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Marlene Dietrich wore one. So did Judy Garland, Princess Diana and Catherine Deneuve.

The tuxedo. It's never been just for the guys.

Now it's coming on strong again for women. Feminized tuxedo looks were a prevalent theme on the runways during the recent run of Fall 2001 fashion shows in New York.

And the trend is bound to go mainstream.

Historically, when it comes to tuxedos, some designers take the direct approach, showing a tuxedo jacket with, say, flowing evening trousers. Others just hint at the look, trimming black dresses with satin, for example.

Either way, the look can't be beat on the luxurious elegance scale. And in cold-weather climes, it's not a bad option during the winter months. (Even though most designers show it blouseless on the runway, or with skin-baring tops.)

So what's its appeal?

It's comfortable, for one thing. Sophisticated, for another. And, as Pulitzer Prize writer Alison Lurie once wrote: It projects power and a dangerous eroticism.

And there's more.

The tuxedo works especially well with fashion's latest fascination with the waistline, said designer Carmen Marc Valvo, who favored the look during New York's Fashion Week, which concluded last Friday.

"What I like about it, besides its masculine edge, is that the tuxedo pulls the eye toward the waist, which is a great focal point," said Valvo, reached by phone this week.

His runway collection included cummerbund detailing; elongated tuxedo jackets, and high-waist banded tuxedo skirts and pants.

A mysterious quality also is evident, said Valvo.

"There's a sexy edge to it," he said.

And the combinations of matte and shine make it alluring as well, he added.

While women can go the Dietrich route - she wore top hat and tails in the 1930 film "Morocco" - Valvo and other designers often put their own personal spin on the look:

For example:

Carolina Herrera took black tuxedo trousers and added a black strapless bustier instead of the traditional jacket. The must-have belt to wear with it: low-slung and glittery.

Designer Joseph Israel presented a female version of a tux as well - in patent leather with no blouse.

Marc Jacobs translated the tuxedo look for women by pairing a satin-trimmed jacket with side-striped Bermuda shorts.

R. Scott French, in his premiere women's collection unveiled along with his men's wear during New York's Fashion Week, ended the show with a woman wearing a tuxedo jacket, with slight sparkle, and matching full-cut pants.

French said the look has always been considered a sexy one.

"It's funny; men dressing in women's clothing isn't sexy but women dressing in men's clothing is," he laughed.

The idea, however, is not to look like the busboy at a wedding, he said.

"The key is to make it feminine; a woman can't just throw on a man's tuxedo. It will look too sloppy," said French.

Instead, the jacket has to be fitted to a woman's figure. And it's probably best to pass on the pleated shirt and bow tie business.

The model wearing French's one-button tuxedo jacket wore it without a blouse, "but I could see a woman wearing it with a silk shell underneath," he added.

A writer from Newsday was particularly smitten with Calvin Klein's take on the tuxedo:

"We've seen a lot of these on the runway this season, but his, almost luminescent in black, double-silk satin, was slim and elegant - a closet classic," she wrote.

A bit of history: Yves Saint Laurent has been credited as being the man behind women's black tie. In the '60s, he christened his tuxedo and cigarette-slim pantsuit Le Smoking.

It was a hit.

The reason: "There is nothing sexier than bare flesh next to an elegant black satin lapel. Nothing streamlines a leg like a slim pair of black pants with a razor-sharp crease from waistband to ankle," wrote James Sherwood, a tuxedos-for-her fan from London's The Independent.

And there are many, many ways to wear it.

For example, try it with zero details, advised Sherwood, in a December 1999 ode to the woman's tux - particularly Saint Laurent's Le Smoking version.

No jewels except discreet diamond studs. Nothing around the neck. Basic black stiletto pumps.

Or, for a family soiree, slip a black chiffon blouse under the tux, find a pair of flat beaded slippers and lose the jacket on arrival, he suggested.

Or twin the cigarette pants with a black leather, zip-front cropped jacket and black beaded slippers.

But it's not just the tux women have borrowed from formally clad gents, fashion followers point out.

It's also the accessories.

In their book "Chic Simple: Clothes" (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone highlight some of them: Wing-collared, pleated-front shirts. Soft bow ties. Cummerbund belts (lots of these during the fall shows in New York). Monogrammed velvet or suede slippers.

And who do you think you have to thank for patent-leather flats with bows?

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