The promise of escape and transformation is an essential element of glamour and the subject of chapter three of my book. The connection between glamour and escape is one reason transportation vehicles figure so prominently in its iconography.
In the 20th century, particularly during the period between the World Wars, glamour, escape, speed, modernity, and “the future” were all connected in the public imagination. I argue in chapter seven that, in fact, glamour provided a way for people to figure out what modernity meant and how they felt about it.
In the 1950s and ’60s, glamorous visions of transportation technology offered a more speculative version of “futuristic” escape that still sparks longings today.
No discussion of futuristic glamour and escapism is complete without a little Star Trek. (See this Bloomberg View column for more on the nature of Star Trek's glamour.)
All photos and quotes are from The Power of Glamour, to be published November 5 by Simon & Schuster. If you pre-order the book and email me your info at [email protected] (be sure to use this address not my DeepGlamour address), I'll send you a signed book plate.
While doing research in back issues of Vogue, I found this familiar-looking ad from 1974, three years before the debut of Star Wars. Of course, unlike Star Wars, which supposedly took place "long, long ago," Quathra is "a luxury fabric from the [oh so glamorous] 21st century." In the actual 21st century, Qathra (no u) is a coffee house in Brooklyn--an institution, not to mention a locale, not envisioned by 20th-century futurists. (The textile company appears to have canceled its trademark in 1982.)
It looks like suburbia, but it still represents escape.
In my new Bloomberg View column, I criticize the trendy denigration of technological progress that doesn't solve "big problems" like going to Mars. Here's an excerpt:
In speeches, interviews and articles, [Peter] Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of nonacceleration: We are no longer moving faster."
Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."
But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.
The column draws directly on ideas I developed in The Future and Its Enemies. But, as I was writing it, I also thought about what my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour might suggest about why some old visions of the future are more compelling than others: Why do we miss space travel and flying cars but not robot maids (or robot dogs), "telesense," meals-in-a-pill, or all those jumpsuits? Why don't we appreciate the microwave ovens, synthetic fibers, or artificial hips?
I think it has to do with the promise of escape and transformation, which is essential to all forms of glamour. Glamour always allows the audience to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.
A robot maid might improve your life but it wouldn't fundamentally change it. You'd still be yourself and the world around you would seem more-or-less the same. Except in a harried housewife, the idea of a robot maid does not excite longing. Transportation, by contrast, always implies movement and transcendence, all the more when it's fast and high. That's why space travel—like cars and trains and planes and ships and horses before it—has such potential for glamour.
I've always been fascinated by the images NASA and others used to sell the idea of space colonies in the 1970s. They always remind me of the San Fernando Valley as you come over the Sepulveda Pass from West L.A. (or, to be more accurate, the first time I saw that view it reminded me of the space colony pictures). They're selling real estate, with the same promise that every house stager uses: This could be your new, better life. ("I could be happy here.") All you have to do is move...in this case, to outer space.
"It's easy to imagine better cars and homes and aircraft of the future--but it's hard to imagine a finer radio than the new Brunswick for 1931!"
In the fall of 1930, Brunswick Radio ran a striking series of ads for its new Futura radio. (Click each image to see a larger version.) The ads explicitly promised customers easy tuning and a radio that wouldn't soon be obsolete either stylistically or technically. But what they were really selling was the future, portrayed in brightly colored, highly stylized illustrations, against which the supposedly up-to-date radio cabinet looks, at least to 21st-century eyes, rather stodgy and old-fashioned.
At the same time that they built excitement about great things to come, the ads promised a sense of stability: "lasting enjoyment in this changing world" and a chance to experience the orderliness and predictability of a future of "simplified and centralized control." In the early 20th century, many Americans longed for what the historian John M. Jordan in his book Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939 called "kinetic change made stable." Social and political theorists offered their own glamorous visions of how that paradoxical state could be achieved. And so did advertisers pushing consumer products.
In the Brunswick ads, this ideal of technocratic control becomes a metaphor for a new-fangled radio dial.
"When a hundred thousand automobiles speed along the elevated highways of the City of the Future, engineers predict that the whole traffic system will operate as a single unit--under the control of one man's hand. The future of mechanism, they say, lies inevitably along the path of simplified and centralized control....
Experience the ease of centralized control by asking your Brunswick dealer to let you try the Uni-Selector."
