It’s believed that the French term chicard (predecessor to our modern “chic”) was inspired by the stylish patrons of establishments such as the Bal Chicard, a mid-1800s Parisian dance hall, where historian Luc Sante describes the scene as rife with “outlandish costumes and wildly stylized attitudes …” and dances that were “especially unbridled.”¹ It isn’t hard to imagine weaving amongst the spirited ball goers, or stopping to eye the le chahut² dancers with their legs kicking up through the layers of their rustling skirts, sometimes with little beneath them. The black smudges on their faces accentuating flashing eyes, rouge lifting their cheekbones. Banned as these scandalous dances and costumes were for a time, they were also part of the Chicard’s fresh allure — a little bit wrong, a little bit messy, a little bit misbehaved.
Parisians frequented dance halls like the Chicard to embody the experience, or to experience those who created it. The floor became a stage where they could put their imagination to use as player, or observer. Where the expression of their individual style was on full display — a style that played with the conventions of fit and taste dictated by the era. Either way, the experience, or the expression of it, is what mattered most.
Since the days of the chahut, we’ve become even more adept consumers of experience, as we live in something of a golden age of travel, cultural accessibility, and increasing individualism. And shopping for clothing, or the search for what fits, is no exception. As an experience, it can lead to consumption, but doesn’t always have to. The act of discovery, and the thrill of the hunt, often being the means to an end. It’s an experience we engage in to take our minds for a ride, much as we might do when flipping through a magazine, or scrolling through a website, except that it is far more visceral.
And when we do end up making a purchase, it’s sometimes as much the byproduct of the narratives and characters evoked by a particular garment or style, as the garment or style itself. Achieving the “perfect fit,” then, might arguably have more to do with style and expression, than technical accuracy. Yet, there’s a new crop of UX-driven clothing manufacturers that partially remove the act of discovery from the process. Through big data trends, crowdsourcing, and mathematic algorithms, they seek to determine our perfect fit — without ever requiring us to get up from our desks.
Instead of traipsing through stores or frequenting social establishments in search of said perfection, all we have to do is take several app-guided photos of our body, or fill in our measurements, then upload that information to the company’s website. In exchange, we’re promised a selection of bras that will fit our curves perfectly, a tee-shirt that will hang just right, or a pair of jeans that are cut exactly for our body’s unique size and shape. The streamlined experience these brands boast might remove trial and error from the act of shopping, but at what expense? What if that sometimes tedious, sometimes joyful experience they hope to minimize, actually plays an important role in developing our personal sense of style?
To many, building a wardrobe isn’t only about fit. It’s also an act of creative expression. The final product being, in part, about reliving the emotional process of obtaining it, and the sense of identity wrapped up in each piece that holds a special place in our closet. When we look to a mathematical algorithm to obtain the right fit, we may also inadvertently remove personal style, emotion, and cultural context from the experience of purchasing a garment, and the thrill or satisfaction we derive from the hunt.
We already willingly play out much of our hunting for clothing and objects on our phones and laptops. Why, then, do online retailers that employ algorithms to determine fit, feel so devoid of charm? The answer may lie in the term “fit,” and what we suppose it to mean. The algorithm-based model only addresses fit in the narrowest definition of the term: the right size and shape, based on one’s physical measurements. But it doesn’t take style, personality, or aesthetic innovation into account, which is influenced by a number of factors situated in age, era, geography, and access. Like the underground chic conceived in 19th-century Paris, “fit” is a product of its time, and so are we.
Clothing was first conceived as a method of protection. We employed fur for warmth, leather for durability, and metals for safety. But tailoring changed the way clothing was viewed and consumed, opening up the possibility of dressing not just for utility, but also for pleasure. In essence, it became a ready-to-wear means of self-expression, a marker of aesthetics, and eventually, an art form.
Henry Petroski, civil engineer and author of The Evolution of Useful Things explains that, “ … with the advance of civilization, including in particular the development of class distinctions and the emergence of mass production, the ability to make and the desire to own a variety of things in a variety of prescribed styles came together in the mixed blessing of a consumer society.”
The advent of mass production only further reinforced this. What was once a luxury reserved only for the wealthy soon became even more accessible to a wider range of socioeconomic classes. And while clothing’s role and the experience surrounding its consumption has evolved tremendously, it remains just that for many people — an experience. One that our current consumer society has at least partly engendered, as we embark on another flea market search for that deep emerald vintage coat, scouring eBay for the Isabel Marant dress we once saw, that perfectly evokes the spirit of Joan Didion’s dinner parties, or strolling along a shop-lined avenue in a new city, where each window arrangement embodies the fantasy and essence of that particular place.
Manufacturing models that cut out the middleman, and sell directly to the consumer, are an effective means of trimming excess time and money spent on potentially ill-fitting clothes. No one can argue with that. It’s hard to say, though, whether they can achieve the kind of consumer satisfaction on which they’re building their brand stories and promises. And they don’t seem to do much for the development of taste, or one’s personal sense of style — something that’s exercised and refined by touching, trying, eyeing. There’s no way to create an algorithm for that, because it’s too wrapped up in desire, and the possibility that a garment, which at first might appear “wrong,” might suddenly, magically, look “right.”
Furthermore, the history of design and innovation doesn’t ascribe to the creed “form follows function.” Function, according to design theorist David Pye, is not “the activity proper to a thing.” Instead, he suggests that form is more often dictated by choice or chance. “Nothing we design or make ever really works,” he says, because it constantly fails its ideal. Airplanes still crash, threads still unravel. Clothing, too, is at once representational, artificial, real.
We have a long way to go in our understanding of technology, and if it can truly be successful in transforming information about our physical bodies into the perfect “fit.” It would seem that personal style and fashion sense cannot be programmed, that the hunt cannot be hunted for us. Would we even want it to be? Desire is a fundamental part of being human. And for many, the process of dressing is a complex balancing of what looks and feels good. Which also provides the freedom we crave to exercise that kind of chic that’s a little unbridled, a little bit off, but ultimately, entirely, us. It’s about what we align ourselves with aesthetically, politically, and socially. That which is deeply rooted in our interpretations of the present, and in abandoning ourselves to the possibility of what we might become.
1. According to Alexandre Privat d’Anglement, one of the great flâneurs of the19th century, who made it his profession to wander the streets and establishments of Paris, observing and writing about daily life in the city. See Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, 169.
2. A possible predecessor to the more formal can-can dance, with its signature high kick. The Other Paris, 169.