As a word glamour is tricky to define. Whether any of us experience something as being glamorous depends on our individual responses. I find Charlize Theron’s hair and makeup wonderfully glamorous in the photo at left, while others may not. I feel certain that the intent was to create a glamorous photograph, but intending something to be perceived as glamorous does not insure we will all respond to it in that way.
In dressing for the Oscars, Theron has made some choices that bombed with most fashion critics. Most people felt that the Christian Dior dress that she wore to the 2010 Oscars looked regrettable on her, and it made many worst-dress lists. The Christian Dior dress (shown at right) that she wore to the 2005 Oscars was panned by some as suitable for a high-school prom, but most loved it, and it has appeared on several lists as one the best Oscar dresses of the decade. When you see a large photograph of her making her entrance onstage in this dress, you can almost imagine that it was chosen knowing what the stage colors and design were going to be. The effect of the dress in relationship to that stage design is stunning.
In a situation when something strikes us as stunningly glamorous, the archaic meaning of glamour as magic or enchantment still seems relevant. What we experience seems to cast a spell on us, and what we perceive seems like an enchantment. Even while under the spell, we may sense that what we are experiencing is in part a transient, artful conjuration, and that everything possible has been done to try to make us feel we are experiencing glamour at its epitome, fully incarnated.
Small wonder this is so difficult to pull off—the slightest incongruity can break the spell of glamour. Oh, but what a delightful experience to have when the enchantment works as planned.
Editor's note: Ever since the launch of DG my friend David Bernstein (a Bay Area engineer, not the Volokh Conspiracy blogger) has been passing on interesting glamour-related links and observations. I've finally persuaded him to join us with the occasional post. Here's his debut. For more on this topic, check out this 1974 New York magazine article by Anne Hollander (and for a really creepy experience, keep scrolling to the one after it). [VP]
A couple of Sundays ago the other half was watching Little Women from 1949 on TV while I walked through the living room. Now, I'm an engineer, so fashion generally slides right past me, but the clothes of all the girls (little women?) activated the pattern recognition part of my brain. It seemed that they were all wearing dresses with inverted triangles over the upper torso. They struck me as looking more like photos I've seen of women from the post-World War II era rather than around the Civil War. It got me to thinking about how art that depicts history is affected by the time of the art itself, as opposed to that of the depicted history. It can be difficult to remove the current-colored lenses that we all peer through.
To illustrate the point, here is a montage of scenes from three different versions of Little Women.
I find this photograph very moving, and normally I might comment on various technical aspects such as the framing, the lighting, the tone, the pose, and so on. But I chose this photograph because it beautifully illustrates something that can be crucial to the concept of glamour—namely that artistic impressions are sometimes magical because of what the artist has chosen to leave out.
If we were seeing this young woman in real life, we could look move our eyes and see more, we could listen, we could ask questions, but here our perceptions are bound by the edges of the photograph and by the silent nature of the medium—we can only see what the photographer has allowed us to see. Far from limiting our responses, what we cannot see produces gaps, and these gaps allow us, as viewers, to let our imaginations and unconscious responses add something inexplicable to our perception of the image.
No one has ever expressed this thought better than Dylan Thomas in his Poetic Manifesto written in 1961:
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began.
You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
In the case of this photograph, added bits of information (it’s a self-portrait, and she titled it, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault,”) may only serve to open up new holes for our imaginations to fill.
[The photograph “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault” is by Flickr user It’s life, and is used under the Creative Commons License.]
After C-SPAN reran a 1999 BookNotes interview about my first book, I received an email from a disappointed viewer. He was chagrined to hear that I was editing a website called DeepGlamour instead of writing “more serious nonfiction.” Glamour, he implied, is a trivial subject, unworthy of consideration by people who watch, much less appear on, C-SPAN.
