Chic is one of those odd words, like bad, that has two opposite meanings. As an adjective, it means what is current and fashionable. As a noun, it describes the elegant and unchanging fundamentals of style. Chic as a concept is our time's definition of timeless.
It may be easiest to explain chic by comparing it to what it replaced, the trussed up ultra-femininity of the 1800s. Chic emphasizes expensive simplicity above all. This is in line with what history suggests, that the fashion of one period tends to be a reaction against existing fashion.
Although the name most associated with chic is Coco Chanel's, the embodiment of chic most imagine is likely to be Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, in her black dress and updo. If we were to try and condense chic down to one outfit, it would probably be very close to this. The refined practicality of upswept hair, a black shift dress whose impeccable tailoring makes it more flattering than an evening gown, bare tan limbs bordered by single strands of jewels or pearls, low black pumps with champagne stem heels.
The backbone of chic is quality. A little black dress or trenchcoat done badly are just so much fabric. Chic's in joke is transforming the most unassuming of garments into revelations by cunning use of cut and details. A piece of clothing is chic when it emphasizes everything a woman's got while revealing none of it. A garment can be called chic if it is comfortable, moves easily and beautifully, yet still expresses a sense of restraint and propriety.
The philosophy extends to shoes and accessories. Less is more. A huge flashy jewel may delight the senses and bring a glow to the face of the woman wearing it, but it isn't chic.
Already, fashion has begun to hint at what will replace chic - the klutzy Bohemian wardrobe of Carrie Bradshaw, Karen O's deconstructionist spacegirl - but the climate hasn't yet become hospitable to such heretical ideas. Most likely the change will occur in the midst of tumult affecting more than just fashion. That's the way it's gone for centuries. When that time comes, Holly and Coco will be our new Gibson Girls, curiosities espousing an ideal that in hindsight seems ridiculous.
Fashion is made to become unfashionable.
- Coco Chanel