Cheap Chic was one of those publications that I had heard mentioned and referenced for years before finally getting my hands on a copy. Reading an interview with the French designer Christoph Lemaire where he praised the book I was excited and shortly afterwards disappointed when I realised it had been out of print since the late ‘70s and was trading on eBay for $300+. Deciding that was too much of a plunge I put it out of mind. But every once in a while, I would see it mentioned by a designer or stylist. Its influence was seemingly widespread.
When the book was recently reissued I snapped up a copy—curious as to what value or insight a style bible for the short of cash from the mid-1970s would have in 2017. I was pleasantly surprised by the format, much of the writing feels as though it could have come from a well-curated blog. Conducted in a breezy manner the book combines the systems approach with ideas about layers: classics, second-tier classics with categories for workwear, military, ethnic and sportswear. Alongside appear interviews with both leading designers of the day (most relevant among them Yves Saint Laurent) and fashionable friends of the authors presented as mini-case studies. While the focus is largely on women’s fashion it still has plenty of insight for the male reader.
“Classic” is an ever-shifting principle based on the selective reading of the past by the present but I was impressed by how little had changed about dressing well on a budget. The author’s first recommendations are to get some well made straight leg jeans in a traditional blue wash. The brands preferred (Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler) continue to make some of the best mid-priced and styled jeans that are widely available. This is followed by advice on the best cheap tee shirts and most versatile colours—along with a very 1970s guide to hand dying them for better shades. Alongside are recommendations for cheap jersey rollnecks and good places to buy painter trousers in ecru canvas. These are pieces that would still build a strong core wardrobe in the present day.
I was also surprised to see that the authors were so enthusiastic about military surplus as fashion items considering the still ongoing war in Vietnam. The authors sensibly state that militaries can't afford to have clothing that falls apart and at the time they were still made in good quality 100% cotton material. They’re an incredible bargain made beautiful by their utility. Although, they do advise that you tailor and customise your surplus gear to avoid appearing like a recently demobbed soldier. The sections on sportswear and comfort clothing are similarly modern in their outlook and sensible in their recommendations.
Beyond the prescriptive advice of the book which is very much in the vein of modern capsule wardrobe systems (there is even a mention of the cost-per-wear system) I was impressed with the farsighted thought process of the authors and some of their interviewees. The sense that conspicuous consumption was undermining the traditional wardrobe and that people were chasing ever briefer trends, are very contemporary concerns. There were even some sections that I longed to see updated such as the regional guide to the best cheap vernacular dress for wherever you may be travelling: knitwear in the UK, gauze trousers in Morocco, leather boots in Spain.
Overall the book was much more than an amusing look back at fashion during a difficult period—the 1973 oil crisis was causing upheaval throughout the West. It’s a refreshingly prescient overview of style on a budget at a time when no one trend dominates. A time when one can through confidence and flair create the wardrobe and look of your imagination. Despite its age it earns a prized place on the bookshelf.