Glamour And The Multiplicity Of Desire

StRandall’s post on modesty as “anti-glamour” provoked an interesting discussion in the comments. “It’s funny that you should regard modest clothing traditions (headscarves, veils, etc.) as inherently anti-glamour. Didn’t a piece about the glamour of nuns appear in this space not too long ago?” challenged commenter bearing. She noted the glamour she finds in Franciscan habits, as well as her young daughter’s attraction to the clothes worn by some Somali playmates.

In his post and subsequent comments, Randall seems to equate glamour with sex appeal, beauty, or opulence, while Bearing has something more emotional and multi-faceted in mind. Their back-and-forth raises fundamental issues about glamour and desire. And, much as I admire his thinking, I have to disagree with Randall. Modest dress is not intrinsically anti-glamour. It all depends on the audience.

One of the central themes of my book-in-progress is that glamour is not a style but a quality that stokes desire—of many different kinds—and inspires imaginative projection. Glamour concentrates what the Japanese call akogare: desire, longing, aspiration, and idealization, with a suggestion of the unattainable. Its promise of transformation and escape taps longings for whatever the audience finds absent in real life. The common desires to be beautiful, wealthy, or desired are particularly amenable to glamour. But there are many forms of desire, and thus of glamour, besides luxury and sex. The desires glamour expresses—for love, wealth, power, beauty, sex, adulation, friendship, fame, freedom, dignity, adventure, discovery, self-expression, or enlightenment—vary from person to person and culture to culture. Many of those desires are quite compatible with modest dress.

Pioneer dress portrait

It seems obvious to me, for instance, that the nostalgic dress of Renaissance Faires and other historical re-enactors is all about glamour, however modest the attire may be. (And, as Randall notes, it is not always modest.) Here’s my version circa 1968 (don’t you love the crooked bangs?), wearing the antithesis of the miniskirts that were my normal school attire. My mother made this “pioneer girl” dress for me as a Halloween costume, and it was my favorite. I wasn’t exactly nostalgic for the 19th century, but the difference between that dress and ordinary life did make me feel special. As a child in the 1960s, where short skirts were the norm, I found long skirts glamorous. Reserved for the past and for adult special occasions, they appealed to my desire to escape the everyday.

Bearing’s comment about Franciscan habits reinforces my book's most controversial argument about glamour: It can take religious form. One can yearn for unity with God, for righteousness, for a special spiritual state just as one can yearn for wealth or fame. And, just as glamour can be used to sell movies or fashion or beach holidays, it can be used to sell religion. Much, though by no means all, traditional art traffics in glamour. It uses mystery and grace to encourage viewers to project Sharah_medium themselves into the scene, where they might witness in person the exemplars of their faith and feel their own spiritual yearnings satisfied. The simplicity of a Franciscan habit can thus be glamorous to someone who sees in the garment the fulfillment of spiritual desires, overlooking the drawbacks and the quotidian practicalities of Franciscan life.

Finally, and most trivially, within a culture where modest dress is the norm, a given outfit may be more or less glamorous, depending on how the viewer imagines feeling in it. A woman browsing the Sharah Collection of clothes for Muslim women is clearly meant to imagine herself transformed by its offerings every bit as much as a woman browsing any other fashion catalog.

The obliteration of identity created by a full burqa may be incompatible with glamour, but other forms of modest dress are not. As Randall himself notes, veiling may increase glamour by fostering mystery and grace. Just check out the cover photo on Len Prince's About Glamour.

[Stained glass window from the convent of San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia, by Flickr user jimcintosh, who has a set of Franciscan images here. Used under Creative Commons license. Woman in scarf from Sharah online catalog.]

Aging Gracefully

Paul_McCartney_on_stage_in_Prague Sir Paul McCartney is now 67 years old. If as a teenage girl you screamed at a Beatles concert in 1964, you are now in your late 50s or early 60s. If you go to hear Sir Paul perform now, you probably hope that he still will look relatively young and healthy, and that he be able to perform much like he did when he was 22.

We wish that the icons of our youth would never age, and certainly not die. If virile, young Marlon Brando can become fat, old Marlon Brando, then so can we. If young Elizabeth Taylor can become matronly Elizabeth Taylor, than so can we. If Elvis Presley can die at 42 as an overweight, drug-addicted caricature of his younger self, then so can we. And if Farrah Fawcett, a visual symbol of outdoor healthiness, can succumb to cancer at 62, then so can we.

