What does fashion’s favorite word actually mean? Matthew Schneier traces it all the way back to Baudelaire and asks everyone from Peter Copping to Carine Roitfeld about this most ineffable of qualities.
“My weakness is chicness…”—Ira Gershwin, “Alessandro the Wise,” 1945
The majority of Carine Roitfeld’s 2010 interview in Russian Vogue was all but unintelligible to the Western world—at least to the large swaths of it not versed in Cyrillic. Alongside a characteristically moody Hedi Slimane portrait ran a Q&A with Roitfeld, then the editor in chief of Paris Vogue. It found its way into the Roitfeld-worshipping corners of the blogosphere, where eventually a helpful fan provided a complete translation. But for the last question, she needn’t have bothered. Though there is a Russian word for the single term she chose thrice over when pressed to describe herself in three words—шик, or “shikarnyi” in everyday speech—her final answer was printed in Latin case: Chic, chic, chic.
The French have a way with indefinable qualities. They have a long-established phrase for it: je ne sais quoi. So does the fashion world. It’s chic. Chic is when something is stylish, when something is cool, when something is proper, when something is ineffably, indescribably, great.
And often, in our bubbling, malaprop-strewn lexicon, also when it isn’t.
Open a fashion magazine, load a fashion Web site (including this one), attend a fashion show, or eavesdrop at a fashion party, and it is a given that you will read or hear one particular word: chic. (It hardly matters on what continent you’re looking or listening; as we’ll see, chic is chic is chic, in America and abroad.) It is used so often that it can shade into Zoolander realms of parody—the sucked-in cheeks, the widened eyes: “Chic!”—but has also managed to come out the other side, returning to the terra firma of reality. “Chic!” I have heard a fashion editor gasp approvingly to another in breathless admiration. There is usually only one response. “Very chic,” comes the reply. (“Superchic,” if you’re in Paris.)
“Chic” is one of the fashion world’s signifiers of choice. It dominates magazines. Online outlets like Chictopia have cropped up around (some version of) the idea. Beauty, too, has glommed on. When Emily Weiss, the beauty blogger behind Into the Gloss, relaunched her site a few weeks ago, she announced her intentions with a raison-d’être: She started her blog, she wrote, “because I couldn’t find anything…for lack of a better word…chic online that presented the subject in a kind of roundabout way.” For help presenting that subject, she might turn to one of the innumerable products drawing on the concept. CoverGirl, MAC, Chantecaille, Chanel, NYX, and Estée Lauder all put out lipsticks or glosses called “Chic” or a compound variant thereof; Bare Escentuals, Maybelline, and Dior offer eye shadows by the same name; and from the disparate ends of the ether, Celine Dion and Carolina Herrera each offer a Chic fragrance. You can literally paint with all the colors of the chic.
Outside the traditional world of style, chic abounds too, often getting appended to everything from film production companies to porn mags. It lends, even in the oddest juxtapositions, a hint of fashion. Chic has run races. (The Thoroughbred filly Chic won the Hungerford Stakes in 2004.) It’s taken to the roads as a car, too, albeit in small numbers. (A Chic, originally produced in the twenties, is currently enjoying its long retirement at Australia’s National Motor Museum.) Chic has been a Nile Rodgers-fronted disco group, which coined the immortal assertion, “Le freak, c’est chic.” (They were nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame seven times.)
In the seventies, Chic was even a men’s magazine published by Larry Flynt (whose more famous title is Hustler). Flynt’s Chic found itself the defendant in a lawsuit when Jeannie Braun, an animal trainer at the Aquarena Springs entertainment center in San Marcos, Texas, claimed a photo of her in a swimsuit with Ralph, Aquarena’s diving pig, was published under false pretenses. According to Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman’s The Right to Privacy, Braun averred that the magazine’s editor told her Chic was “a fashion and travel magazine with the same readership as Redbook or McCall’s.” The highbrow title, no doubt, helped sell the idea, though the double-entendre with “cheek” is likely intentional as well. More recently, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock picked up and inverted this little joke when one of its characters founds a clothing line and appears in a new logo T-shirt, with rhinestones spelling out C-H-E-E-K. “It’s pronounced chic,” she says imperiously. “It’s French.” (See Fig. 1, next page, for a by-no-means-comprehensive chart of the many products and services labeled Chic.)
