Chic to Chic

Jennifer responds to Joanne Finkelstein

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Joanne Finkelstein’s intriguing title, ‘Chic Theory‘, appears to offer a definitive understanding of what chic means. But if you read it with this aim, you’d be disappointed. The title looks like an afterthought which unfortunately fails to capture the material covered in the article. Instead of concentrating on matters of chic, Finkelstein ranges over a sweep of episodes and accounts of various aspects of fashion: from Brazzaville’s sapeurs (the darlings of magazines like The Face) to the (has been?) darlings of pop culture — David Bowie, Madonna and Vivienne Westwood.

Despite these examples, most of the article is spent disinterring the thoughts of classic theorists such as Quentin Bell, Thorstein Veblen, and Georg Simmel, as well as contemporary commentators like Alison Lurie, Andrew Ross, Douglas Kellner and Ted Polhemus.

I had three problems with this approach. First, I never discovered what chic theory was; second, I could not decipher any clear argument or explanation about fashion in general; and third, the encyclopaedic approach to the field meant that the article lacked any focus or particular insight.

In all, Chic Theory was very disappointing. This is not to say that Finkelstein has not presented useful material or might spark a student’s interest, but the general reader would have difficulty locating something other than an all inclusive, bob-each-way explanation of chic (and other things).

In trying to summarise her thesis, I reached the end without finding any clear exegesis. Finkelstein seems to be obsessed with the ambivalence of fashion, for example, that the cultural tendency to ‘read’ the physiognomic surface of the body is ambiguous and ambivalent, sometimes being read literally and sometimes not. Further, a related cultural tendency sometimes makes a parody of physiognomic readings, in sometimes quite bizarre ways. Witness, Elton John’s excessive foppish outfit worn to his 50th birthday bash. What are we to make of this? Should we even bother? In other words, despite her protestations, Finkelstein never entirely rejects a ‘physiognomic reading [that] makes physical features and appearances seem revelatory of the secrets of personal identity’. Rather she relies on adding elements of multiple, ambiguous and masked readings, subversive readings, and parodic readings. For her, these are all variants of the centrality of the physiognomic explanation of chic.

Another of the curious features of this article is the obsession with the (western) city and urban lifestyle. Although never clearly delineated, Finkelstein seems to uncritically rehash the mainstream view that fashion exclusively belongs to the western, modern soul (presumably her fashionable sapeurs are mere imitators of this). Her account is even more extreme, confining fashion and chic to the city in a curiously metropolis-centred approach which ignores fashionable and chic behaviour in a range of other locales and situations.

While she seems to imply that the sapeurs are exemplars of this urban thrust of chic, the case of the sapeurs surely raises much more interesting and confounding issues concerning the articulation and co-option of some elements of chic dress codes and their re-working in quite other environments. Also curiously absent from her account of the sapeurs is the fact that because they are unemployed and poor, they rely on fakes and theft to achieve the aspired look: verisimilitude and appropriation by the dispossessed. Whereas Finkelstein nterprets the sapeurs as desperate imitators of archetypal western modernity (specifically Parisian couture and lifestyle), they could be more persuasively related to the longstanding interest in, and bricolage of, elements of traditional and western dress in African cultures. 1

In other words, Finkelstein, like most commentators on fashion, accept the belief that fashion is a purely western phenomenon associated with the rise of capitalism and urbanism, a view which can only be maintained by denying the existence of fashion elsewhere (modernity versus the primitive). But as a growing number of studies are showing, non-western cultures have shown an equal if not surpassed interest in changing and variable codes of dress which are often more subtle and dynamic than those of the high street or couture. For example, in a fascinating study of Chinese footbinding,

Dorothy Ko argues that:
“the discourse of Chinese lack of fashion provided the occasion for Europeans to reflect on, criticise, or celebrate their own devotion to progress. In each case, Europe needed the Chinese Other to complete its image of its modern self. Yet the fact that the Empress Dowager and the Hong Kong ladies found European fashion laughable and its practitioners pitiable is a useful reminder that China has its own agenda just as it has its way of seeing. 2

Instead of offering the reader a new and rich account of how chic ‘works’ — and doesn’t (dress and decoration do not always ‘speak’ or need to be read), Finkelstein presents a confusing array of ideas and reflections but no clear or new insights. This is a pity since she has written widely on fashion and has the ability to build on her earlier work rather than rehash parts of it with new targets. Chic may elude the sociologist’s desire for a neat and definitive explanation; because of that possibility, a rather different approach to the topic is called for.


1. Joanne Eicher (ed.), Dress and Ethnicity, Oxford, Washington D.C., Berg, 1995.

2. Dorothy Ko, ‘Bondage in Time: Footbinding and Fashion Theory, Fashion Theory’:

The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture , Volume 1, Issue 1, 1997, pp. 3-27.

Jennifer Craik is a member of the Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, Griffith University. Her publications include The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

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