As a public we obsess over signs of aging in our youthful icons. We seem shocked when we see sex-symbol singers like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson perform in public looking heavier than in the past, even though as a society we have never looked heavier. We are grateful when a actor like Mickey Rourke, whose return to boxing in middle age ravaged his face, can find a role suited to his appearance, but we are nonetheless shocked by how he now looks.

We long to always have a youthful, desirable face and body. But at some point as we age, we discover that achieving or maintaining a fit, healthy body is going to require discipline and work--such as significant amounts of regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating restrained amounts of healthy food, and avoiding unhealthy addictions. Otherwise years of unhealthy habits will eventually leave us looking unhealthy. How could it be otherwise?

Michele-pfeiffer-instyle-cover Thus it is inspiring to see Michelle Pfeiffer looking stunningly beautiful and healthy at 51 on the July cover of InStyle magazine. She was, of course, stunningly beautiful as a younger woman, and it might be that she has had some plastic surgery—if so, it was masterfully done. Her face looks older now than in side by side comparisons with her younger self, but in some cases she looks even more beautiful and glamorous now. Her figure is extraordinary, and achieved in her own words, by working at it. “I’m doing all the right things. I do cardio and strength training, a little bit of weights. I mix it up, but I can’t push myself the way I used to.” This last phrase reveals that she has been working at maintaining her figure for a long time.

And she has been smart about style. She has worked with Giorgio Armani for more than 20 years, realizing that outfits suitable for 20-something women might eventually no longer seem age-appropriate. In this she sets a good example, perhaps partially because she has a long-established history of wearing fashionable clothing.

450px-Rihanna-brisbane The dangers of aging ungracefully are perhaps greatest for sex symbols who gain fame wearing more garish, tasteless attire. Though Cher still looks good for her age in her Bob Mackie gowns, there is something odd about dressing like a showgirl into your 60s. Is this what fans of Britney Spears and Rihanna (shown at right) will expect them to do decades from now? If so, it seems rather pathetic. Wouldn’t it be healthier to hope to see our icons mature into individuals who look and dress like healthy, fit, fashionable people relative to their age? Otherwise we can end up with icons who dress like people trying, sometimes almost desperately, to look exactly like the same somewhat tawdry sex-symbol they were when they were decades younger.

[Paul McCartney photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Rihanna by Gemma Mary licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.]

Farah, Michael, And The Tyranny Of The Tan

Marcia-gay-harden-fakebake-tanI've been contemplating a post on the tyranny of the tan ever since a well-meaning PR person sent me this photo of Marcia Gay Harden sporting a Fake Bake Airbrush Tan at the Tony Awards. I don’t think the fake tan looks particularly flattering. Natural, but not flattering.

Like dark-skinned women ranting against skin whiteners, I hate fake tans on principle. I have what is known elsewhere in the Anglosphere as an English Rose complexion. My porcelain skin would have been a great hit in the 18th or 19th century. During my insecure my teenage years in the 1970s, however, it was considered hideously pale. If you were a blonde like me, you were supposed to be tan like Farrah. But no amount of sunbathing would give me tawny skin. I didn't even burn all that easily. My legs in particular seemed to reflect rather than absorb sunlight.

In my situation, a normal teenager would have slapped on more baby oil and roasted her skin in the feeble hope of overcoming genetics with persistence. (They still do.) Fortunately, I was a nerd and bored silly by sunbathing. So I didn’t bother and thus arrived at middle age with few wrinkles and a low risk of skin cancer. As an adult, I even came to enjoy my unfashionably pale skin. No fake tans for me, or my blog.

Michael Jackson, of course, never came to terms with his own natural pigmentation. His pursuit of whiteness has been endlessly speculated about and analyzed, with a mixture of condemnation and pity. It had obvious political overtones. (Just Google "Michael Jackson" and "black self-hatred".) But looking at all those beautiful photos of Farrah in her youth, I couldn’t help remembering how it felt to be too white.

