Chic and "The Phantom Thread"

Have you seen "The Phantom Thread"? We could talk for hours about its layered, remarkable story.

One line of dialog that stuck with me is the couturier Woodcock's response to his sister, Cyril, who informs him that a patron has decamped to another designer. He asks who, then why. "I suppose because the clothes are... chic", she says, flatly. He spits, "'Chic'? I hate 'chic'...that filthy little word."

I lost a few minutes pondering his response; his clothes are elegant, rigorous, but lack even a stitch of wit (as does he). Even for the mid-'50s era of the film, they are controlled, and project a glacial beauty.

Some reviewers call the clothes in "The Phantom Thread" chic because of their rigorous elegance. But the society women wearing them look untouchable, trussed; they are clothes for entrances.  Women are not expected to move in them. (One does fall face-first onto her plate.)

To the modern eye, such restriction is not chic; chic in our time embraces movement and fluidity, and we prize a less recherché presentation. Women are willing to wear shapewear, but not corsets.

Whether it even matters to be chic is another question. The answer is no, chic is a tiny dart on the fabric of life, not the whole cloth. Still, when we shop, we look in the mirror and hope to look "good". And if we can have that little extra tweak toward chic, no one complains.

Countless books teach the reader how to be chic in the French, English, Danish, business-world, socially-responsible or age-appropriate manner. You know the canon: neutrals, current but not trend-enslaved, quality accessories, your colour palette, a signature accessory. Not many writers say that a slim, long-limbed figure is a serious asset, because most of us would just close the book right there!

Such books brush over the concept of good design, but fashion magazines are actually its enemy, because advertisers in magazines like Vogue target a young market, and showcase their 'aspirational' status-billboard pieces.


At the other end of the spectrum, clothes that will fit a mature customer are too often stripped of any design interest (not that you will see those in Vogue).

Let's look at some examples of design-bereft and design-imbued goods at similar price points. (I am avoiding the judgement of "good" and "bad" design, which is a more subjective matter.)

1. A walking shoe
Both are in the "comfort" zone, but one has élan, one is just a shoe.
Left: Black Lace by Flexi
Right: Van's Old Skool

2. A black bag
Both fabric bags have a logo and a shoulder strap—but one doubles down with logo'd fabric which is supposed to impress.
Left: Coach "Edie 31" jacquard bag
Right: Want "O'Hare" shopper tote   

3. An embroidered navy sweater
"Chic" is sometimes defined as refusal of embellishment, but that is not an absolute. One is fussy, one fluid.
Left:  Navy seashore-embroidered sweater, Talbot's
Right:  Navy gold star-embroidered sweater, J. Crew

Writer and Instagram star Sophie Fontanel, who has an abiding appreciation of chic, says women ought to absorb images from anything but fashion magazines: fine and decorative arts, literature, architecture, film—and people-watch avidly. She is asking us to build our eye, so that when the market tries to sell us a mess of a sweater, we walk right by.

Woodcock feared chic; its modernity threatened his dominion over his swans. But chic is little more than good design, worn with confidence and good posture. It can be jeans and a tee shirt, today. There is no big mystery, and there is no imperative to be chic unless you want it. Practical is fine, pretty is fine, comfortable is fine, as are a dozen other effects.

And if you are interested in chic, you will probably refuse at least 75% of the mass market offerings, and make sure you feel at ease in whatever you do choose.


Janice Riggs said…
I'm now convinced that I want to see the movie, and given that I have a bit of a phobia about movie theaters, that's saying something!

And your comparisons of garments is spot-on, but without working to develop our "eye" and our sense of good design, it's elusive to see and appreciate the difference that good design can make.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your intelligence and insights - it's always such a pleasure to read anything you write!

Madame Là-bas said…
I found the movie fascinating and rich with so many thought-provoking scenes. Woodcock's designs reflected his general disdain for women. It seemed that he considered them either vehicles to display his work or unworthy to wear his designs. Fashion magazines do not offer the 60+ woman much. To develop the eye is an ongoing task. A very interesting read today!

LauraH said…
Love it when you show real life examples and comparisons are even better. I've really been trying to train my eye and your posts are such a help.

"...refuse 75% of the mass market offerings..."? Maybe more like 90% from what I can see:-)

Phantom Thread was excellent.
My Talbot's has got tacky... that crab and anchor t screams geriatric bus-tour, and none of my friends of any age would be caught dead in such a thing, even those over 80.

While the walking shoe on the left is hideous, it actually looks like an overall better design (without the strange strap atop the laces) than the Van's one, whose sole is too flat for serious walking.

