When Tavi Gevinson founded Style Rookie in 2008, a large part of the narrative surrounding her success came from the fact that at the time, she was a twelve-year-old girl with non-famous parents. The other part came from her exceptionally creative eye for fashion despite being from a Midwestern suburb. A Manhattanite fashionista at twelve? Meh. (Here’s an Upper West Side six-year-old running her own headband line.) But Oak Park, Illinois? That’s a one-way ticket to becoming the darling of fashion’s global elite.
Of course, that’s not to say Ms. Gevinson didn’t work for her success in the creative industries. She’s a writer, a burgeoning feminist thinker, an actress, a singer, a magazine editor, and a bevy of other professions ending in –er that are the stuff of dreams for most college graduates, all at the ripe age of sixteen. But that what the world considers fashionable is intrinsically tied to an urban environment is what Tavi Gevinson’s career both exposes and complicates.
In “Adorned in Dreams,” Elizabeth Wilson states, “Fashion links beauty, success, and the city… boiling all national and regional difference into a distilled moment of glassy sophistication,” (9). While Wilson is referring to passersby on a city street, today we can extend this moment to the experience of looking at photographs on fashion blogs shot by either the wearer his or herself or a professional street fashion photographer. Wilson continues: “The urbanity of fashion masks all emotions, save that of triumph.” But instead of using Wilson’s term, today we—and by “we” I mean everyone from the most respected fashion editors at the loftiest magazines to the 50-year-old couple watching Project Runway—use “chic” when attempting to describe this representation of “intellectualizing visually about individual desires and social aspirations” (9).
The ubiquity of the word, however, hasn’t necessarily made it less meaningful. In fact, “chic” is such a malleable term, that with every use, it becomes more and more impregnated with meaning. It’s almost as if “chic” is as both extraordinary and commonplace as a fashion staple like the Little Black Dress. And like the LBD, “chic” shows no signs of going anywhere. Bloggers and fashion editors joke about its overuse but continue to use it, with or without qualifiers (e.g. heroin chic, biker chic).
The representation of chic, however, is what has changed. In “Fashion and City Life,” Wilson describes the impetus for “chic” as the city itself: “The nineteenth century urban bourgeoisie, anxious to preserve their distance from the omnipresent gaze in the strangely inquisitive anonymity of the crowd where ‘anyone’ might see you, developed a discreet style of dress as protection” (137). This balancing act between opulence and a desire to blend in with the crowd is where we can formulate our most basic understanding of what is chic. Class and cultural capital must be easily readable on the body, but only by those who share the same language of style. The city, with all its threatening diversity, is where contradictions thrive in fashion, adding up to Wilson’s “moment of glassy sophistication.”
If we define “representation” as the successful communication of an idea through fashion, then we must define “chic” in order to discover what, exactly, these “chic” wearers are attempting to represent.
The contradictions that must be at play for “chic” to be accomplished often derive from negotiating between two poles of the same spectrum. For instance, Wilson uses the example of 1940s New York women’s fashion: “The formality of the jacket would be offset by a lean skirt… this was not androgyny, but the womanly woman, heterosexual as they come, on the streets, but her independence made vulnerable when she unbuttoned her jacket to reveal the bosom of a soft georgette blouse” (139-140).
Masculinity has continued to be a source for chic inspiration in women’s clothing. According to Angela McRobbie in “Secondhand Dresses and the Role of the Rag Market,” in the 1970s, Diane Keaton’s character in Annie Hall “alerted others to the feminine potential of the male wardrobe… these items of male clothing never conferred on girls and women a true androgyny. There was instead a more subtle aesthetic at work” (149). The aesthetic was chic—or more specifically, tomboy chic, which McRobbie points out is extremely different from actual androgynous dress like that of Patti Smith.
Over time, the elements that have come to signify a certain kind of chic tend to live on, embedded with new meanings as they travel. Hall’s floppy hat, for instance, made it onto the Style page of the New York Times just two months ago. These elements of fashion cannot be taken out of historical context. A basic understanding of the phenomenon could be a tip-of-the-hat (pun intended) to our preceding era of pop culturally-approved feminism, the 1970’s, as it seems we’re experiencing a similarly socially liberal period, which can be expressed in nostalgic dress—perhaps to some, the floppy hat represents intellectualism or androgyny.
But complicating gender roles is only one example of how chic manifests. Fashion struggles with many dichotomies, namely its own seriousness. Because fashion’s historical roots are tied with those of the highest classes who could afford fashionable clothing, the relationship between luxury fashion and subcultural fashion is played out today in urban street fashion. These seeming opposites—one takes advantage of the established system and the other says “fuck it”—play equal roles in establishing future trends and ideas about fashion. Old rules are broken for the sake of being broken, but at the same time, they may be broken by people who have benefitted from that system.
Therefore, “chic” is represented successfully when a wearer straddles the complicated relationship between two seeming opposites, and “triumphs” over the dichotomy. This is why “chic” is certainly subjective, but perhaps not as subjective as we think. Even though the word is overused in high culture as well as mass culture, I believe that this is because more people are noticing relationships play out in different ways through fashion. So even if the 50-year-old couple in suburbia watching Project Runway describes a Christian Siriano piece as “chic,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re just mimicking some offhand comment of Nina’s—it means they, too, are invested in the representative power of fashion.