But despite its dalliances in other spheres, it’s in fashion where the word has enjoyed the most constant usage. “The word does get linked to pretty much everything at the moment and it does get thrown around pretty easily,” complains Peter Copping, creative director at Nina Ricci, whose fluttery Parisian ready-to-wear may have a better stake on the term than most. Marco Zanini, creative director at Rochas agrees. “It is so overused, it really lost its meaning, from my point of view,” he says—so much so that a few seasons ago, he dedicated his entire collection to exploring what the word actually means. When he began searching on Google and Google Images, he “realized that basically on the Internet it doesn’t have any meaning at all. If you Google ‘chic’ you’ll be amazed by the cheesy stuff that will pop up.”
Those on the editorial side have noticed, too. Two years ago, says Heather Wagner, copy director at Elle, “we even had a meeting about it. It was on every other page. It was back when Carol Smith was our publisher; she actually noticed it and said there’s a moratorium on the word ‘chic.'” Some arbiters are recommending restraint. “I don’t throw that word around lightly,” Tommy Ton tells me. And what the repercussions of constant usage are remains unclear. “Is this going to be a dated word?” Emily Weiss wonders when I phone her to ask about for-lack-of-a-better-word chic. “Is this going to be like ‘groovy’?”
But “chic” doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. After all, the word has already survived a long and, it turns out, puzzling history, one with no clear origin. It seems to have come into popular use in French in the middle of the 19th century, though there’s some question about whether its predecessor is actually German. (Even if it did originate there, Germans now use the French version.)
Its first recorded appearance in French is in the writings of the splenetic French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, writing in 1846 when, apparently, the word was new. Chic, he says, is a “horrendous and strange word, recently coined, that I don’t even know how to spell” (mot affreux et bizarre et de modern fabrique, dont j’ignore même l’orthographe). (In fairness, he is speaking specifically of chic’s usage as a descriptor of a new artistic style—one that is, he goes on to say, une monstruosité moderne.) But some version of its current meaning exists at this time too, as when Gustave Flaubert, in a letter of 1845, comments on the “chic” of Genoa. (Interestingly, in early uses, this Frenchiest of words is more often applied by Frenchmen and women to describe non-French places.) By the 1880’s, it was appearing in English texts. “She is wanting in what the French call ‘chic,'” wrote the Pall Mall Gazette in 1888. “An untranslatable word, denoting an indispensible quality.” By the middle of the following century, it was in the American vernacular of the Gershwins.
Is chic untranslatable? Its caroming between languages fully intact suggests it may be so. Words with elusive meanings like chic “are actually really quite likely to be borrowed between languages precisely because they’re hard to sort of pin down,” says Professor Mairi McLaughlin, who teaches and studies the history and usage of French at the University of California, Berkeley. “Having a foreign word for this sort of quality seems to work quite well.” Even as it is absorbed into other languages (such as English), it retains its original pronunciation. Contrast that with a word like “niche,” also from the French, but which has been domesticated into a more typical English pronunciation (“nitch”).
If chic has no birthdate, no homeland, and seemingly, no limits on use, what is it? “Artistic skill and dexterity; ‘style,’ such as gives an air of superior excellence to a person or thing,” reads the Oxford English Dictionary; also “‘Stylish,’ in the best fashion and best of taste.” Yet, says McLaughlin, “the dictionaries only go so far. Its origins are elusive, like the original meaning of the word. It’s a perfect word for a more in-depth study, but it just hasn’t been done.”
The journeymen in the industry of chic—Zanini, Copping, et al.—agree that pinning it down is difficult, but attest that you know it when you see it. (Given that that was also a famous judgmental criteria for obscenity, maybe chic and Larry Flynt do have more in common than one would originally have thought.)