I haven't seen that film, which is still playing here at Cinéma du Parc.
Francie Newcomb said…
Thank you for this. I'll look for "Phantom Thread." I appreciate these examples and would love to see more comparisons. You have such a sharp eye.
Rita said…
I agree with everything Lagatta said about the sweater AND the shoes.
I have not seen the film as yet but it is on my list. I find the comment about his seeming disdain for women in favour of the clothing quite interesting as I have always felt that this was the attitude of many current designers. There is a fabulous exhibit on at the Royal Ontario Museum right now about "Dior and his New Look" and I've been twice. So many of the outfits could be worn to the office and to a cocktail party today and no one would blink an eye about it being 60 years old - they truly are "Classics".
However there is one part of the exhibit that does bother me - they have a number of videos and one of them features Dior as he fits various dresses on the live models. He actually seems quite rough with the way he ties and unties necklines, turns the model physically and pushes and pulls the fabric across her body. It is as though she is completely invisible - and I suppose that is her job and it wasn't personal.
Another video shows a Runway Show and one thing my friends and I noted is that the models actually looked happy and happy to be wearing the outfits. Their posture is perfect, they smile, and they look lovely unlike today's runway shows that feature slouching children who look bored out of their minds or even downright angry! And chic is probably the last word that I think of when I catch any of these current looks!
I like to think of chic as being very personal things and the word that always comes to mind is simplicity. There is a woman who lives in my neighbourhood and I often see her on the subway - she always seems to wear a variation on a theme, a beautiful sweater over a crisp shirt worn with perfectly tailored trousers and stylish but sensible shoes. Her hair is always pulled back into a low pony tail and her makeup is simple but with a lovely lipstick. She always looks amazing and I can't help but note that she has very clearly found what works best for her and is sticking with it. She is my definition of chic!
Duchesse said…
Rota: I can walk for a half-day or longer in my Vans. I wear mine with an insole. If you would like a sole that is not flat, we can still do better (in spring) than the heavy black- they are out there; see Ecco's BioMStreet Sneaker:

Margie: Years ago the ROM had a fantastic show of couture clothes worn by Toronto women in the 30s though, I believe , 60s. Like yo, I went back several times. Dior was in it, and what stuck with me was a tweed suit (Chanel? Dior?) that had been worn so hard it was mended. It had been the property of a woman who could easily have bought another, but she loved that one so much.
The woman you describe sounds wonderfully-dressed and reminds me of Chanels' dictum, "Elegance is refusal."
LauraH said…
Late comment - just checked out the Ecco shoe you referenced. Like the look but not the high white sole, they always get so dirty with city walking. I've avoided Vans for the same reason. Maybe I'm fussing too much:-)
Duchesse said…
Laura: Magic sponge handles it. The thicker (does not have to be extreme) sole is much more current. Depends on if you can bear some upkeep.
LauraH said…
Check...Magic Sponge is on the buy list. Thanks.
Paula said…
Avoid all clothes that look like potholders!
I am in Waikiki right now and there are lots and lots of Japanese tourists. I must say they stand out for their grooming and their "chic". The styles are simple and beautifully cut with beautiful finishes. Even if the woman is tiny, her wide-legged, flowing trousers are in perfect proportion to her, as are the prints or stripes or patterns in lace. Or if she's a reed-thin, tall young thing wearing a giant oversized dress, there is something delightful about it. The colours combinations are classic as in navy and white, indigo and white or classic Japanese shibui – astringent colours put together in a most harmonious way. If that is "chic" – I want it. I am a maker of most of my own clothes and wish I could purchase the wonderful fabrics used in their clothes. I disagree with Mr. Woodcock – I do not think chic is a filthy little word. It is something I aspire to even if I'm wearing the simplest of clothes.
Duchesse said…
Vancouver Barbara: I know exactly what you are seeing. When I was in NYC last spring, I noticed that the chicest group were Japanese (I overheard them). Not sure if tourists or residents (I was staying near the UN and embassies, and ate in several Japanese restaurants.) The colours were subtle and subdued but not dull. They did not feel compelled to add that "pop of colour". They did not wear pointless trends like cold-shoulder tops or coats with every possible furbelow from ruffles to piping. Gorgeous polished cotton, fine linen.

I also saw a clatch of Italians in wild mixed prints, tons of jewellery and electric-blue or coral Tod's loafers (this was at J. Kos, their dream store) and damn, they looked good too. Different aesthetic.

You can buy Japanese fabrics online at stores likeMiss Matabi:
Unknown said…
As always, your insights are so valuable.
I personally found Phantom Thread to be belabored, and in need of some editing. But your insights still apply.
The main character's insistence on cosseting, as a right of a creative genius, was more a revelation of the requirements of a second rate creative, and that was reflected in the clothes. I read one article about the costumes after seeing the film, and it seems the intent was to make designer clothes that were not remarkable. That pretty much fits, for me. The white lace slapped on the red day dress, the weird seamed flap detail on the bodice of the wedding dress, used beautiful fabrics and tailoring but to what end.
It's interesting to me, because if I see a photo of a Dior new look dress with the nipped waste and big skirt it looks fun. Not like the clothes in the movie.
I agree with your examples of chic and not chic.
My favorite picture of my mother was taken at a ladies tea party in India in the 1950s. (All English and American ladies). The hostess is wearing a sari. All the other ladies, other than my mother, are wearing print dresses. My mother wore a slim cut dress in navy with white piping, simple with clean lines. Way to go Mom.
My personal donnybrook is shoes, I have very narrow feet. I would love to have a pair of contemporary sneaks, they don't seem to come in narrow sizes.
Thanks, Duchesse, for the link to Japanese fabric.
I adore these, but they aren't available in Canada yet. Or in Europe. Only in Oz, NZ and the US: Merino running shoes! Though they aren't really for running, except running for the bus.

I was also wondering about the Fit Flop uberknits, they do have those on-trend soles but less flat than the Vans:

I'm wondering whether they'd be supportive enough; they sure look comfy.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: There are a few brands of wool-upper shoes on the market now,. If I bought them, I'd store them in an airtight box, because moths will love them.
I think I'd store them in the freezer! That is true, foot odour (no matter how much we bathe, moths will smell it, as cats and dogs do) would certainly attract the little bastards.

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