A Power to Persuade

The deeper meaning of glamour

The Weekly Standard , March 27, 2010


A History
by Stephen Gundle
Oxford, 496 pp., $24.95

Glamour in Six Dimensions

Modernism and the Radiance of Form
by Judith Brown
Cornell, 199 pp., $39.95

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.

The pleasure and inspiration may be real, but glamour always contains an illusion. The word originally meant a literal magic spell, which made the viewer see something that wasn’t there. In its modern, metaphorical form, glamour usually begins with a stylized image—visual or mental—of a person, an object, an event, or a setting. The image is not entirely false, but it is misleading. Its allure depends on obscuring or ignoring some details while heightening others. We see the dance but not the rehearsals, the stiletto heels but not the blisters, the skyline but not the dirty streets, the sports car but not the gas pump. To sustain the illusion, glamour requires an element of mystery. It is not transparent or opaque but translucent, inviting just enough familiarity to engage the imagination and trigger the viewer’s own fantasies.

Glamour can, of course, sell evening gowns, vacation packages, and luxury kitchens. But it can also promote moon shots and “green jobs,” urban renewal schemes and military action. (The “glamour of battle” long preceded the glamour of Hollywood.) Californians once found freeways glamorous; today they thrill to promises of high-speed rail. “Terror is glamour,” said Salman Rushdie in a 2006 interview, identifying the inspiration of jihadi terrorists. New Soviet Man was a glamorous concept. So is the American Dream.

Glamour, in short, is serious stuff. It can alter life plans, even change history. And as a broad psychological phenomenon, it holds intrinsic interest. While rarely addressed in C-SPAN discussions, glamour is the sort of topic to which such 18th-century titans as Adam Smith and David Hume often turned their attention. It spans culture and commerce, psychology and art.

Nowadays we call such subjects “cultural studies” and consign their serious consideration largely to the academic left. Fortunately, a field that was once little more than an excuse to bash capitalism has evolved over time, attracting curious scholars who, for all their Marxist-inflected training, genuinely want to understand the phenomena of modern, commercial culture. One result has been a reconsideration of glamour, which in an influential 1972 BBC series and subsequent book the Marxist critic John Berger reduced to “the state of being envied.” In his desiccated assessment, glamour was a manifestation of capitalism’s vicious game of winner-take-all, reflecting a society that has “moved towards democracy,” by which he meant absolute egalitarianism, “and then stopped halfway,” giving rise to widespread social envy.

To the contrary, suggests Stephen Gundle in Glamour: A History, glamour is a generous quality, a sign of an open society. It upends hierarchy and privilege. Glamour, he writes,

captured the imagination in an age when deference was giving way to democracy. Glamour contained the promise of a mobile and commercial society that anyone could be transformed into a better, more attractive, and wealthier version of themselves.

It’s the same essentially Marxist history, given a more positive spin. Gundle’s basic insight is correct. As an imaginative process, glamour implies a kind of equality between object and audience. Admirers project themselves into the lives of glamorous people. They imagine inhabiting glamorous places. They identify with glamorous public figures: politicians, athletes, movie stars. A glamorous object—person, place, or thing—is a kind of alter ego, a magic mirror in which we can see our desires realized. Gundle, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick, thus distinguishes glamour, which he identifies with the bourgeoisie, from the magnificence associated with aristocratic courts. Glamour, he argues, was not a quality found at Louis XIV’s Versailles. “Unlike glamour which was about image,” he writes, “magnificence involved the massive accumulation of treasures and luxuries as a right.”

Gundle has done impressive research, and his history is full of interesting personalities and details. He traces the development of society gossip columns and explains the early 19th-century rage for “silver fork novels,” with their
supposed insider look at aristocratic life, complete with the details of dinner party place settings. He digs up such delightful tidbits as the fact that, in the 1920s, a revue called Glamorous Night “was sold to the directors of the Drury Lane theater purely on the basis of the combination of the two words that made up the title.” He contrasts the allure of mid-century cars in the United States, where they were part of everyday life and drew their glamour from the associations created by styling and advertising, with the meaning of their European counterparts: exotic machines too expensive for the general public and known through movies and motor racing.

But ultimately, Glamour: A History fails to adequately define its subject. Like the fashion magazines that promise “instant glamour” and deliver only photos of crystal hair ornaments and silver lamé tops, Gundle sees glamour as a “visual effect.” Glamour, he writes, “is best seen as an alluring image that is closely related to consumption .  .  . an enticing and seductive vision that is designed to draw the eye of an audience.” Its purpose is “to dazzle and seduce.” But dazzling and seducing are two different things.

Take that distinction between glamour and magnificence. Gundle’s point about Versailles is well taken. An absolute monarch cannot be glamorous because no subject would dare to identify with him. But the mere fact that Napoleon, the subject of one of Gundle’s chapters, was not an aristocrat does not make his court “the first in history that can accurately be described as glamorous.” Like the self-consciously magnificent Medici, Napoleon may not have ruled by inherited right, but he employed visual spectacle less to seduce and persuade than to overwhelm and intimidate. Magnificence, not glamour, is a signal of power. Magnificence, like spectacle, produces awe; glamour, by contrast, stokes desire. If Napoleon possessed glamour, it was the ancient martial form shared by figures like David, Alexander, and Alcibiades, a product of triumphs theoretically possible for any man of military talent. It did not arise from the emperor’s glittering court. A real consideration of modern political glamour would pay less attention to stylish salon hostesses and more to portraiture, posters, and propaganda—the tools of persuasion.

