Happy St. Patrick's Day

I'm not Irish, but some people tell me I should be: that touch of Blarney, and an inappropriate sense of humor.

Glamour O' The Irish

0312009 clover Close up, the Irish, and Irish-Americans, are a pretty hardscrabble lot: famines, economic troubles, alcoholism, a whole lot of sunburns (for those of us in the U.S., anyway). But a glimmer of something fabulous lurks beneath the surface of freckles and greenery. After all, Ireland is well-known for its beauty and its mystery – a pretty glamorous combination.

It might be difficult to spot anything glamorous at your local St. Patrick’s Day parade, where it’s hidden among a whole lot of Guinness-waving frat boys in “I’m Irish Today” t-shirts. But it’s probably there anyway, in the little old man walking with the Hibernians, or the ancient lady in a green blazer and comfortable shoes.

They might not look like movie stars, but these characters are pretty glamorous anyway. They embody the Romantic ideal of the “Noble Savage” – good, simple individuals at the mercy of civilization. Unfettered by societal pressures and norms, their innate goodness would help them live ideal lives, but as a part of civilization, life is difficult and imperfect.

Add to that all the mythology that surrounds Irish life – the magic, the fairies, the leprechauns – and you’ve got some glamour. Even if it is buried underneath a messy pile of frizzy red hair and a big, bulky sweater.

Photo credit: cygnus921 from Flickr.

Personal Trainers: The 21st-Century Corset

Half.corset Inspired by Nicole Kidman in period costumes and contemporary clothes, Raquel Laneri at The Southwing considers at length the relative tyrannies of corsets versus hardbodies, writing, "The modern woman who diets and the woman who puts on a corset both chase an ideal, and suffer considerably for that ideal."

Her post reminded me of an astute passage from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. The novel is set in a near-future whose many clans include neo-Victorians, who've adapted historical customs and aesthetics to a culturally fragmented world shaped by nanotechnology. (The references to "genuine" materials mean they weren't produced by nanotech replicating machines.)

...he glanced through to door to Gwendolyn's closet and out the other side into her boudoir. Against that room's far windows was the desk she used for social correspondence, really just a table with a top of genuine marble, strewn with bits of stationery, her own and others', dimly identifiable even at this distance as business cards, visiting cards, note cards, invitations from various people still going through triage. Most of the boudoir floor was covered with a tatty carpet, worn through in places all the way down to its underlying matrix of jute, but handwoven and sculpted by genuine Chinese slave labor during the Mao Dynasty. Its only real function was to protect the floor from Gwendolyn's exercise equipment, which gleamed in the dim light scattering off the clouds from Shanghai: a step unit done up in Beaux-Arts ironmongery, a rowing machine cleverly fashioned of writhing sea serpents and hard bodied nereids, a rack of free weights supported by four cillipygious caryatids -- not chunky Greeks but modern women, one of each major racial group, each tricep, gluteus, latissimus, sartorius and rectus abdominus casting its own highlight. Classical architecture indeed.

The caryatids were supposed to be role models, and despite subtle racial differences, each body fit the current ideal: twenty-two-inch waist, no more than 17% body fat. That kind of body couldn't be faked with undergarments, never mind what the ads in the women's magazines claimed; the long, tight bodices of the current mode, and modern fabrics thinner than soap bubbles, made everything obvious. Most women who didn't have superhuman willpower couldn't manage it without the help of a lady's maid who would run them through two or even three vigorous workouts a day.

So after Fiona had stopped breast-feeding, and the time had loomed when Gwen would have to knacker her maternity clothes, they had hired Tiffany Sue--just another of the child-related expenses Hackworth had never imagined until the bills had started to come in. Gwen accused him, half seriously, of having eyes for Tiffany Sue. The accusation was almost a standard formality of modern marriage, as lady's maids were all young, pretty, and flawlessly buff. But Tiffany Sue was a typical thete, loud and classless and heavily made up, and Hackworth couldn't abide her. If he had eyes for anyone, it was those caryatids holding up the weight rack; at least they had impeccable taste going for them.

Glamour conceals the effort, making the resulting body seem natural when it is, in fact, a carefully crafted artifact.

Photo is from the Museum at FIT's Seduction exhibit, reviewed (with a slide show) here.

Glamorous Places: Tuscany Or Paris?

PonteVecchio I often say that I wasted my youth learning French. What I usually mean is that I should have studied Spanish, a language I could use nearly every day in my Southern California life. But, given the opportunity to learn another language, