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BLACK TIE OPTIONAL From eras past, glamour borrows trappings of power


Evening wear this season is a black-tie affair. Once again, the classic tuxedo has been taken out of mothballs and freshened up, but now the women will be wearing it.

Fashion's flirtation with menswear tailoring has crossed over into glamour dressing. The interpretations are many: Yves Saint Laurent's Rive Gauche design is a sculpted black satin jacket worn over bare skin, and with a fringed slashed skirt that reveals the leg to the upper thigh; Dolce & Gabanna do a halter neck shirt that reveals the shoulders and pair it with narrow straight wool pants.

One of the best is Donna Karan's literal adaptation shaped to the female body -- black wool jacket with satin lapels and narrow trousers -- no fuss or frills.

It's a strong look, and requires a woman of powerful style to make it work -- a look that is handsome rather than pretty, a look that depends on polish rather that fluff.

It's a look that cloaked Marlene Dietrich with legendary status. La Dietrich dared to dress and live a libertine and liberated life, and that independence may be the appeal for today's woman. These past months, Vogue, Bazaar, Elle and Mirabella have paid editorial homage to Dietrich in black-and-white studies reminiscent of the '30s and '40s, an era when glamour was a vocation and could not be left to chance. The role had to be played out with all the artifices known to the couturier, hairdresser and makeup expert. The image was formal.

In 1966, the legendary Yves Saint Laurent brought men's evening wear to women's couture and introduced "le smoking," a virtual line-for-line copy of the dinner jacket and satin stripe pants. That time around, the masculine look was worn and made legendary by Catherine Deneuve, the beautiful French actress.

Dietrich and Deneuve are tough acts to follow, but any woman with confidence can turn an androgynous style into her own fashion statement.

The most important element of tuxedo dressing is femininity -- not the simpering belle variety but the strong air of the femme fatale. Here then, are some points for the woman in black-tie to consider:

* A tux requires makeup of a powerful wattage. A natural complexion will not hold up to nighttime lighting, and the absence of warmth in black-and-white dressing draws color from the face. This year's face is done as frankly artificial as the studio portraits of Hollywood legends. The foundation needs to be even and matte. The mouth must be drawn and defined in a strong red. The eyes should be deep, smoky and dramatic. Eyebrows must be plucked and penciled. The natural woman who thinks a touch of lipstick, blush and mascara is enough runs the risk of being mistaken for the maitre d' when she steps out for dinner.

* A tux requires a hair style -- cute wash-and-wear styles won't do. Hair must be set, polished and gleaming. Black-tie dressing does favor blondes and redheads, but brunettes can compensate by pulling hair into a dramatic twist to draw attention to the stronger coloring of their eyes.

Some women with very short hair have enough attitude to wear it sleeked back and butch, but not many. You know who you are. Julie Andrews looked fetching in full-drag formal wear in "Victor/Victoria," but that was the movies.

* A tux requires some overtly sexual touches. Not to worry, anything that would be considered tasteless on a woman in a dress becomes mysterious and sensual when the same ploy is practiced in a tuxedo. Wear nothing under the jacket and show some cleavage. If you do, then do nothing to draw attention to the fact -- no pearls, no necklace -- the flash of skin is enough.

Nearly as effective is a hint of lingerie, whether it's a fragile wisp of silk or an authoritative bustier.

High heels -- the higher, the better -- wear well with a tux. * A tux requires virtually no jewelry. Classic evening dress is a foil for the face the hands, the woman within. Keep the glitter to a ring or the wrist or a diamante lapel pin, much as men do when they dress formally.

* An evening bag looks silly with a tux unless it's as understated and sleek as an art deco cigarette case. Best to park the keys and comb with an escort and leave the hands free to express the mood. And that is liberating.

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