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Betty Catroux: Rebel In Pants

Betty Catroux: Rebel In Pants
By Bernie Rothschild

The recent news that France had abolished its law of 213 years whereby women in Paris cannot wear pants made me think of Betty Catroux and Emmanuelle Alt. Both women are barely seen in skirts and are renowned for their love of masculine style clothes. The law banning pants for women, which originated in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, was barbaric and sexist, women could actually be arrested if seen wearing pants in the French capital. Some find women in pants to be a bit rebellious. The pantsuit, which is the femme version of the male tuxedo, was first worn in the 1920s but became widely known in the 1930s thanks to Coco Chanel; as worn by Marlene Dietrich it became her signature style. Though highly controversial, the pantsuit is chic and helped to empower the women of the 20th century. The pantsuit had a hiatus during the 14940s and the 50s, but regained popularity in the 1960s due to André Courrèges and the famous Le Smoking of Yves Saint Laurent, despite the era becoming synonymous with the free spirited youthquake, it still was very inappropriate to wear by women. On one memorable occasion, the pantsuit caused a sensation in La Côte Basque in New York where the socialite and regular YSL client and friend Nan Kempner was denied access to the restaurant because she was wearing pants. So what she did was, she took off her pants and just wore the jacket as a tunic. For sure she didn't dare to open her legs, so risqué and chic at the same time. In the September 1975 issue of Vogue Paris, Helmut Newton captured the iconic YSL Le Smoking in the street of Paris where the model was holding a cigarette in a total homme look (that made the Marlene Dietrich style soft and feminine) which took two nights to make. The following night where a nude model was standing to model Vibeke Knudsen that somehow screams lesbianism. The image is one of the most influential fashion photographs of all time and made the Le Smoking one of the most important trends of the century.

The iconic Le Smoking suit was popularized and inspired by Betty Catroux, the muse and close friend of Yves Saint Laurent. Unlike another muse of Monsieur Saint Laurent, Loulou de la Falaise who is known for her flamboyant and feminine style, Betty is known for her minimal and almost hedonistic masculine fashion sense with her signature blonde poker straight hair that made her the fashion icon that she is. Betty was destined to be YSL's muse, her birth name was actually Betty Saint which is similar to the surname of Yves minus the Laurent. Like many other fashion icons, she was born into a rich bourgeoisie upbringing. Her mother was a Brazilian with Italian origin and a Irish father. Before she became affiliated with Yves Saint Laurent, Betty used to model for another French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, and she is also a friend of Karl Lagerfeld. Though she doesn't have any French in her veins, it doesn't stop her from being one of the most influential Parisian women, thanks partly to her association with Yves Saint Laurent. Betty's wedding to the French interior designer Francois Catroux also epitomized her personal style. Instead of wearing a traditional wedding dress, Betty Catroux wore a Pierre Cardin fur and boots influenced by the youthquake fashion of the 60s — how cool was that? The bond that she shared with Yves Saint Laurent was not just intimate love but they also continued to inspire each other creatively. Betty to Yves was like Audrey Hepburn to Hubert de Givenchy, Marie-Amélie Sauvé to Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Carine Roitfeld to Tom Ford during his time at Gucci and YSL Rive Gauche. Yves fondly called Betty his twin sister because of their striking similarities both physically and in attitude. Together with the late Loulou de la Falaise and Catherine Deneuve, their relationship with Monsieur Saint Laurent was not just business but it has has some personal intimacy. It was Loulou who brought out the colorful and the femininity in Yves and it was Betty who brought out his dark side, just like an Angel and a Devil. Their devotion to each other was admirable in the fashion world. It was the three of them who were at the side of Mr. Saint Laurent during his last hours.

Though her fashion sense is strictly masculine and hard, Betty Catroux is a hall of fame member of the best dressed list. Betty has watched many designers take the helm at Maison Saint Laurent (Alber Elbaz, Tom Ford, Stefano Pilati, Hedi Slimane) and all have based collections on her trademark style that symbolizes the eroticism of French androgynous style. Tom Ford dedicated his debut collection for YSL during spring 2001 which was largely based on her iconic style and the recent debut collection of YSL protégée Hedi Slimane was hugely inspired by Madame Catroux. Her presence is such a huge influence to the world of fashion that it affects other designers like Jean Paul Gaultier. Another women who I cited that is inspired by the androgyny of Betty Catroux is Emmanuelle Alt. These two have a mysterious allure about them and prove that French women can be fabulous in pants and by not putting too much effort into the appearance still look chic and elegant in her own way. Their style is the alternative to the French women that are identified with the grandiosity of couture style. Betty Catroux symbolizes the modern Parisian women, pants and all.

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Betty Catroux, Emmanuelle Alt, et al photographs courtesy of Condé Nast and Fashion Spot.

Reader Comments (7)

Wow Bernie, I am impressed with the depth of your knowledge. And Kellina, love the choice of pictures and the background. Tres magnifique!
23 août 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike
24 août 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbernie
I love Betty. She is fun & she is a fashion icon.
It was funny to see that she was at every Tom Ford shows for YSL whereas PB & YSL were not friendly with him (PB more than Yves).
The Spring 2001 is still one of my favorite collection ever. Every look is a perfect and a good mixture of the agressive & sexual style of Tom at the time, the sensuality & precision of YSL and the allure of Betty.

Emmanuelle is very iconic even if i find her style less chic & iconic these days. She is so chic in that white tux.
26 août 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLOLA
I agree LOLA, Tom's first YSL show was unforgettable, memorable to me, I remember it not getting good reviews!
What sign is Betty ?, E Alt is taurus, so she is more practical !
27 août 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaul
Even Tom Ford revolutionalize Gucci, his time in YSL was not that smooth. He dont have the support of Yves and Pierre Barge and they are critical of him. But his debut collection was sexy, glamorous and masculine- pure betty style His time at the fashion house was a commercial success but not that sucess critically. I agree that Emmanuelle is more practical but her style used to be edgy when she was P.V's Fashion Director agree?
28 août 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbernie
I agree Mademoiselle Bernie ! I do think as women { and Men } get older { better } they need to Edit their wardrobe and tone it down a little, for example, Emmanuel looks Great in the Saint Laurent leather jacket with fringe, but if she wore it with his slashed leather leggings and chain boots, she would look like she's trying too hard, her style these days is effortless and makes her look younger than she is ! Fashion never stops changing and rules like : No leather after 40, are tossed aside, to each his own and IWTBAA keeps inspiring us all !
2 septembre 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaul
i cant imagine E.A wearing slashed leather leggings and chain boots that style is very Carine non? But she should atleast dress up like before, the way she dress these days made us think that this woman brought Balmania to fashion and memorable photos to the pages of Paris Vogue, now what happened? You know.
3 septembre 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbernie

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