Thursday, September 21, 2006

What is Chic ?

The human brain needs small incentive to go on a day dreaming track when provoked. A casual question on a perfume forum made me think about what constitutes chic in perfume. The unanimous response reigning supreme was Chanel #19, a scent I personally love and consider very chic indeed. Other chypres also featured prominently. However the issue deserves pondering on and not just writing it off with a few predictable recommendations.
Antisthenes the famous Greek philosopher, has a saying attributed to him, by which I have abided all my life: roughly translated, the beginning of wisdom lies in exploring meanings. So what is chic? I have thought about that, first of all.


People have different definitions: some consider chic equals “confidence, timelessness...fragrances that are effortlessly stylish”, others say that it “means fashionable, to be sure, but also stylish in a kind of lean 'n' mean, insolent, provocative way” and cites models of a certain designer house as examples.
Ayala, a perfumer herself had this to offer: “timelessly stylish (as opposed to the passing fashion-du-jour). There must be something about it just a little bit cool or aloof in a way - as if there is no real attachment to the scent (or the fashion item), and they are just used as a tool...”

Luca Turin addressed the issue in a humorous way in The Emperor of Scent:
“Chic is first when you don’t have to prove you have money, either because
you have lots, so it doesn’t matter or because you don’t have and it doesn’t
matter. Chic is not aspirational. Chic is the most impossible thing to define.
Luxury is a humorless thing, largely and when humor happens in luxury it happens
involuntarily. Chic is all about humor. Which means chic is about intelligence.
And there has to be oddness –most luxury is conformist and chic cannot be. Chic
must be polite and not incommode others, but within that it can be as weird as
it wants.”
By that same token, Madame Clouzot, sister to film director Henri-Georges Clouzot in talking about French perfumery she deemed only two houses as really great French perfumers. She then ascribed Guerlain to cocottes (=kept women), while Caron was for duchesses (proper, proper chic). What the French consider chic nowadays is “a sort of kept-woman vulgarity”, luxury that shows. So I do find myself simpatico with that opinion expressed above. 

Many times women’s glossy magazines, fashion editors and coffee table books devoted to style do spreads with images alluding to the following ladies: Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly - and Katherine Hepburn if the editor is having a good day...More subversive personalities, like Diane Vreeland or D.Furstenberg, are considered exceptions that consolidate the rule. In that light, chic at some point deteriorated to certain "style-icons" of Western perception and scope.
A pearl necklace, a camel coat and black leather pumps look. You know what I mean. Timeless, classic, a little preppy. (I am having a difficult time imagining in those terms what would be chic in India, for instance, if one takes into consideration clothes’ tradition and climatic differences) But what was it that equated chic with that look? Is this chic? Not if a hundred women out there go out and copy it; because isn't chic supposed to be sophisticated? And what is so sophisticated and individual in following in the footsteps of someone else, someone as well known as the style icons just mentioned? I mean, everyone would expect it. Hmmmm...

In the interests of objectivity I searched the term online too.

The Free Dictionary had this to offer:
adj. chic•er, chic•est
1. Conforming to the current fashion; stylish:
chic clothes; a chic boutique.
2. Adopting or setting current fashions and
styles; sophisticated: chic, well-dressed young executives. See Synonyms at
1. The quality or state of being stylish;
2. Sophistication in dress and manner; elegance.

By that definition, chic has a stylish air, a contemporary element (not something obsolete) and yet possesses elegance aplenty.
Also there is this definition by Wikipedia: “means stylish or smart, as reflected in styles of fashion such as heroin chic or boho-chic”. This leaves much more leeway, though, for almost anything.

So what are the perfumes that personify all the elements of chic? What is elegant, contemporary, sophisticated, non aspirational, confident, insouciant, and humourous?
Maybe it can be better defined by what is not in that league.

Too much luxury has an effect of “blinding” the sensory receptors, registering as bordering on show-off. Cascades of costly ingredients, rich velvet feel, gold tinged nuances: all that points to the direction that the wearer wants to be perceived as wearing a rich perfume (why that would be desirable, enough to make it to a beauty magazine such as Allure with the corresponding views of Frédéric Malle -the head of “ Éditions de parfums”- in the article "How to smell discreetly rich", is perhaps the theme of another article). What could be included in this super-luxe category? Obviously the Clive Christian and Amouage perfumes, which are so costly they surely stand as the olfactory equivalent of a Hèrmes Birkin bag -in crocodile skin, no less; costs as much as a small car and has a waiting list of at least two years. I’d rather give my money to charity, thank you.

Unfortunately, although not as pretentious, there are other perfumes, lovely, gorgeous perfumes that bring to mind lush plush and starched banknotes: Joy, Shalimar, Boucheron femme and homme, 24 Faubourg. They don’t smell un-chic. But they do smell conformist, like someone who wants others to know he/she has good taste. Alas many oriental fragrances suffer from this affliction.

