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.
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.
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.)
When Robert J. Samuelson published a Newsweek column last month arguing that high-speed rail is "a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause," he cited cost figures and potential ridership to demonstrate that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn't justify the investment. He made a good, rational case—only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph the magazine chose to accompany the article.
The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. It was the kind of image that creates longing, the kind of image a bunch of numbers cannot refute. It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous.
The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads for everything from Aveda's beauty products to MIT's Sloan School of Management. These graceful forms have succeeded the rocket ships and atomic symbols of the 1950s to become the new icons of the technological future. If the island of Wuhu, where games for the Wii console play out, can run on wind power, why can't the real world?
Policy wonks assume the current rage for wind farms and high-speed rail has something to do with efficiently reducing carbon emissions. So they debate load mismatches and ridership figures. These are worthy discussions and address real questions.
But they miss the emotional point.
To their most ardent advocates, and increasingly to the public at large, these technologies aren't just about generating electricity or getting from one city to another. They are symbols of an ideal world, longing disguised as problem solving. You can't counter glamour with statistics.
For future writing, I am still collecting examples of glamorous wind-turbine imagery, particularly when it's used not to represent literal wind farms but to suggest such ideas as innovation, progress, and optimism. If you've seen such examples, please make a note in the comments below.
On a recent Southwest Airlines flight to Oakland on a tall, obese man sat down next to me. He was not morbidly obese—he could squeeze into his seat with both arm rests in place—but he did overlap his seat enough that I realized that I would have difficulty avoiding contact with him. I had gotten up early that morning, so I crossed my arms, moved as far as I could toward my wife’s seat, and managed to sleep most of the flight. Near the end of the flight my obese neighbor raised the armrest between us to get more comfortable. But he courteously took care to avoid imposing on my space any more than his bulk forced him to.
As humans we desire a certain amount of personal space, and on many occasions we will wait for the next elevator rather than crowd into a tightly-packed group of strangers. Having someone stand too close to us can feel like a form of intimidation, no matter what the person’s size. I can remember three occasions in which short, petite women made me uncomfortable by standing too close to me during casual conversations. In one case it was a colleague’s wife, and it was impossible to look down at her without being distracted by the cleavage being displayed by her provocatively low-cut dress. A petite woman once confessed to me that she sometimes liked to intimidate large women by standing very close to them. She was aware that being close to her tiny, svelte figure sometimes made larger women feel awkward and huge.
If we feel that someone is invading our personal space in an uncomfortable way, we instinctly try to move away from them. On an airplane our ability to move is limited, and the growing obesity rate means that we are increasingly likely to find ourselves sharing seating space with individuals who are too large for a single seat. Film director Kevin Smith created publicity for himself by berating Southwest for denying him a seat on one of their flights. He claimed that he could have fit into a seat with the armrests down, but as I learned on the flight to Oakland, this does not guarantee that the passenger’s bulk will not spill over onto the adjacent seat.
If the situation is extreme (as illustrated by this photo taken of a unresolved boarding situation), being pinned under the weight of another person can prove injurious. In 2002, after being pinned to the outside wall during an 11-hour Virgin Airlines flight by a grossly overweight woman, another woman passenger required hospitalization. Angered what she felt was the airline’s calloused attitude toward her ordeal, the squashed woman threatened to sue, and won a £12,000 settlement. During the investigation into the incident, the airline discovered that the obese woman’s thin husband had booked himself into the row behind his wife, which suggested that he was fully aware that sitting next to her on a long flight would be an ordeal.
Given the rising rates of obesity around the world, unless airlines find ways to deal with grossly overweight passengers (such as the purchase of an extra seat), both the obese passengers and their thinner neighbors are increasingly likely to find themselves in uncomfortable social situations. The thought that you might find yourself on a long international flight seated next to a stranger whose bulk spills onto your seat is a distinctly unglamorous image.
[“Super Size Airline” copyrighted by Flickr user Thomas Boucher and used by permission.]
A couple of weeks ago, I published a WSJ column citing research showing that while bicycle-helmet laws do save lives they also significantly discourage kids (especially teenagers) from riding bikes in the first place. The comments were lively and interesting—as I note in the article, this is a topic that excites all-or-nothing passions—with some people adamantly arguing that appearance is, or ought to be, completely irrelevant: "Riding a bike is not a fashion statement," declared one.