Guest Blogger Sean Kinsell: Farah Fawcett And The All-American Illusion

Of course, reality was different. Fawcett wore make-up. Her clothes were altered to hug her body by the costume department rather than being bought off the rack at Nordstrom’s. Her best takes were selected so she seemed to have no bad angles on film. None of that makes her different from other actresses, but other actresses weren’t nearly as good at coming out at the end of the process seeming fresh and spontaneous.

All this may sound like a back-handed compliment: Fawcett was good at being a sexy, dumb blonde object. But I don’t think that was really how she came across, even on Charlie’s Angels. For one thing, part of the joke of that show—which the lead characters were explicitly in on—was that they were good detectives because the male (or butch female) criminals they were investigating underestimated them. Their assumption was that women beautiful enough to be new showgirls or models or what have you might naively "ask too many questions" but couldn’t possibly be working purposefully to solve their crimes.

And for another, lead roles in action series (as opposed to police procedurals) are rarely cerebral even if they’re men. The whole point is to see them going risky places and using their intuition to unravel things as they go along. What do you do when Charlie asks you to go undercover as some sort of self-displaying tart? You find a self-displaying-tart get-up in your size and get to work. What do you do when some spooked person seems to know something important? You question her then and there. What do you do when you’re looking for information on the malefactor? You walk politely up to his office, break in, and start riffling through his papers. The whole point of the Townsend Agency was to hire out detectives who went into the field and did something hands-on about the client’s problem.

But as the Charlie’s Angels brain trust realized, these things can read differently when female characters are involved, so in order to avoid the condescending "women’s intuition" trap, they assigned Kate Jackson’s Sabrina Duncan character the role of the "smart one." Unfortunately, they fell into a different trap, giving Sabrina a generic "braininess" that was frankly unbelievable. Her big thunderclaps of realization at 50 minutes past the hour were almost always both laughably obvious and contrived. By contrast, Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith were—yes, I’m dead serious—very plausible, even if the plots they were put through rarely were. They felt their way forward by hunches. Their risks often got them into hot water, but taking risks was the whole point of their job. And when they found themselves held at gunpoint by a gangster-flunkie in a leisure suit, it was precisely because their instincts had accurately led them to the source of the trouble. Jackson was most enjoyable to watch when she was undercover along with the others; she was her most annoying when she was back at the office with Bosley, fake-cogitating while Fawcett and Smith were out getting the actual work done.

While Smith and Fawcett had similar characters—confidently athletic when they needed to give chase and confidently sensual when they needed to flirt—they embodied them differently. With that smoky voice, that tangle of darkly lustrous hair, and those dark pools of shadow cast by her perfect features, Smith definitely seems like someone whose personality could have hidden spaces. The writers, with typically coarse excess, exploited that by giving her a preposterous back story. (She was damaged by being an orphan with an abusive foster mother who locked her in a closet and took away her dolly.) As for Fawcett, she had the sort of blonde beauty that was summery rather than springy: ash-blonde and dusty pastels rather than golden blonde and porcelain-clear peachiness. She looked as if she belonged outdoors—delicate and feminine but not fragile. All that sun, wind, and water appeared to have swept away anything dark.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t true. Fawcett had the same sorts of troubles anyone in her position would have, and she didn’t always handle them well. We found out about her darker self then, as she made misjudgment after misjudgment. That didn’t make her ’70s can-do, open Americanness a lie in and of itself; it just revealed that its apparent effortlessness had always been a fantasy. To her immense credit, Fawcett ultimately had the mettle to stay positive and forward-thinking when it wasn’t so easy. Just about every American family has a member who’s soldiered gamely through cancer treatments and eventually died with dignity among loved ones. Fawcett’s willingness to be part of that more everyday narrative is a sad but pleasing end to a public life that started by casting her as an icon.

Michael Jackson: The Glamour Of The Myth

[Editor's note: With this post, DMC, known to DG readers for his Diaries of a Groomzilla (posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, finalephotos) rejoins our lineup.]

Mj&b When DG editrix Virginia Postrel queried her contributors about the glamour factor of the late Michael Jackson, I was surprised by the tepid response. Some acknowledged that MJ had some glamorous moments in the Thriller era, while others found it hard to see the King of Pop as a glamorous icon. I, of course, struggled as to where to begin my dissertation on the glamour of his royal highness: the elaborate clothes? The sparkling glove? Neverland Ranch? The names of his children (Prince Michael, Paris, and Blanket) - or more fundamentally, their entire myth-like existence? The fact that every child of the ’80s had at least one recess where someone had a moonwalking contest? One could write volumes on the engrossing, transformative world in which Jackson seemed to live without a tether to normalcy, without ever having to comment upon his undeniable contributions to music.