Too much sexuality is also anathema to chic, not because very sexual beings are not chic per se (they can be, as proven by some), but because advertising one’s sexuality with perfume might border on the desperate. So hairy-chested, virile, traditional male aftershaves that purport their attractant properties like Kouros pheromonic experiments and perfumes that have the dubious fame of resembling odorata sexualis (such as Musc Ravageur, Boudoir, Shocking, Obsession or Ambre Sultan to name but a few) bring to mind catcalls to carnality and cannot be seen as insouciant. Sorry…They do serve their other purposes admirably, though.
Too much experimentation on the other hand, that avant garde that is so prevalent among niche brands with unusual synthetic ingredients that mimic everyday objects of sometimes even an unpleasant nature, are also removed from the elegant part of the equation. Comme des garηons is a prime candidate, although I love their Incense series.
Obsolete creations that have withstood a myriad incarnations or bring on the reminiscence of another era can also be excluded. They do attach themselves to ageist jokes of a cruel nature and this is sadly to their detriment as well as to the joker’s. I am afraid Quelques Fleurs suffers from this fate, along with certain old lavenders, such as Yardley English Lavender. It’s not a fault of the perfume; it’s just that they seem far-away and not intended for a major revival.
And there is no need for me to elaborate on why fragrances that smell too much like food do not have associations with chic, now is there?

So what does that leave? I find iris scents and non invasive chypres chic. Some aldehydics can be too, if they don't conform too much. Even some select orientals could, if one wears Opium the way I do: very casually. Yes, Chanel #19 is very chic, exactly because it never shows off and is never more or less than a lady. Miss Dior is also playfully audacious and naughty under the effluvium of floral notes. Rive Gauche vintage is so coldly steely it can cut a swath in a room and make everyone wonder without ever becoming bothersome. Bois des iles is wonderfully composed to sit equally well on men and women, in formal or informal attire. Tauer’s L’air du desert worn by a discerning male could be very chic. Defiant. Mitsouko in all its veiled mystery can be chic, simply because it never elicits the instant recognition compliments and is sexual in a most intriguing, never obvious way. Guerlain Vetiver is always chic; dicreet but individual. Alpona or Jicky on a man could be all those things as well. I would like to put Madame Rochas in its older incarnation in this league, along with modern ones like Voleur de roses, Timbuktu, Fumerie Turque, Tubereuse Criminelle and Iris Poudre. Possibly there are others too.

Does perfume play such a major part in grafting chic-ness onto an individual? Is that even possible? I don’t know for certain. All I know is that chic needs humour. So maybe even the least expected perfume can be viewed as chic on a person who has the wit to make it his/her own.


  1. Anonymous16:26

    "...if one wears Opium the way I do: very casually."
    I decided to stop reading this blog when you said that.

  2. A pity...we would have had fun, otherwise!

  3. Yes, in a way this comment took me aback, too. It is patronizing. But this is all about perfumes and perfumistas, isn't it? It's all about us and our lessons from perfumes. And here we have a blog. And lucky me, I wear Opium very casual, too :-)

  4. Hi Maria and thanks for commenting! Hope you like it here. A fellow Opium lover too :-)

    Now in regards to my comment, since it might be eluciding to see how I initially meant it and you can read on if interested: There is no intention of patronizing (why would I need to tell people I don't even know nor would I ever meet what is right or wrong?), although people are free to believe what they like.
    A blog is an author's venue of personal opinion and it needs no sugar-coating or political correctness of expressing what is after all a personal opinion. I don't need to apologize for what I write on my very own venue, my "house" so to speak, and if someone gets offended, they can stop reading like Anon above apparently says they did.
    I have personally worn this perfume so successfully as attested by several commentators of all walks of life and for so long that I can feel secure in the expression of an opinion on it and how to wear it without thinking I am coming across as "superior"; perhaps a little more experienced in this particular frame of things. If someone who doesn't even want to sign with a pseudonym so we can conduct a proper dialogue has a problem with that, I guess this is not my problem.

    Having said that, I'm glad that there are people like you who take this in the proper spirit: a discussion among people who are deeply interested in perfume and exchanging honest opinions on it and its implications.

  5. danoji12:55

    Hmmm... I am a man who loves Opium used in a casual way... I'm not a confirmed perfumistud, but I love the rush of carnation and spice that Opium lends, without hitting me over the head with a cinnamon stick club or landing me in a flower patch... I find the scent cheerful,without being too sweet,and a bit mysterious,and delightfully humorous,with a hint of serious sexuality... MY definition of chic... The EdT is certainly more casual than the EdP, and can certainly be worn on a daily basis in a casual way, without being cloying

  6. Danoji,

    thank you for stopping by and commenting!
    I am glad you have a "feeling" for Opium, as I completely agree with your assesment on Opium's success. It IS cheerful in its own way, and also _suprisingly- a bit "clean" too: it imparts the feeling of mystery but not of heavy-handed seduction.

  7. The Opium part charmed me. I was hesitant to buy this scent though quite intrigued. It is definitely not easy to wear but it has lingered on my mind for quite some time now. Casual is definitely the way to go with this undeniably powerful scent. :)

    My 13-year affair with Bvlgari Pour Femme is still passionate.

  8. One more thing: I'm very, very glad to stumble upon this site. It is just very elegant in content and character - certainly this type of subtlety and wit are not really appreciated in this era. Admire your wit and class to recognise the truly beautiful things in life - all that are just innate. Thank you for sharing so generously.

  9. You're very welcome and I appreciate your saying so.

    Pour Femme is also a lovely perfume to have as signature!


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