Wearing Yakkay helmets
Except, of course, that for many people it is. As both the WSJ and NYT have reported, bikes are gaining popularity among fashionable urban women. “The idea now is to look like a pedestrian on wheels,” a bike retailer told the NYT's Ruth La Ferla. Preferably one liked to be featured on The Sartorialist. The "lovely bicycle" is in, and it doesn't go with the typical bike helmet.
Fortunately, in bike-loving Scandinavia enthusiasts for both bicycles and head-protection have turned not to laws but to design. In my article, I briefly mention Yakkay, a Danish startup that offers stylish helmets with changeable covers. "If you make a stylish bicycle helmet you don’t need legislation," says CEO Michael Eide, "and in YAKKAY we wanted to make a helmet people actually want to wear." Now sold in Europe and Canada, Yakkay helmets will be available in the U.S. beginning next spring.
The Hövding: Protection without hat hair (click photo for larger image)
Taking a more radical approach is the Hövding (Chieftain), developed by Swedish designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin. An airbag disguised as a collar, it is, as Ariel Schwartz reports on Fast Company.com, "the complete antithesis of the hard-shelled helmets that cyclists have become used to." Six years in development, it will be available next year. Here's a video of how it works:
How do you sell a bland car with a tarnished brand name? Wrap it in retro glamour, with some Mad Men style. (The young people love Mad Men.)
Instead of showing old cars, which would look jarringly different from today's styles, Toyota's Avalon commercials cleverly play with the old-fashioned glamour of streamlined trains and Jet Set-era airplanes, all done with a wink to update the attitude for the 21st century. The Avalon still looks bland, but the commercials do make the car seem roomy and, most important, its occupants seem fun.
Chrysler, by contrast, offers a study in how not to use retro glamour. Here's the text, run sideways along four pages of muddy photos whose Manhattan skyline and pretty people are supposed to spell glamour.
Whatever happened to style? Where has the glamour gone? It wasn't long ago, America had it. Looking and feeling like a million bucks was practically our birthright We didn't race from place to place. We cruised. Going for a drive was a big deal. People took notice. We turned heads. and when we arrived somewhere WE ARRIVED IN STYLE. At Chrysler we believe it's time to get it back. To regain the style, the cachet, the confidence. We say it's time to reignite the American dream. And the same design principles that got us there once will catapult us there again. Our aim is to design things that start out revolutionary and end up timeless. Beautiful and functional. It's time to put our right hand at two o'clock and our left elbow out the window. To rediscover what it feels like to drive down the street and have every kid in the neighborhood running to take a closer look. Let's turn driveways into runways. Let's design cars people want to make out in again. Cars people want their photo taken with. Because pride is a wonderful feeling And it should be available to everyone not just the privileged few. It's time, once again, for America to arrive in style.
As an internal design mandate, this statement might work. But as an ad it's all telling rather than showing, with a bathetic result. After the buildup, what do we get? An ugly Chrysler grill. The voice, while striving for glamour, comes off as crotchety and backward-looking. Chrysler, it declares, makes cars for the Get Off My Lawn crowd, the people who believe America peaked in 1955. No glamour there. (Besides, the Get Off My Lawn crowd wants its money back.)
One of my most glamorous memories is of my book editor hopping on her bicycle to go back to the office after a lunch with me in New York. She was wearing a skirt and heels and looked utterly graceful and sophisticated as she rode away.
With their smooth, silent progress, bicycles have great potential for glamour. We use "like riding a bicycle" to mean a physical skill that has become second nature, unforgettable even after years of disuse. We don't say, for instance, "like brushing your teeth," equally second nature but much less impressive. A bicycle can't even stand upright without support, much less move forward.
Yet unlike a car--or, for that matter, a horse--a bicycle depends only on its rider for locomotion. It represents autonomy. In my childhood, getting a bike was the first step toward independence. You could now travel reasonable distances without your parents.
But bicycles aren't on most people's short list of glamorous objects. Competitive cycling, like marathon running, never looks effortless. Kids are burdened with bicycle helmets that make them look dorky and tell them cycling is dangerous. No wonder President Obama skipped the helmet at the beach in Hawaii, after drawing laughs for his helmeted bike ride during the campaign.