The one image that keeps coming to mind, and perhaps the highest exponent of Jackson's mythopoeia, is Jeff Koons’ 1988 ceramic sculpture, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, one of the three copies of which is on display at the BCAM in Los Angeles. The subject matter alone speaks volumes: Bubbles, a chimpanzee that Jackson adopted from a cancer research center, regularly appeared in images of Jackson in the late 1980s and was a target for public mockery. By coating the sculpture in gold paint, Koons undescores the role of Jackson as a pop idol and cultural fetish object, while the inclusion of Bubbles in a matching military jacket is simultaneously heart-warming and, if contemplated too deeply, slightly unsettling. (In later years, Michael's iconography seemed to acknowledge his fans’ idolatry of him, such as my favorite image below from Mark Romanek’s masterful video for Scream, Michael Meditate a single from Jackon’s 1995 album HIStory (the cover of which features another sculpture of Michael towering over the horizon).

In retrospect, there is an almost refreshing innocence to the “Bubbles phase” of Jackson’s eccentricity, a time when he was seen as a modern-day Peter Pan and not an accused pedophile shrouded in mystery. Koons was once quoted as saying, “If I could be one other living person, it would probably be Michael Jackson.” While undoubtedly a far less popular wish among his fans in Jackson’s final years, his legacy as the ultimate glamour icon remains.

Contrasting Glamour: Halston Vs. Yves Saint Laurent

This week's Fashion Show challenged contestants to design an outfit based on the work of one of eight fashion icons: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Gianni Versace, Madame Grès, Emilio Pucci, Halston, or Yves Saint-Laurent. It was surprising to see how little fashion history many of these designers have absorbed, since a little web surfing or the occasional visit to a museum or bookstore is enough to give you a basic education—no formal schooling required. The episode also demonstrated how much the show could be improved by a tie-in with FIT (a rival to Project Runway’s Parsons or FIDM), especially its outstanding museum. It would be great to see the brainy Valerie Steele replace deadwood host Kelly Rowland.

The contestants who wound up in the bottom two, Haven and Reco, were assigned Yves Saint Laurent and Halston, respectively. Although Haven professed a great admiration for YSL’s work, she failed to capture its feel, while Reco knew nothing about Halston. Unfortunately, as judge Fern Mallis noted on her blog, the samples provided by the vintage shop—just one per design icon—"were not in all instances great representations of those iconic designers' most important or influential looks." Better than a poor vintage selection would have been a tour of the Met’s current Model as Muse exhibit (see earlier post here). Haven and Reco in particular might have learned from this recreation of a Studio 54-era “VIP Room.”

23.VIP Room with Yves Saint Laurent and Halston 1970s Gallery View sm

In the Either/Or section of DG Q&A interviews, we ask, “Armani or Versace?” In the 1990s, those two designers represented contrasting aesthetics, both associated with but not the same as glamour: the elegant, understated luxury of Giorgio Armani (who, unlike Fashion Show's icons, is still living) and the flash and sexuality of Gianni Versace. Each is glamorous in the eyes of some audiences, not so to others. The Met’s ’70s tableau offers another contrasting choice: Yves Saint Laurent or Halston. It’s a great demonstration that glamour can take many different stylistic forms, even in the same historical context. (The tableau also reminds people like me, who tend to think of ’70s fashion as a glamour-free zone, that those who associate the decade with glamour aren’t entirely nuts.)

Here we see two contrasting, but equally glamorous, visions, both offering escape and transformation. YSL’s plays with exoticism, ornamentation, and idealized peasant forms—mythical historicism. Halston, by contrast, promises to make the wearer streamlined and modern. Both aim at seduction, YSL with flowing fabrics that brush the body but don’t display it, Halston with elegant but body-conscious fit. In keeping with the times, both styles appear to require few undergarments and permit easy removal. (The bizarre head gear is part of the museum display.)

