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Chic (band), a United States disco band

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Chic is a French word, established in English since at least the 1870s, that has come to mean smart or stylish. Early references in English dictionaries classified it as slang and New Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge noted, with reference to its colloquial meaning, that it was "not so used in Fr[ench]." There is a similar word in German, schick, with a meaning similar to chic; indeed chic may be linked to the word chicane.


Examples of usage

Over the years "chic" has been applied to, among other things, social events, situations, individuals, and modes or styles of dress. It was one of a number of "slang words" that H. W. Fowler linked to particular professions – specifically, to "society journalism" – with the advice that, if used in such a context, "familiarity will disguise and sometimes it will bring out its slanginess."

  • In 1887 The Lady noted that "the ladies of New York ... think no form of entertainment so chic as a luncheon party."
  • Forty years later, in E. F. Benson's novel Lucia in London (1927), Lucia was aware that the arrival of a glittering array of guests before their hostess for an impromptu post-opera gathering was "the most chic informality that it was possible to conceive."
  • In the 1950s, Edith Head designed a classic dress, worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film Sabrina (1954), of which she remarked, "If it had been worn by somebody with no chic it would never have become a style."
  • By the turn of the 21st century, the travel company Thomas Cook was advising those wishing to sample the nightlife of the sophisticated Mediterranean resort of Monte Carlo that "casual is fine (except at the Casino) but make it expensive, and very chic, casual if you want to blend in."
  • According to American magazine Harper's Bazaar (referring to the "dramatic simplicity" of the day-wear of couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, 1895-1972), "elimination is the secret of chic."


Although the French pronunciation (shēk or "sheek") is now virtually standard and was that given by Fowler, chic was often rendered in the anglicised – and distinctly unchic – form of "chick". An example was in Simon Raven's Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames, 1978), a television drama based on the events leading to the Abdication crisis of 1936, when the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee (played by Patrick Troughton), used the word slightly contemptuously during a meeting with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (David Waller).

In a fictional vignette for Punch (c. 1932) Mrs F. A. Kilpatrick attributed to a young woman who 70 years later would have been called a "chavette" the following assertion: "It 'asn't go no buttons neither ... That's the latest ideer. If you want to be chick you just 'ang on to it, it seems".

By contrast, in Anita Loos' novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), the diarist Lorelei Lee recorded that "the French use the word 'sheik' for everything, while we only seem to use if for gentlemen when they seem to resemble Rudolf Valentino" (a pun derived from the latter's being the star of the 1921 silent film, The Sheik).


The Oxford Dictionary gives the comparative and superlative forms of chic as chicer and chicest. These are wholly English words: the French equivalents would be plus chic and le/la plus chic. Super-chic is sometimes used: "super-chic Incline bucket in mouth-blown, moulded glass".

An adverb chicly has also appeared: "Pamela Gross ... turned up chicly dressed down".

The use of the French très chic (very chic) by an English speaker – "Luckily it's très chic to be neurotic in New York" – is usually rather pretentious, but sometimes merely facetious—Micky Dolenz of The Monkees described ironically the Indian-style suit he wore at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 as "très chic". Über-chic is roughly the mock-German equivalent: "Like his clubs, it's super-modern, über-chic, yet still comfortable".

The opposite of "chic" is unchic: "the then uncrowded, unchic little port of St Tropez".

The "-chic" form

Towards the end of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st, lexicographers, such as Susie Dent in her annual Language Reports (2003-6) for the Oxford University Press, noted how "-chic", as a suffix, came to be applied to various trends in fashion.

Radical chic

The compound term radical chic was popularized by American journalist Tom Wolfe in his 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, where it was used to describe a dinner party held for the Black Panthers and white socialites by Leonard Bernstein. (The coinage itself was by Seymour Krim in a 1970 essay. The 1970 essay criticized The New Yorker for having published James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time in 1962, "after years of ignoring social issues". By extension this was applied more generally to the adoption of radical causes by well-to-do society figures and celebrities. It was around this time, for example, that actress Jane Fonda ("Hanoi Jane" as she came to be dubbed) developed contacts with the Black Panthers and embarked, in 1972, on a controversial visit to North Vietnam.

Such apparent incongruity had been observed also in France before and during the "May Revolution" of 1968. A contemporaneous account of early disturbances at the University of Nanterre noted that "it is the girls that give the show away - culottes, glossy leather, mini-skirts, boots - driving up in Mini-Coopers ...". Similarly, in Paris, "the theatre of the barricades ... attracted its share of chic walk-ons in Saint Laurent".

Chic to chic

Some imitative terms, such as heroin chic (the waif-like, drug-addicted look of the mid-1990s associated with model Kate Moss) and boho-chic (a Bohemian style popularised by actress Sienna Miller in the mid "noughties") had a significant and recognisable impact, but others were essentially the passing coinages of journalists or retailers.

Generic terms

Recurring generic terms included designer chic (associated with the styles of particular coutouriers - the 1980s became known as the "designer decade") and retro-chic (adopting elements of fashion from the past: e.g. "Victorian chic", "sixties chic", "Georgian chic".

Chic gardens

In 2002 the Royal Horticultural Society introduced an award category of "chic garden" at its annual Chelsea Flower Show (first held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in 1913). The society anticipated that such gardens would display "modernity, innovation, imagination, controversy, stylishness and boldness", an assertion that the Times' gardening correspondent, Stephen Anderton, described as "buzzword heaven ... [T]hey could be wonderful or awful. I dare say some will be both, and I think we are guaranteed some fun here".

The first winner of this award was "Understanding", designed by Tamsin Partridge, a landscape gardener from Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, which included a zig-zag path made of tyre treads and planting that featured purple cannas, phormiums and bronze grasses.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Chic" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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