When I published my WSJ column on the glamour of high-speed rail and wind turbines—which, like most glamour, is more about images, whether photographs or mental pictures, than reality—many rail advocates objected that highways and air travel had also been sold with glamour.
Although not relevant to the distinction between private indulgences (e.g., dresses) and public subsidies at the end of my column, the point is quite true. The “lost glamour of air travel” is a cliché, of course. But highways were equally glamorous in the mid-20th century. They promised swift, smooth travel with never a traffic jam. Unlike passenger rail, which tends to suffer from underuse, both highways and airplanes lost their glamour to popularity.
Thanks to this post on Matt Novak's great PaleoFuture blog, I discovered this vintage bit of highway glamour. (Be sure to check out the restored Magic Highway stills on Matt's blog, as well as our Q&A with him.)
DG: How would you describe PaleoFuture—the site and the concept—to someone who'd never seen it?
Matt Novak: The PaleoFuture blog looks at past visions of the future, primarily focusing on 20th century predictions of the American future. Paleofuturism, or more commonly retrofuturism, looks at the predictions of scientists, advertisers, designers, and average people to see what those predictions say about the time in which they were created and how they may have shaped our current times.
DG: How did PaleoFuture come to be?
MN: In 2007 I was taking a writing class that included starting a blog. While most people in the class started blogs about their personal lives I decided that I wasn't very interesting and would write about something else. I started to explore this idea that I had been thinking about since I was a child: how people of the past imagined the future.
MN: Images of the future are reflections of the time in which they are created. The future was most glamorous at times when this abstract idea of glamour was important to popular culture. The 1950s is considered a golden age of American futurism. The 1950s techno-utopian ideas of progress sometimes appear to be reconciling the shiny plastic future alongside the more traditional ideas of glamour and the American dream.
MN: My favorite images of retrofuturism often come from a Sunday comic that was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune from 1958 until 1963. [More examples here, here, and here.]
DG: You recently wrote on your Twitter feed that "Nostalgia is not a disease, but a symptom of fear." How do you define nostalgia? Do you have to have experienced something yourself to be nostalgic for it?
MN: Nostalgia as a symptom of fear is far too broad of an idea, and frankly I regret saying it so matter of factly. There is an important distinction I feel that we should make between personal nostalgia and societal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is that smell of your first teddy bear or the feeling of your first kiss. Personal nostalgia is a wonderful part of the human experience. But I feel that personal nostalgia is anecdotal and thus dangerous when used as ammunition to describe this desire to return to a "better time." I find that more often than not, the time and place that society is nostalgic for never existed. Romanticizing the past, while perfectly fine when applied individually, can stifle progress.
DG: Is PaleoFuture a nostalgic site? If not, why not?
MN: I do my best to present PaleoFuture as neutrally as possible, though my personal opinions on society, technology, or progress often bleed through. I think many people who visit my site find it to be nostalgic because they're projecting. People often think that even the future used to be better.
DG: You often post mysterious requests on your Twitter feed—advice on finding a book on theme park design or an old robot or jet pack in Los Angeles. What do you do when you're not blogging?
MN: I work for a non-traditional marketing company in Minneapolis called Street Factory Media. We do stuff like this (and by "like this" I mean I cast and managed that stunt). I'm moving to Los Angeles in September and will be working for the same company.
DG: What do you think of the upcoming Tron movie?
MN: Haven't seen it obviously but I'm excited to check it out. I'm generally fine with movie remakes, sequels and prequels. I'm much more of a cinelibertarian than most of my other film nerd friends.
DG: Is there anything glamorous about the future nowadays?
MN: Today? Very little. We're certainly at a low point for futurism at the moment given the amount of apocalypse porn that is being produced (see: Collapseand Countdown to Zero). But as the economy improves I think we'll see many more glamorous and optimistic visions of the future.
DG: What images would be on a PaleoFuture site about 2010 in 2050?
MN: This question is the most clever attempt at making me predict the future that I've seen. But, no dice. I don't know the future and the beautiful thing is that no one else does either.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour?
Poise and grace. Confidence is the most essential ingredient to glamor.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?
4) Favorite glamorous movie?
To Catch a Thief. I've always found Grace Kelly to be more glamorous in To Catch a Thief than Rear Window, though I think Rear Window is a far superior movie.
