Le Smoking, a tuxedo-inspired suit for women, was famously introduced by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966. The androgynous outfit, which challenged societal norms at the time, was deemed unacceptable for fine-dining occasions, and women turning up in suits would often be prohibited from entering high-end restaurants.
The restaurant managers of the 1960s who took such pride in their rigid dress codes would probably be aghast to learn that, half a century later, ripped jeans and tennis shoes are acceptable eating-out attire – our recent story about the evolution of tracksuits suggests that some millennials may even opt for sweatpants, albeit paired with heels, for formal dinners.
Dress codes are constantly evolving, and fashion has taken a largely casual turn, with an increasing number of labels adopting a genderless, normcore approach. But while some posh eateries have become lax in terms of what customers can and cannot wear, Annabel's, a private members' club and restaurant in Mayfair, London, still forbids female guests from wearing T-shirts, sportswear, office wear and trainers. A recent amendment to the dress code allows them to wear jeans, but only if they are dark in tone and tailored.
And, while tuxedos were a taboo for women 50 years ago, the new female uniforms at Annabel's will be heavily inspired by the menswear staple. The club is reopening in a larger, four-storey space in Berkeley Square this November, and Lebanese fashion designer Racil Chalhoub, who lives between Beirut, Dubai and London, was recruited to help lead the style direction and design uniforms for female staff.
She joins a group of talented creatives: known for its impeccable tailoring, the British label Casely-Hayford was enlisted to create bespoke suits for the male staff, and photographer Mario Testino and make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury have been recruited as creative consultants.
Chalhoub was born in Beirut and raised in Paris. She studied fashion design and marketing in London, and in 2006, returned to Beirut, where she founded a fashion concept store and organic cafe in the city's Gemmayze district. After being the store's fashion buyer for eight years, she moved back to London, where she launched her own brand, Racil. Her first and foremost inspiration? The tuxedo.
"I love the clean lines and sharp lapels," she says of the iconic silhouette. "I love how timeless and elegant it is, as well as versatile."
So, it comes as no surprise that her designs for Annabel's are inspired by tuxedos. "Every position will be wearing a different look and will have a different silhouette, but the entire team will look like one beautiful collection; they are all part of one family," she says.
While the new uniforms have yet to be unveiled, the designer hints that they will share elements with her own label's autumn/winter 2017 collection – which, incidentally, was shot at Annabel's, and features wine-coloured velvets, plaid patterns, emerald-green suits and oversized brooches and bow ties.
Chalhoub's aesthetic is markedly modest, but even though modesty may be trending internationally at the moment, the designer says that it isn't something she consciously strives for. "I don't necessarily think about it when I design, but most of my designs will end up quite modest," she says.
She stresses that tuxedos, whether worn as uniforms or formal wear, can be both flattering and feminine. Femininity is an attitude, above all, she says. "You can wear a tuxedo and still be very feminine – a nice way to emphasise this is to add some red lipstick and big earrings."
The designer believes that today's social trends don't leave much room for super-strict dress codes. "There are so many places to go to nowadays that people do not want to feel constrained; they may simply go elsewhere," she says. "Having said that, I also firmly believe that there is a time and place for everything. You have to respect your surroundings and where you are going, and dress accordingly."
Often, it is the attire of employees at a venue that sets the benchmark for its visitors. Chalhoub believes her tuxedo-inspired outfits will give staff uniforms a bold and fashion-forward feel, making sure wearers look at home in the club's interiors, which combine framed art pieces with busy patterns on upholstery, drapes and carpets, for a vibe that's both electric and aristocratic.
"You have to think about what the customer wants to see, what works visually and what fits within the concept, but you also want to keep in mind that the person wearing it is actually working," Chalhoub says. "She needs to look sharp yet be very comfortable – so you have to think about practicality as much as aesthetics.
Many fancy establishments opt for provocative outfits for their female staff. By choosing a designer such as Chalhoub, who is known for creating clothing that is heavily influenced by menswear, Annabel's is shattering stereotypes of stuffy London clubs, and Chalhoub is reinventing a silhouette that society once deemed so unacceptable.