As cycling has become more and more an esoteric sport, with complicated gear and lingo, buying a bike has become off-putting to outsiders. When the design firm IDEO worked with component manufacturer Shimano to develop a new bicycle concept, the two firms found were surprised at non-cyclers' attitudes. They loved their memories of biking but were put off by the attitudes and complexity of cycling shops. As Bicycling magazine explained:
"When we asked if Lance Armstrong inspired them, people would say yes, but not to ride a bike," says Shimano's [U.S. marketing manager David] Lawrence. And while all the interview subjects had positive, almost reverential memories of childhood bike rides, Sklar noted that "their feelings about the reality of the biking world are remarkably different." Their dominant image of cycling was one of exercise, speed, uniforms and competition--not of play or fun. "There are a lot of people who feel intimidated and unwelcome in that environment," Sklar says.
To teach cycling enthusiasts what it felt like to be a casual biker in one of their shops, IDEO made them shop for skin products at Sephora. As Daniel Gross recounts in Bicycling:
The Sephora staff, quickly sizing up the bike guys as outsiders and neophytes, treated them with disdain. Says Lawrence: "Everything that happened to noncyclists in a bike shop was happening to our guys in the cosmetics store."
That design collaboration produced a new category called "coasting bikes," designed for casual riders. Another concept, which incorporates more cycling glamour, is the "lovely bicycle," designed for daily, but noncompetitive, use. Here's a description of a lovely bicycle from the blog by that name:
When utility and romance coexist not despite, but because of one another, that is a Lovely Bicycle! A Lovely Bicycle does not only look beautiful in itself, but allows you to look your best while riding it.
Our notions of personal aesthetics vary, and, naturally, so will our bicycles. For the individual whose personal style consists of casual or athletic clothing, a roadbike can be a perfectly appropriate choice. For the individual whose style revolves around formal attire - including suits, skirts and high heels - an upright city bike works far better. The main idea, is that the bicycle should not require the cyclist to change their preferred way of dress or their lifestyle in order to ride it.
Recounting her yearning for a lovely bicycle untainted by the butt-up, head-down, Lycra-legged aesthetics of competitive cycling, blogger Filigree writes:
Only on vintage posters and in old art films did I see the romance that made me long for cycling again. Seeing these fictional lady cyclists of yore, the relaxed chic they exude is alluring and enticing. It makes cycling seem cool and fashionable. But can these associations exist in today's world?
They certainly do on her blog, from which these photos are taken. Although I'm a dedicated walker, she makes me want to get a bike—at least once the rain stops.
This photo appeared in Sunday's NYT business section, as part of a photo feature on the lost glamour of air travel. (The feature also appears as an online slide show.) The feature makes the important point that air travel is both more common and much more affordable than it used to be: "In 1940, passenger planes in the United states carried only 3 million people, compared with 17 million in 1950 and about 650 million in 2008."
Like many of the images that create our idea of glamorous air travel, this photo is staged. It's a marketing image created by Pan Am, which probably featured a mother and children to emphasize the safety of flying to a public that still thought of aviation as dangerous. But even a staged photo can reveal an unacknowledged flaw concealed in our glamorous image of that lost era.
Why do they need beds?
For the same reason that international airlines compete to offer more and more luxurious beds to their premium-class passengers: Because the flight takes a long time. Only in the case of the Pan Am photo, the flight is a domestic one. And bumpy.
I wrote about the lost glamour of air travel (and tested one of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class beds) in a 2007 Atlantic column.
Sitting in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport I observed a young husband and wife who were each engrossed in their own reading material. He was big, country-looking, and was studying JP Magazine, an off-road vehicle magazine. The vehicle on its cover had tires so large it looked as if it could drive over any car that happened to park in its way. I found it more monstrous than glamorous, but I had no doubt that it was a dream vehicle for him.
At one point he tried to explain to his wife why the differential axle on one particular vehicle was so desirable. She glanced up from her novel and feigned enough interest to keep him happy.
She was petite, dressed in more urban clothes, and was reading Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Lucky One. I’ve never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, nor JP Magazine. But judging from the novel’s on-line description (“a passionate and all-consuming love affair”… “filled with tender romance and terrific suspense”), I feel sure it didn’t describe differential axles and over-sized tires.
Separate desires then: one for bigger and more powerful macho toys, and the other for all-consuming romance. Hopefully he will get to have some kind of off-road vehicle, and she will get to have some romance in her life. Perhaps he will always dream of bigger tires and she will always dream of more romance. Clearly, each had found reading material that was helping them imagine greater and elusive possibilities (a wide-angled lens was used to create an exaggerated sense of scale in the photograph above).
Watching them, I was left with questions. Is the old adage true, do opposites attract? If so, can couples remain close without some shared interests? And can you read a romance novel while buckled up in a vehicle that is climbing over giant boulders?