Americans long ago consigned world’s fairs to the toy box of history. Once celebrated as showcases of world cultures and windows into the future, these grand expositions lost their glamour sometime during the Johnson administration. Like Space Food Sticks and Jonny Quest,they are fondly remembered — at least by those over 50 — but a bit ridiculous: all that ethnocentricism, naive internationalism, and technological good cheer. The last one to warrant much attention was Montreal’s Expo ’67, from which the now-defunct baseball team took its name. (Sorry, Seville ’92.) Our cynical culture is done with world’s fairs.
Not so for Shanghai, where Expo 2010 opened on May 1 and runs through October. In its first two months, the Shanghai Expo attracted more than 20 million visitors, mostly from China itself. Spanning more than 1,300 acres on both sides of the Huangpu River, the fair is an ubiquitous presence throughout the city. Public gardens reproduce the logo in white flowers, subway-car TVs broadcast upbeat interviews with exhibitors and tourists, huge LED screens on downtown buildings play promotional videos, and street vendors hawk knockoffs of its squat, blue, Gumby-like mascot. Visiting Shanghai in May, I quickly discovered that the Chinese authorities haven’t lost their zeal for propaganda. They’ve just changed their colors from revolutionary red to Expo green.
Taking place in a society that is both authoritarian and rapidly developing, the Shanghai Expo highlights the double-edged allure of world’s fairs, which are both deceptive and inspiring. The Expo’s cheery boosterism and sanitized reality match Lawrence R. Samuel’s description of the 1964 New York World’s Fair in The End of the Innocence: a “protective cocoon” where “foreign nations sang in harmony, corporations existed to produce things that made life better, and, most important, the future looked brighter than ever.” Like all glamorous objects, the ’64 fair was an illusion. Yet its optimistic spirit, and those of other fondly remembered world’s fairs, fostered attitudes that often did produce real progress. “For the tens of millions of kids who went,” writes Samuel, who was one of them, the fair “planted a seed of the possibility to achieve great things.”
There's a new Barbie on the scene, and the rest of the dolls on the shelf aren't quite sure what to make of her. She's got long blond hair and bright blue eyes, just as she always has, and a smooth, tanned, curvaceous body. And just like most Barbies you've known over the years, she loves any color as long as it's pink. But there's something different about this new doll. When you meet her, you might notice there's a special little necklace hanging just over her sternum, or as she turns to leave, that there's a flat panel screen between her scapulae. Meet Video Girl Barbie, presented to the world this week at the International Toy Fair, a kind of Flip camera with a face that Mattel promises will let you look into the world of Barbie.
There's something interesting about this notion of looking into Barbie, or looking through her. Barbie has always been a lens into a different world for girls, a glamorous teenaged or adult world full of fashion, parties, careers, and dream houses. This was, after all, the intention behind the doll as it was invented by Ruth Handler — to give girls a way to act out their fantasies and fears through imaginative play. This premise of projection was also the reason for the most controversial feature of Barbie's physicality — her breasts — because Handler felt a mature physique was essential to allowing girls to envision their future selves. The Barbie business model, with its endless parade of kits containing outfits and accessories, serves as stimulus for these projective fantasies, providing ample conduits to aspirational worlds.
It seems to me that girls have never had trouble looking into Barbie's world. Because the nature of Barbie is such that at any point in time, Barbie's world is at least partially (often mostly) in a girl's head, that world is personal and accessible. Barbie is a sketch, just defined enough to inspire a story. She's an outline to be inhabited, a room to decorate with your own desires. The doll and her things provide the form and the context; you provide motivation and narrative. Talking to friends who played with Barbies as children, the imagined scenes vary wildly, even with the same props. Some girls staged fashion shows in the Dream House while others were hosting dinner parties. Some were getting dolled up for the prom while others were making out with Ken behind the bleachers. Barbie's stories are as varied as our own because her stories are our stories. Maybe not the ones we lived, but the slightly more glamorous or dangerous ones we once wished to live. Girls see through Barbie into these fantasy worlds, and they do it effortlessly.
To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Making the leap to Video Girl Barbie, a doll you look through, seems logical but oddly literal, an Amelia Bedelia kind of goof. What can you see in looking through Barbie like a periscope that you can't see with your own eyes? To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Given that, this seems less a doll than a tech toy, and I imagine it will have big appeal to girls on this level. A video camera is a video camera, and it's fun regardless of the housing, though girls today are probably savvy enough that they don't need technology to be softened up with fashion in a bionic Barbie.
