
The Duchess of Sussex's sense of rebellion is rather different. As she and Prince Harry create a new, post-royal life, they have made headlines with their calls for Americans to vote in the upcoming election and discussions on trolling. For their latest appearence hosting conversations about the impact of social media for a Time 100 Talk event, Meghan opted for a sleek black suit reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent's famous Le Smoking creation.
She was first seen wearing the suit in a new portrait for Time magazine last weekend. Pared-back glamour was the vibe as she and Harry posed for photographer Matt Sayles to promote their roles as hosts of a virtual conversation titled ‘Engineering a Better World’.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex talk about how they are doing during the pandemic and the importance of checking in on one another.
“When people ask, ‘how are you?’ I sense it’s a case of, ‘really, how are you?’” Prince Harry says #TIME100Talks pic.twitter.com/TLG8BzSohU
— TIME (@TIME) October 20, 2020
It’s thought that Meghan re-wore the same Alexander McQueen tailored two-piece which she debuted in February 2018 for her first ever evening engagement with Prince Harry. Her choice was seen as a revolutionary departure from the usual sparkling regal evening gown and a sartorial statement of solidarity with the Time’s Up movement which had seen major red carpet events like the Golden Globes come with an all-black dress code that year as a protest against sexual violence and discrimination.
While we might have come to expect Meghan to make fashion choices which deviate from the royal norm, the black suit is a look which is about as far as you could get from the usual demure, regal aesthetic of the Duchess of Cambridge. And yet, Kate also added a sleek black suit to her wardrobe last week to present the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in a virtual ceremony broadcast from the Natural History Museum.
But what does a black suit mean in 2020? And why have both Kate and Meghan chosen to wear them in the past week? While we might all be craving red carpet razzle-dazzle, a full gala gown would certainly not be a reading-the-room choice right now, whether you’re a duchess working on women’s empowerment and encouraging voting in your country’s election (Meghan) or a duchess highlighting the struggles faced by parents, children and underprivileged communities during the pandemic (Kate).
For the Duchess of Sussex, the sleek black suit was hardly a surprising fashion move, but a reminder of the artfully simple style she has adopted since moving back to the US earlier this year. It might have been the most glamorous outfit we’ve seen her wear in a while, but it felt at once serious and a nod to the elegant canon of suit aficionados, from Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts in Hollywood to the atmospheric, sensual photography of Helmut Newton who immortalised Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking in his 1975 misty street shoot for French Vogue - it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Newton’s image might have been a reference for Sayles’ portrait of Harry and Meghan.
Kate was a more unlikely proponent of the suit look. In fact, it was only in March that she wore her first ever full trouser suit after ten years of royal life during which they have been a workwear essential for many women. Her black tuxedo - also an Alexander McQueen design - was another signal of her increasingly experimental, grown-up style; thanks to peaked shoulders and satin lapels, it had all the elegance that a future queen demands but with a sense of gravitas which one of her usual dresses might struggle to deliver at the moment.
Think royal glamour, and twinkling dresses would once have come to mind. The world mood in 2020 has shifted so many of the old rules - this could be yet another which, for the time being at least, has been replaced by a more right-for-now aesthetic. And, remarkably, it’s one that Kate and Meghan - two women at the centre of a rift which has rocked the monarchy this year - evidently agree on.