Despite his diligent research, Gundle is too blinded by flash and cash, and too obsessed with luxury and class privilege, to distinguish glamour from celebrity glitz. You can tell his analysis has gone terribly wrong when, on page 385, he declares Paris Hilton “indisputably glamorous.”

Paris Hilton is many things: rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, well dressed, and savvy about her career. But only a select few, mostly young girls, find her glamorous. In the countless social conversations I’ve had about glamour over the past few years, her name has come up, unsolicited, again and again. She is the anti-Grace Kelly, the touchstone people cite when trying to explain what is not glamorous. When I polled DeepGlamour readers, more than half deemed Paris “not at all glamorous” and nearly a third called her glamorous “to some people, but not to me”—an unscientific result, to be sure, but enough to puncture Gundle’s claim of indisputability.

Paris Hilton cannot be glamorous, one astute reader commented, because she “is immediately ‘knowable,’ to the bottom of her (undoubtedly) well-shod toes.” She lacks glamour’s essential mystery, an element Gundle, who pays little attention to the nature of glamour’s illusions, almost completely ignores.

By contrast, for Judith Brown in Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, glamour is all about mystery, distance, and “impenetrability.” An assistant professor of English at Indiana University, Brown sees glamour as a debased, 20th-century form, or “magical remainder” of the 18th-century sublime, with its aesthetic of the “delightful terror” of the overwhelming and infinite. Like that more transcendent quality, she suggests, glamour “moves one out of the material world of demands, responsibilities, and attention to productivity, and into another, more ethereally bound, fleeting, beautiful, and deadly.” And like the fearfulness of the sublime, glamour produces a pleasure born of negative emotions, in this case “the pleasure associated with not having.” Glamour is all about “impossible desire.”

Brown dismisses the moralizing Marxists who see in glamour nothing more than a false and manipulative tool of capitalism:

Rather than condemning glamour by focusing on its nefarious links to profit-making and political repression, I am interested here in considering glamour beyond good and evil, as a negative aesthetic that courts danger, finds in it powerful creative potential, yet is not entirely subsumed by a political or moral ideology.

This is a bolder statement than it might initially appear. Brown represents a younger generation of cultural studies scholars who dutifully nod to the politicized theory of their elders but refuse to be limited by it. Even when entwined with commerce, she recognizes, art and desire have purposes and logics of their own.

More subversively, she is challenging the view—as ancient as Plato and as contemporary as the celebrity muckrakers at TMZ—that glamour is evil, or at least undesirable, because it is illusory. Ours is a culture of full disclosure, which extols frankness, transparency, and self-revelation, all of which destroy the mystery required for glamour. Arguing that glamour is intrinsically neither good nor bad, and may be valuable even though it carries the likelihood of disillusionment, challenges more than just a few academic Marxists.

Brown treats glamour as a phenomenon with “its own recognizable aesthetic that finds its ideal conditions in the clean (synthetic, cold, abstract) lines of high modernism.” This approach leads her sometimes to overemphasize particular “glamorous” styles, disregarding the translucent veil, for instance, in favor of the opaque polished surface. But hers is a much deeper and more psychologically nuanced analysis than Gundle’s glitz-oriented account. (It’s also, unfortunately, more clotted with jargon.) Instead of reveling in celebrity culture, she engages such subtle issues as the relation between glamour and timelessness, stasis, and death.

As a literary scholar, Brown also has an advantage over the visually oriented Gundle. Her close readings of Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nella Larsen not only connect glamour with modernist literary ideals and forms. They give her access to descriptions of what the experience of glamour feels like from the inside. Thus she writes of the protagonist of The Beautiful and Damned:

When Anthony Patch, one of Fitzgerald’s failed heroes, learns that “desire cheats you,” he refers to a phenomenon we now recognize as the power of glamour: “It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it—but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone—.” We may demand the sparkling surface, like a cellophane coating, yet what we are able to grasp will be of little consequence. Glamour wields the power to capture its viewers’ attention as if by a spell that fascinates and arrests. .  .  . Transfixed, one gazes at a world of possibility that is foreclosed, inaccessible, yet endlessly alluring.

Glamour, of course, can gild not only inconsequential objects but deeply consequential ones, including political leaders, policies, and ideas. Here, although she never discusses such subjects, Brown’s analysis offers a useful warning: “Glamour did not emerge from human warmth, morals, and the messy emotions that define the everyday,” she writes of Hollywood glamour photography. “Rather, in their place was the coolly aloof and beautifully coiffed personality, hovering over the multiple indignities of life on the ground.” Glamour not only makes things look better than they really are. It also tends to edit out human complexity—including, in the political realm, the complexity of disagreements, of clashing values, of diverse wants, of technological, economic, and moral tradeoffs.

Political figures as glamorous as Obama are rare. But glamorous policy proposals are not. Fitzgerald’s description offers a valuable warning—and one that C-SPAN viewers might keep in mind, whether they rail against political glamour or succumb to it.