But the bionic nature of this doll — a strange mashup of hard tech and feminine physicality — does raise a different set of interesting questions. As we move closer to an era of post-human body modification, what kinds of new body types will emerge as aspirational? If in the past five decades Barbie has represented a standard of beauty that can be blamed with a rise in body modifications ranging from breast implants to blond highlights to anorexia to tanning, how will she evolve as a standard in a world where the available modifications are increasingly technological? Will Barbie offer a new viewpoint on the form and function of the female body as the lines between man and machine are increasingly blurred?
If these sound like imaginary inquiries better left to the world of futuristic sci-fi films, think again. Already, the field of wearable technologies is electrifying fashion, exploring ways our clothes can behave or react like smarter, more beautiful skins. Designer Hussein Chalayan is known for his avant garde work with wearables, exploring how robotic elements can create extraordinary displays of movement and light. Joanna Berzowska of XS Labs is another designer working in this space, fusing fiber and wire to create striking interactive garment-sculptures. Often these designs suggest new functions our bodies might take on in the future, like increased sensory capabilities or protective response mechanisms. The subtle displays of Ying Gao's Walking City dresses, for example, function like hypersensitive second skins, unfurling and rustling in reaction to the proximity of others. Powering many of these innovative designs is the LilyPad Arduino, a washable microcontroller that can be fully integrated into clothing, developed by Leah Buechley at MIT's Media Lab.
These are technologies worn on the body, without requiring any intrusion or permanent modification. But those innovations are coming too. Discussions of augmented-reality contact lenses are in the offing, and just this week, the New York Times reported on the development of piezoelectric body implants that would allow us to convert our bodily movements into energy that can be used to power our electronics. Already we see people who seem chained to their iPods or mobile devices — imagine if one day we actually plugged them into our skin to recharge them. Or stopped by the Apple Genius Bar for a surgical battery change?
If these potential innovations sound eerie, think about how breast implants sounded the first time you heard of them. Body modification is always unsettling, sometimes even long after it has become widespread. But all of these designs, whether worn on the body or inserted within it, are pioneering new possibilities in the shape and performance of the human physique. As we gain more power to control how our bodies look and what they do, which of these designed bodies will move towards the mainstream? Which will become new aspirational models? Will techno-bodies ever be sexy?
I don't propose that Video Girl Barbie is in any way an attempt on the part of Mattel to forge a new post-human female ideal. (The violence of the mashup — Barbie's viscera removed and replaced with a TV — would make that a vision more appropriate for R-rated horror films than Toys 'R Us.) But the juxtaposition has made me wonder what the Barbie of 2029 looks like. Will Barbie at 70 be a stunning cyborg? If we saw her today, would we think she's beautiful? Or, in an ironic twist, will Barbie's plastic figure seem nostalgically natural in comparison with our own bodies of the future?
Sleek, pristine, and elegantly modern, the blades of an advanced windmill turn in an unseen wind. Windmills have become the glamorous new symbol of clean energy and, like a stylized atom or rocket ship in the 1950s, of a hopeful future made possible by technological progress. As far as I know they haven't yet shown up in upholstery textiles or restaurant decor (give it time), but images of windmills are everywhere in this season's ads, political and otherwise. Obama has them. McCain has them. Boone Pickens has them. GE has them. An ad promoting Minnesota in the new issue of Fortune has them. Bank of America ATMs have them, promoting paperless online banking. Even Turkish Honda Civic ads have them.
These images epitomize grace, one of the essential components of glamour. The blades appear to turn effortlessly, generating energy without waste. They look as autonomous as a bird in flight. Everyone, including me, leaves out the massive power lines required to carry the electricity some place where it will be useful. These are glamorized images.
Like all glamour, these images create an illusion. The grubby details of wind energy aren't as pristine as the pictures. Generating and transmitting electricity is a complicated business, requiring unglamorous, behind-the-scenes labor and expertise--not to mention huge structures that the neighbors may not like. Even wind-energy promoter Boone Pickens admits that a wind farm isn't self-sufficient as a power source: "You've got to supplement it with a gas-fired or coal-fired source so whoever buys it gets continuous 24-7 generation."
Glamour is a "magic light" that distorts perceptions. Its allure depends on obscuring some details and heightening others. Experience and close examination tend to destroy glamour, often replacing it not with sober realism but something far more negative. Once disillusioned, the once-enchanted audience can become excessively cynical, unwilling to see anything good in what it once idealized. It's dangerous to depend too much on glamour. Just ask the nuclear power industry.