To which I have two words of response: Barack Obama. In an era of tell-all memoirs, ubiquitous paparazzi, and reality-show exhibitionism, glamour may seem absent from Hollywood. But Obama demonstrates that its magic still exists. What a glamorous candidate he was—less a person than a persona, an idealized, self-contained figure onto whom audiences projected their own dreams, a Garbo-like “impassive receptacle of passionate hopes and impossible expectations,” in the words of Time’s Joe Klein. The campaign’s iconography employed classically glamorous themes, with its stylized portraits of the candidate gazing into the distance and its logo of a road stretching toward the horizon. Now, of course, Obama is experiencing glamour’s downside: the disillusionment that sets in when imagination meets reality. Hence James Lileks’s recent quip about another contemporary object of glamour, “The Apple tablet is the Barack Obama of technology. It’s whatever you want it to be, until you actually get it.”
As critics who denounce movies that “glamorize violence” or “glamorize smoking” understand, glamour is much more than style. It is a potent tool of persuasion, a form of nonverbal rhetoric that heightens and focuses desire, particularly the longing for transformation (an ideal self) and escape (in a new setting). Glamour is all about hope and change. It lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. Depending on the audience, that feeling may provide momentary pleasure or life-altering inspiration. Read the rest, a longish review-essay, at The Weekly Standard.
Virginia’s recent post contrasting the differences between “cute” and “glamorous” made several interesting comparisons. Her distinction between “innocent, ingenue” and “worldly, sophisticated” reminded me of a lyrical poem by Richard Wilbur in which an experience of innocent beauty created an ecstatic moment for him. His poem, Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning, begins:
I can't forget How she stood at the top of that long marble stair Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square;
Nothing upon her face But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl But as it were a reverie of the place, A called-for falling glide and whirl;
The poet witnesses a girl who, amazed by the Spanish steps in Rome, comes gliding and whirling down them, seemingly innocently unaware that she somehow completes the image of the place for the poet. Wilbur continues:
As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip Is drawn to the falls of a pool and, circling a moment above it, Rides on over the lip— Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.
To create the lovely photograph shown at the beginning of this post, the photographer Matilde dressed herself in the kind of fairy skirt that so many young girls have played in, and she danced in her bare feet. The photograph has a wonderful feeling of innocence, but it is a portrayal of innocence created by a grown woman.
If we imagine a glamorous Italian woman descending those same stairs wearing a high-fashion gown such as the one shown here by Valentino, we assume that while she was descending she would remain perfectly aware that she was presenting herself as a beautiful, sophisticated woman.
And her awareness of her image, and the value that she knows that Western culture places on such fashionable glamour, is part of what makes her appear “dangerous,” to use Virginia’s term. She seems fully aware of the worth of her beauty and perfectly willing to use the status offered by her appearance and wealth to her full advantage.
The photograph of this gown (found on a Chinese economic site) is an illusion in that it was taken during a runway show, and the model may be wearing a gown that she herself could not afford to own. So this photograph is a portrayal of glamour designed to convince women who can afford Valentino’s gowns to purchase them. Nonetheless, I imagine this model feels glamorous while wearing this gown and walking the runway.
To see this model wear this gown and descend the Spanish steps would provide an impression as unforgettable as a girl innocently dancing down them. But where the girl presented an image of innocence, the model would present an image of glamorous worldliness.
[The photograph “As A Fairy” is copyrighted by Flickr user matilde, and is used by permission.]
Last week, I attended the Princeton conference "Too Cute: American Style and the New Asian Cool" and gave a brief, informal talk about glamour and cuteness. The two rarely coexist, since they entail contradictory qualities. Mix them, and the cuteness tends to win out, canceling out the glamour altogether or producing something disturbing or comical.
In preparing for the conference, I did find a possible exception to this rule, the big-eyed doll called Blythe. An adult-targeted recreation of a doll produced for one year in the early 1970s, Blythe is endlessly customizable. Out of the box, you can change her eye color by pulling a string on her back. You can change her face, her hair, her body, and, of course, her clothes. All of the Blythe dolls below started as the same model.
I took this picture (actually three different pictures) in the studio of photographer and video producer Gina Garan, who rescued Blythe from obscurity, giving her a starring role in a 1999 TV commercial for a Japanese department store and publishing a book of photos, This is Blythe in 2000. Gina's then-agent, Junko Wong, brought Blythe back into production, licensing Asian rights from Hasbro. Today, there is a worldwide network of Blythe fanatics, including many people outside Asia who must rely on secondary markets like eBay to buy the dolls.
