Sunday 20 January 2019


What's in a word? I disagree with the Daniel Day-Lewis character in Phantom Thread - 'chic' has a place in our fashion lexicon

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread
Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

I love reading about the etymology of words. In my hometown, we have glorious Dublinese where 'looking Gorge-io Armani' is the Dubliner's fashion nod to 'looking fabulous'.

Some words don't travel too handy as I discovered to our great amusement in Australia. My good pal Linda Kav is an industrious shopper with a great eye for bargains, and when she shouted across a Sydney store to me that she was "going rooting", we were told by the bemused assistants that in Oz, 'rooting' means something quite different.

I love the new words I come across as I'm driving along Irish roads and on arrival at my destination, it's always interesting to backtrack a little and check out the origins with a knowledgeable local. On a trip to north Kerry to visit fashion designer Don O'Neill at his family home in Ballyheigue, I remember being struck by a road sign for Lyreacrompane, a name so utterly new to us, we savoured it slowly and later discovered that the name is a translation of Ladhar an Crompáin which means the space between converging rivers.

On a reporting assignment in the midlands, I chanced upon Rosenallis, a fascinating name which is so lovely to say out loud. Pronounced like two girls' names, Rose in Alice, the village sitting in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains has Quaker origins and dates back to 1659. I've often wondered if locals have a penchant for the Christian names or if they ever called two daughters Rose and Alice?

Last Saturday, I got stuck into a pile of books before watching the match and I happened upon a fashion dictionary with a comprehensive glossary of fashion terms. It was a yellowing paperback dating back to those days when I attended the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design - those heady days when I was impetuous and wanted to make all my own clothes as well as knit and crochet. Back then I was far too interested in getting my hands on bolts of fabric and slice inwards from the selvage to bother with books, so this was probably my first proper read of the book.

As it happened, an hour in an armchair reading out fashion terms I love. I have a fondness for the word piqué and love a good collar on a tradition Bonpoint dress, and I relished the details of how to do lettuce hems (they resemble wavy edges you get when you run a scissor along gift ribbon). The book proved to be the perfect prelude to my evening as I was off to see the highly-acclaimed fashion themed film, Phantom Thread.

Coming as it did between reading acres of print about the international fashion weeks, I was in the mood for some eye candy. Fashion reportage at these back-to-back stages is often so rushed, it falls into the realm of hyberbole and sadly Fashion Week shows are too much about the 'theatre', 'spectacle' and 'optics'.

In his role as the imperious and eccentric 1950s London couturier, Reynolds Woodcock, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Costume designer Mark Bridges has created arresting visuals which I was so looking forward to seeing as I'd read how the film's writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was originally inspired by a biography of Cristobal Balenciaga who is a favourite of mine. For two hours we watched the self-absorbed designer, the white coated 'petit mains' in his atelier and the young lover whose answer to his obsessive, controlling ways ultimately lay in her frying pan! My empathy was flagging when, out of nowhere, came a fiery tirade against the word 'chic' which he spat out after realising his client list was haemorrhaging.

"Chic? Oh, don't you start using that filthy little word. Chic! Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public. I don't even know what that word means! What is that word? F***ing chic! They should be hung, drawn, and quartered. F***ing chic."

The anti-"chic" speech Day-Lewis delivers is, it has been noted, arguably the new "cerulean blue" speech from the famous Meryl Streep monologue in The Devil Wears Prada. Okay, I will grant you that the fashion world is coming down with facile, overused phrases and over the years, there's been frequent railing against offenders like 'fashion forward'. Anna Wintour, who allegedly provided some of the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada, was reported to have a strong dislike of fashion creatives being 'on a journey'.

I know one Irish couturier whose face wrinkles up when he hears the phrase 'on trend' and, of late, retailers and marketeers just can't resist lobbing in references to 'pops of colour' and looks being 'reinvented'. I detest when praise is thrown out as 'totes amaze' or the terminal use of 'I die for' when you actually love it.

It's true, 'chic' crops up a lot, but used judiciously and sparingly, I think it can fit the bill perfectly. One word, four letters and to the point. I've witnessed women and men with that elusive flair for looking chic and it's not down to polished shoes and designer clobber. I've suffered weak-knee syndrome looking at it in museum exhibits.

The outburst in the movie made me go home and do some navel gazing. Yes, parties can be chic, decor can be chic and all too often, I find the people who deserve the title most are midlifers who turn heads, not because of 'pops of colour' or their 'fierce' silhouette, but because of their quietly considered, elegant assemblage of stylish pieces. They've the experience to achieve it naturally. Goddamnit, they've had the years to learn by their mistakes - including the 1980s.

I like how midlifers reach for a bag, not because they're told it's the designer label du jour, but because it works for them (and their back). They don't care to wear heels just to show off the colour of their soles. They wear wedges for height, stability and so they won't end up at the chiropractor the next day.

Telling someone who deserves praise that they look chic is probably the best compliment you can give. Let's do it more. Vive le Chic!

Irish Independent

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