“Chic is about a way of being, because there is no specifically chic item or dress, it only depends on the person; it depends on you,” Zanini says. “I don’t think it’s purely on appearance or the way somebody dresses, I think it’s how they live their life,” Copping adds. “I keep thinking back to a woman like Pauline de Rothschild, who was very refined in the way that she dressed, but then she was also known for doing the most beautiful tables for any dinner party that she gave; her apartment was beautiful; and I mean, then I want to say very chic. Those people, when they have to thank someone it would be a handwritten note, not just a text that’s flashed off to somebody. And I think in culture at the moment there’s kind of a dumbing down on a lot of those fronts.”
Chic is frequently defined in relation to specific people, and it has many avatars and exemplars: society women like de Rothschild and Nan Kempner (the subject of a 2007 Met Costume Institute exhibition, Nan Kempner: American Chic); muses like Inès de la Fressange and Caroline de Maigret. In more casual badinage, it’s often applied to just about anyone with the wherewithal to don a Chanel suit—preferably in a black-and-white photo.
But chic, some rush to say, isn’t a mere suit. It’s a birthright. “I think chic is a beautiful word and one of the most difficult to try to explain, because I think you are born chic,” Carine Roitfeld says when I reach her by phone in Paris. “You cannot be chic. It is something you cannot learn.”
The indispensible quality can be totally untethered to clothes. “You can be chic naked,” she says, conveniently enough, since she’s made unapologetic sex appeal—in herself and her work—something of a trademark.
Let the record show: “I don’t think I said that, you know, because I think it’s very, very pretentious to say that about yourself. I love that people say, ‘chic, chic, chic,’ but I’m not sure I’m chic, chic, chic at all…I would never say that. I hope I have a chic attitude, but, you know, never enough chic for myself.”
Voilà chic: the journey, not the destination.
With its meaning shifting, subjective, and all but indefinable, is chicness our weakness? Or is it, durable as it proves to be, actually a strength?
There’s some evidence that the word itself is both expanding and contracting. McLaughlin points to a phenomenon known as semantic bleaching, in which exposure or overuse weakens the power or effect a given word may have. (A classic example is expletives, which have become, with certain key exceptions, relatively domesticated over the years.) It’s thanks to semantic bleaching that chic often requires a modifier of some kind: très chic, ultra-chic, very chic. Even, arguably, chic, chic, chic.
And yet at the same time as it is weakening, chic is also moving in new directions. “I think it’s true now people use it maybe more than it was before,” Roitfeld says. “It’s masculine and feminine. It’s international. It’s for all ages.” It suggests the old but also the new. “Chic is a word that has this kind of allure that to me is so obsolete,” Zanini adds. “This is why I like it.”
Herein lies its new power. In meaning as in usage, chic just keeps going. The coinage of, for lack of a better word, compound-chics, unglues it even further from its original associations. It can now function in its own stead as a complement to things unlikely to be associated with any of its original usages. One of the most notorious of these chic-isms: heroin chic, which was raised originally as a concern (did the models of the early nineties glorify destructive behaviors?) and has migrated into a kind of genre all its own (the collected early photos of Kate Moss, say). But there’s also geek chic, biker chic… The list goes on. In inviting a whiff of fashion into even the most fashion-phobic spheres (geekdom!), chic may be the ultimate aisle-crosser. Overuse and even misapplication seem hardly to have dampened its glow.
Of course, many words come to mean far more in use than the strictures of their original definitions would allow. (Case in point: “cool,” formerly a temperature, then a valuation, now acceptable as an adjunct—”casual cool”—or even as an affirmation. “Should we go to the party?” “Cool.”) But the loosing of chic from its moorings most closely mirrors that of another fashion-favorite word: It. Coined (some say, though there is debate) by the novelist Elinor Glyn in the twenties, it describes the magnetic attraction of certain women or certain men who have that certain something. It became a film in 1927, It, and birthed the first (so-called) It girl, Clara Bow (literally It‘s star). Now there are not only It girls and It boys, but It bags, It shoes, and It items all around. Even, like chic, in other languages. (“Mulberry crée un it bag en l’honneur de Lana Del Rey,” French Elle.)
Which begs the question, given each’s shifting connotations and enlarging meanings: Is “It” chic?
But answering that, in the words of one of the century’s great rhetoricians, depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.