Like Gina, many Blythe collectors enjoy photographing their dolls, often posing them in scenic real-world environments. Though Blythe has the classic big eyes of a "cute" figure and is often photographed accordingly, she sometimes takes on glamorous personas. Here are three such renditions: Blythe planning a heist, Blythe as a glamorous seaside celebrity, and Blythe on a glider wearing aviator goggles.
Although the dolls are still cute, they manage to pull off glamour without falling into either comedy or weirdness. In part this is because the adults who collect and photograph them treat them as alter egos, not children. In part it is because Blythe is shown as active and adventurous, rather than dependent and vulnerable. And in part it's because glamorous Blythe tends to look to the side or wear shades, giving those giant eyes an essential element of mystery. [She plans the heist! by Flickr user Sugaroni, Celebrity Sighting!!! by Flickr user The Dolly Mama, We'll go flying so high! by Flickr user rockymountainroz, all used with permission.]
At a dinner party last night, I had a conversation about glamour with someone I’d just met. As is almost always the case in such conversations, two names came up: Grace Kelly, the exemplar of glamour, and Paris Hilton. Paris is rich, famous, sexy, and photogenic, but pretty much everyone I've ever talked to about glamour has volunteered her name as an example of someone who is not glamorous. She’s the counterexample people use to tease apart the difference between glamour and celebrity, wealth, fame, sex appeal, or beauty. Paris may be glamorous to some people, primarily young girls, but—in my experience at least—most adults find her anything but. Instead of admiration, Hilton evokes scorn and derision. Even people who think she’s hot don’t find her glamorous.
Her latest venture, this beer ad, has even attracted condemnation in Brazil. AdRants reports:
No less that three investigations into the ad have been launched. It's too “sensual." It encourages excessive consumption. It’s sexist and disrespectful to women. All of this from Brazil. Where booty is supposed to reign supreme. What gives?
There’s some protectionism at work in the Brazilian beer market, but Paris is also an easy target. As Kay Hymowitz observed in a smart 2006 piece in City Journal, “hating Paris Hilton is fun.”
Yet in Glamour: A History, Stephen Gundle writes that Hilton is “indisputably glamorous.” I think that shows he has the wrong definition of glamour. But maybe I’m missing something. Is Paris Hilton glamorous? Why or why not? To whom? Please weigh in on the poll, and comment below.
Commenting on the chart post below, Charles Oliver asks, “Are glamour and charisma necessarily opposites? Can a person not possess both at the same time?” His suggestion is, of course, correct, as the guy in the photo demonstrates. Glamour and charisma are not mutually exclusive, though the combination is rare, requiring a hard-to-maintain balance between warmth and distance, connecting with audiences without becoming overly intimate.
As I suggested in my earlier post, some charismatic performers develop glamorous public personas. They draw audiences into their roles but maintain an alluring mystery in their off-stage lives. Think of classic divas like Maria Callas.
Glamour depends on the audience, so a charismatic person may also be glamorous to some audiences but not to others. A few years ago I was in London and happened to catch a television special on Billy Graham's landmark 1954 crusade there. Like most successful preachers, Graham possessed considerable charisma. But it had never occurred to me that he might be glamorous. In the Bible Belt, where I grew up, he was simply too familiar. But here were British interview subjects talking about him as this tall, handsome representative of exotic American culture—not just a persuasive Christian evangelist but an evocative, mysterious, exciting contrast to austerity Britain. He was, in midcentury London, not just charismatic but glamorous.
[John F. Kennedy in sunglasses from Library of Congress public domain collection.]
As a followup to the post below, I thought it might be useful to create a chart of characteristics distinguishing charisma from glamour. (My thanks to Lou D'Elia of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate for suggesting the aural/visual distinction.)
And since charisma is a personal characteristic, it's also helpful to compare people, real or fictional, who exemplify the two traits. (I also threw in a couple of non-humanoid examples.) The photo of Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II is also a nice reminder of the religious origins of the concept of charisma. In its original, and strongest, meaning it is not just stage presence but a spiritual gift that draws followers to share a leader's commitment and calling.