With elegance as we knew it dead and buried, chic is next to go.
Recently, I walked into The Mark restaurant in Manhattan to meet the designer Thom Browne for dinner. As he still practices the protocols of chivalry, Thom stood up from the table to greet me and said, “Amy, you look so chic!” The compliment was very much appreciated, and not solely because of its source. I realized at that moment how rarely I hear the word “chic” anymore. In my early years as a fashion journalist, chic was the ideal that we all sought in our clothing, our interiors, and our behavior. Chic was less staid than elegance, more rarefied than beauty, and more sophisticated than glamour. There was a little bit of a dogwhistle quality to the term, as chic was not necessarily perceptible to everyone, and somewhat in the eye of the beholder. You just knew chic when you encountered it, and it always gave you a frisson. No single culture, class, or period ever had a monopoly on chic. It had, in fact, long been a subject of inquiry, of interest not only to designers, but also to artists and writers.
In 1914, Sem – the pseudonymous French illustrator who caricatured such members of the beau monde as Colette and Chanel – put together a tract, Le vrai et le faux chic, lampooning the fashion victims of his era. Though his approach to the topic was humorous, Sem insisted he was achieving a “serious goal.” In 1951, novelist Nancy Mitford wrote an essay, “Chic – English, French, and American,” in which she praised the chic French woman’s “vigilance” about her appearance and her surroundings. In the 70s, the band known as Chic churned out disco hits, the better to dance the night away in slinky Halstons and Saint Laurents. Then, in 1985, editor John Fairchild published Chic Savages, his mordant chronicle of the fashionable personalities of the day.
Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
Sometime not long after that, chic as a virtue and an aspiration began to fade from view. As nature abhors a vacuum, dubious variants on the idea began to surface, such as “reverse chic” and “shabby chic,” both conferring unmerited snob appeal upon threadbare clothes and unkempt homes. Women’s Wear Daily even recently coined the unfortunate term “scrap chic,” to describe fashion upcycled from trash. Says Reinaldo Herrera, a guardian of Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list, “People don’t want real chic anymore because they don’t understand what it is.” My friend Charles-Antoine, a banker and trenchant observer, phrases it more bluntly: “Chic is now a four-letter word.” So what (to use fashion historian Harold Koda’s words) has made “the flame of chic sputter?”
Fashion’s present glorification of youth – so pathological nowadays that laws have been introduced to regulate the age of models – has certainly been detrimental to chic. In the past, even adolescents wanted to look like women, not girls. Starting in the 60s, with what Vogue editor Diana Vreeland termed the “youthquake,” a juvenile appearance became valued over a worldly one. Infantilism in fashion has only escalated drastically since then. Everywhere, men and women have adopted the playground attire of children. Sneakers, often outrageously costly ones, are on every foot, baseball caps sit on every head, T-shirts cover every torso, and short pants are worn by men, in New York City and beyond, as soon as the temperature hits 15C. Mitford foresaw this sorry sartorial future, at least in the US, where she had already noticed “too much of an accent on immaturity” for real chic to thrive.
Plastic surgery, performed in the name of youth and allure, may have also diminished the incentive to be chic. Consider the Duchess of Windsor, who famously said that though she could never be the most beautiful woman in the world, she could be the chicest. Today the Duchess might have just undergone extra cosmetic procedures to up her game.
My friend Ariel, a jewelry designer and formidable personification of French chic, notes that the effort to look “cool” has likewise overtaken the desire to be chic. “Chic implies mystery” she states. “Cool is more obvious, more accessible.” Koda reflects, “Our culture now values big expressions of vulgarity and wealth, or else pure branding.” Instagram, which feeds on immediacy, novelty, and popularity, is the enemy of chic. As it involves a nuanced and personal language of proportion, line, and gesture, chic cannot be absorbed at a frenetic Instagram pace.
In her prescient essay, Mitford also contrasted the disciplined, chic woman with the compulsive consumer “who would rather have a quantity of cheap dresses and throw them away after two or three wearings.” Now, of course, fast-fashion retailers and rental services enable customers to own nothing, never wear the same item twice, never repeat a look on social media – and never develop an individual style. There are gathering signs, however, that this disposable approach to fashion may finally be on the wane. Established companies are re-embracing the notion that good design is perennial.
For spring, both Alaïa and Manolo Blahnik have reissued evergreen pieces from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s (Alaïa’s paneled skirt and leather trench; Blahnik’s buckled mules and desert boots). Similarly, Marc Jacobs and Versace are revisiting the 90s with their revived and refreshed grunge and safety-pin collections, respectively. Meanwhile, the latest hyper-elegant collection from the emerging label Atelier Caito for Hervé Pierre suggests that a neo-chic movement may already be afoot. One dependable rule of fashion is that whatever seems démodé today is destined to return. Though the idea of chic may seem antiquated, soon, with any luck, it will not. When chic comes back, I’ll be ready.