Deconstructing “Chic”: What Does Fashion’s Favorite Buzzword Really Mean?

A little French, a little ambiguous – “chic” is one word that fashion people love to throw around with abandon. But what the hell does it mean? And how do you get it? Let’s peel this sartorial mystery like an onion and get cooking.

Americans love to buy into the idea that French people are morally superior to everyone else in the world, and if you’ve ever consumed a fashion magazine, blog, or TV show, you’ll know that French women practically slide out of the womb knowing how to be stylish.

Chic is a word used to describe a particular kind of style – something elegant, effortless, restrained. Even the word chic looks chic. Who needs the extra letters in words like beautiful, stylish, fashionable, well-dressed? Chic does it all in four letters and has time to smoke a cigarette.

A chic redhead in black tights, a black skirt, black boots and a pale pink top with half-moon tinted sunglasses.
She's like Molly Ringwald's delinquent younger sister who started sleeping with Duckie and then moved to New York with him.

But let’s cut the nonsense. Nobody’s born knowing how to look good. Everything we do in life takes effort, whether or not we show it. Everything we do well, we’ve practiced countless times before. Perhaps it’s just that French women get a head start in childhood, and with guidance from their mothers, they bypass the awkward phase entirely and emerge from puberty as fully-formed chic beings when most of us are still trying to get our bangs to lay flat.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in a white t-shirt, faded black jeans, brown cowboy-ish boots, and a black blazer.
Okay, being the daughter of Jane Birkin probably gave Charlotte Gainsbourg a head start on chic, but admit it - you wish you could look this effortlessly cool.

So how can the average person hope to achieve chic? Let’s break down the average chic look and see what it has going for it:

  • Lots of black. French women will tell you they wear black to look slimmer. But I’m convinced they wear black because it goes with nearly everything, never looks dirty, is a color that’s always in style, and makes even cheap attire look more expensive. Wear a black sweater twice in one week and no one’s going to notice. And if it’s good enough for Anderson Cooper’s t-shirt, it’s good enough for you.
Janelle Monae in a white blazer trimmed with black, wearing black sunglasses, standing next to a mirror.
Scientific fact - chic didn't exist before Janelle Monae was born.
  • Lots of neutral tones. Brown, navy, olive, camel, ivory, gray. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a way to clash if you’re wearing all neutrals. French women act like they’re just better at these things (n’est-ce pas?), but how hard is it to get dressed when you’ve created a system that can’t fail?
  • Simplicity. In chic, less is more. Less makeup, less jewelry, fewer accessories, fewer colors.
  • An emphasis on grooming. When you’re wearing subdued colors and drawing attention to your face, any imperfections in your hair or makeup is going to stand out. You can be artfully disheveled or have all your hair slicked back, but the common denominator is intention.
  • A healthy dose of “I don’t give a fuck.” The less you appear to care, the more people buy into your illusion.
A brunette woman wearing a cream-colored sweater over a cream silk blouse, black jeans and black boots, with a rust brown scarf coiled around her neck.
Rust brown, cream, and black make an outfit that looks easy, natural, and fool-proof.

In a comprehensive article by an expatriate living in France, I learned several interesting facts about chic French ladies that have the power to put an end to the collective masturbating Americans do over the illusion of French nonchalance: They don’t leave the house until they’re perfectly dressed and put together. They put a lot of time into personal care, like buying skin-care products, frequent haircuts, hair removal, facials, etc. They take care of their clothes meticulously, spending time ironing crisp shirts, de-pilling sweaters and hand-washing delicates. They look at themselves in the mirror often to fix their hair, smooth their clothes, or touch up lipstick. A French woman would never dream of going to bed without washing her face and applying moisturizer – even if she didn’t get in until 3 a.m.


The trick then, to being chic, is to completely deny that you do all these things and make it look like you roll out of bed looking great. Make no mistake: no one actually rolls out of bed looking great, there’s just an unspoken agreement amongst Teh Chic to answer every compliment with, “Quoi, this old thing?” (For a laugh, watch this video to see a French woman deliver an outrageous lie about using nothing more than “fresh water” to keep her skin clear and glowing. Apparently the fountain of youth is Parisian tap water.)

Everyone has to put the work into it – trying on outfits, changing their minds, doing and redoing their hair until it looks just right, smudging their makeup and fixing it, spending hours online looking for tights that are the exact shade of burgundy to match the dress they’re planning to wear to Thanksgiving. Everyone works at it. People who are chic just know how to cover their tracks and make it look natural.

A close up shot of singer Adele holding a microphone, wearing a black turtleneck sweater and looking beautiful.
Adele must have a fairy godmother. She makes being gorgeous look easy, but don't be fooled. Among other things, she frequently employs the help of thick eyeliner, fake eyelashes, acrylic nails, teased hair (and I suspect hair extensions) and loads of black outfits to achieve that retro glamour.

You don’t have to be a thin, white woman to be chic (despite the proliferation of thin, white women in the mainstream fashion media). After all, chic is about being yourself, letting your natural looks and your personality shine – with a big dose of “don’t care what you think.”

A statuesque, voluptuous woman with dark, curly hair wearing a tight black skirt and silky blue blouse.
Being chic is about being comfortable in your own body and highlighting your assets, like Tanesha from Girl With Curves.

When you’re chic, you don’t dress to impress other people. It’s not about dressing to attract a date. It’s not about following rules, trying to take up as little space as possible, or looking like a productive member of society. Being chic is about dressing to look as fucking awesome on the outside as you feel on the inside.

A young Asian man dressed in slim black jeans, black boots, a grey sweater over a white shirt and a shiny grey tie, holding an umbrella. Next to him is a watercolor painting of himself in that outfit.
This guy lives so chic he's even got a watercolor illustration of his rad style.

How do you get started looking chic? Keep things simple. Let your personality shine through. Limit yourself to one strong focal point by keeping the rest of your outfit neutral. Wear big sunglasses. Change your name to Emmanuelle. Start smoking imported, hand-rolled cigarettes. Listen to lots of Patti Smith. And give the finger often and with a disaffected air of mild boredom.

A Polyvore set of clothes featuring various chic items meant as inspiration.
Never underestimate the amount of time chic people spend on Polyvore planning their "effortless" outfits.

Or, you know…say “screw it” and do what feels right for you. That, after all, is the American way.

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