Book Review: The Power of Glamour

You’d think that after working in the fashion, beauty, and entertainment industries for ages, I’d have a lot to say about the subject of Glamour. But like a fish trying to describe the water it’s been swimming in for the last thirty years – when asked, I find myself short on words.

But Virginia Postrel can describe Glamour very well. The former editor of Reason examines the elements and meaning of glamour, and comes up with a fascinating and enlightening book on the subject.

Glamour has not been given its due respect – we may hear the word used (and overused) to describe any number of people, places, and events, but calling something expensive or rare ‘glamorous’ doesn’t automatically make it so. And although Glamour may be used to sell any number of products or ideas, that does not mean it is merely a superficial commercial tool.

Rather, Glamour is a communication of an ideal, one that resonates within the viewer by coneecting with what Postrel calls our “inchoate desires”. A glamorous image speaks to our sense of ‘”if only”: if only I could wear that dress, drive that car, fly that plane, dance with Humphrey Bogart on a tennis court. Glamour stirs the feeling that a life outside of the one we’re living is possible, and its possibility makes us want it even more.

And Glamour isn’t just tied to modern commercial products. Sure, mass media has expanded the reach of glamorous imagery. But long before the invention of photography, Glamour was used to glorify the prospects for heroic action in warfare, and the transcendent beauty of saintly virtue. Glamour exists as a Pied Piper of sorts: leading its audience to desire an improved future, whether the improvements are status, beauty, ease, mastery, or sublimation.

Glamour in popular culture is often tied to women and our products, but Postrel’s examples make it clear that Glamour has an allure for men as well. In the book’s sidebars she examines diverse icons of glamour – many of them traditionally masculine in nature. Superheroes, aviators, horsemen – all have glamorous attributes that inspire men (and now women) to look beyond the helplessness and drudgery of everyday life and aspire to heroic deeds, if only in our imagination.

Glamorous imagery has certain elements: there is always an ease: think of Audrey Hepburn’s grace, Superman’s ability to fly, even a wind-powered turbine’s smooth contours. There’s also perfect synchronicity: James Bond always has a getaway waiting, mosquitoes never bite in the tropics, and the roads never have traffic. And there’s a shimmering substrate to Glamour: the sparkle of diamonds, the water of a tropical beach, or the lights of Paris.

But Glamour exists in what it hides as well. Photographs are airbrushed, and not just of people: when was the last time you saw a lamp cord in a decorating magazine? We never see Ginger Rogers’ battered feet (or her offscreen gum-chewing habit) – instead we take away the image of her perfect grace and synchronicity in a dance number. Sunglasses hide as well as accentuate a face – not knowing what the wearer is thinking, we can project our own thoughts and emotions onto her.

And that is the most mysterious component of Glamour – it doesn’t exist without our own thoughts and feelings, which we project onto the imagery we personally find glamorous. We may not even know exactly why we find something glamorous, and on many levels we know it’s a fiction. But there’s part of a glamorous image that is telling the truth: if we dream of driving that car up that beautiful winding road in the woods, free of traffic and concern, what does that say about our life and what we want? And how does that differ from our desire to have superpowers and save the world? Or to be effortlessly graceful like Grace Kelly or Cary Grant? Or to be welcomed into Paradise after martyring ourselves in Jihad? As Glamour speaks secretly to our aspirations, its effects can be both wonderful and tragic.

And I’ll leave you with one more thing: the video which enthralled me when MTV first appeared. It’s got all the elements of Glamour, especially to a bored arty teenager in 80’s Alabama: darkness, glitter, a secret nightclub, even a superhero element…and let’s not leave out (for a budding makeup artist) cheekbones and face paint:

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion

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