Cheap Chic: 40th Anniversary Edition

Cheap Chic, the fashion classic, has been reprinted in a special 40th anniversary edition, with a foreword by Tim Gunn.

Cheap Chic, original edition cover

I don’t remember where I first read this book; it must have been in the 1980s, and I’m pretty sure it was a public library copy, the cover reinforced with whatever the library grade of Con-Tact paper is.

By that time I was already dressing much like the authors of the book, or as much like them as a high-school student in North Carolina could dress, so I read the entire thing as an exercise in confirmation bias. Of course I had olive drab army pants (several pair, including one I’d chopped off into shorts). I had multi-button wool sailors’ pants (too warm for the climate), men’s white t-shirts and oxfords, penny loafers, and (a significant find) a pair of incredibly beat-up (and uncomfortable) pair of boy’s cowboy boots, bought at a thrift store in Hickory, NC. I’d swiped my dad’s Levi’s jean jacket AND his Eisenhower jacket. I had good leather bags and belts (bought as seconds at the Coach outlet in town). I was certainly cheap; this book told me I was chic.

Re-reading Cheap Chic is half nostalgia, half discomfort. It’s difficult to read this now without noticing what I didn’t notice back in the eighties: the constant underscoring of the idea that the base requirement for chic is a “lean body” (and the assumption that everyone reading the book could easily fit into boy’s-size clothing and would be comfortable going braless in leotards). The regular and slightly thoughtless appropriation of clothing from different cultures and classes (“ethnic” and “worker’s” clothing), including the advice that you should “Tune into Soul Train when you’re running low on ideas!” And of course, so much fur!

The best reason to re-read Cheap Chic is for the interviews with designers, including Betsey Johnson, Rudi Gernreich, and (best of all) Diana Vreeland:

It’s hard to read Cheap Chic without thinking about the assumptions behind what made things cheap or chic: things were cheap because they were either made cheaply (by people you didn’t think much about otherwise), were the surplus of the militarization of the twentieth century, or because you had the resources to invest up-front in something well-made and expensive that would last a long time (Saint Laurent boots are mentioned often). Things were chic because they made you look young, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, thin, and rich.

I’d recommend reading Cheap Chic just to experience this discomfort, and to try to bring it forward into our lives now. What assumptions are we making today that will make our grandchildren cringe?

Book Review: The Empress of Fashion

I don’t know about all y’all, but for me Christmas isn’t Christmas if I don’t get at least one fantastic book that I burn through like a flash fire. This year, I asked for (Thanks Ro and George!) and got this marvelous book about Diana Vreeland:

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

Honestly, it was everything I hoped for and more — much more biographical detail than Vreeland put into her own books (Allure and D.V.), much more historical context (I had no idea of the connections between Vreeland and Warhol, for instance), and many, many, many fantastic quotes, including:

I suffered, as only the very young can suffer, the torture of being conspicuous.


When you’ve heard the word, it means so much more than if you’ve only seen it.


You must always give ideas away. Under every idea is a new one waiting to be born.

and especially

Luck is infatuated with the efficient.


Funny girls would rather look interesting than safely pretty. The look they avoid, in fact, is prettiness in the country-club sense.

and — further proof that DV was very wise —

What do I want with a bloody old handbag that one leaves in taxis and so on? It should all go into pockets. Real pockets, like a man has, for goodness’ sake.

Honestly, if you can read all those quotes and NOT want to read this book … well, go back to the beginning and read them again.

Vreeland has always topped my list of “what person in history would you want to have dinner with?” and this book almost makes up for that never happening. Almost. (Where’s my gosh-darn time machine?)