Farrah Fawcett, 1947-2009

As Linda Stasi of the NY Post pointed out in this documentary about Charlie's Angels:

The other ones looked very nice-girl-next-door. She was a babe. She didn't live next door to anyone you knew.

The NY Times obituary reminds us that her poster was probably the last of its kind, now that images are digital. It sold 12 million copies, and was a dorm room staple. Looking at it today, I'm struck by her hair, her teeth, her vitality, and her lack of DDs. Farrah was probably the last accessible sex symbol without breast implants, tattoos, or lip injections. She looks fresh, playful and young.


Being Comfortable With Style

Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait In 1863 Abraham Lincoln made a famous speech at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg that began: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The phrase “four score and seven years” was not normal speech for the time. This was a momentous occasion, and Lincoln used it to deliver a short, highly-poetic speech that would cause many people to rededicate themselves to winning the war. His use of the words “our,” “we,” and “us” throughout the speech is masterful.

In Sin and Syntax Constance Hale wrote that, “When occasions call for eloquence, you need poetry, not Plain English.” But using a high style requires preparation, work, and the ability to be comfortable with style. At the moment we have a president and a first lady who are comfortable with eloquence and style. This is not always the case.

Dwight Eisenhower used to hold rambling press conferences with what might be called the “well-meaning, befuddled-uncle” style. Oliver Jensen, a reporter who covered the White House during the 1950s, suggested that if Eisenhower had written the Gettysburg address it might have begun: “I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain European areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement...”

I can imagine George W. Bush, in his down-home style having said something like, “A while back our folks decided that in America we ought to treat other folks as if they were just as good as us.”

AbrahamLincoln All his life Lincoln understood that he was not a handsome man, and frequently mocked himself as being ugly. But as he aged, he understood that he could look presidential. As Harold Holzer wrote for U.S. News and World Report about the image at left, a portrait done by Mathew Brady:

There, Lincoln discovered the power of his own image. At Mathew Brady's plush Broadway gallery, he posed for a brilliantly arranged portrait that softened the harsh lines in his face and emphasized his powerful frame against the evocative backdrop of a classical pillar and a pile of thick books. Brady transformed the prairie politician into a statesman. Widely copied and distributed during a presidential campaign in which, true to the tradition of the time, Lincoln did no campaigning of his own, the picture became his surrogate before image-starved voters. Months later, the victor acknowledged: “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.” He had come to understand that images, no less important than words, could make or break political reputations.

In Analyzing Prose Richard Lanham wrote:

We all want to put on the style. It is part of presenting our public self, like getting dressed up for a party. Often, when we actually get to the party all gussied-up, we’ll take great pains not to act that way, to show that the high style hasn’t really changed us, that we’re still just folks....We are, we like to think, what we are, whether in public or in private. No back-stage/front-stage difference divides our lives. This is an illusion, but we cherish it.

Tina Fey goofy Unless we are used to it, we can have difficulty with style. I have often noticed the unease that many women seem to demonstrate when accepting a compliment on their appearance when they dress up. Instead of gracefully thanking whoever told them that they or their outfit look great, they often deflect the compliment by saying things like “Oh, I got this on sale,” or “I’ve had this for years,” or (to a close friend) “Does it look too tight right here?” Or you see women relentlessly adjusting their shoulder straps or frequently tugging at some part of their outfit. Such responses and actions seem to imply either that they themselves don’t feel their outfit is all that special, or that they are insecure about how they look and feel in it. Such demurring and fidgeting can greatly undermine the effectiveness of an outfit.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address has been much studied, and it’s effectiveness was not accidental. As Civil War scholar Shelby Foote remarked, “Lincoln was highly intelligent. Almost everything he did was calculated for effect.” Some suggested sources for various aspects of Lincoln’s address have been Pericles’ famous Funeral Speech (431 BC), Lincoln’s mastery of the language of the King James Bible, a sermon by Theodore Parker, and a speech by Daniel Webster.

Lincoln was used to making such speeches. He had been making remarkably eloquent speeches for years. So when he spoke at Gettysburg, he did so with assurance. When you’re going for high style, appearing comfortable and assured is a vital aspect of the overall effect.

[Tina Fey arrives to present at the 81st Annual Academy Awards® at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, CA Sunday, February 22, 2009 airing live on the ABC Television Network. Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S. Used with permission.]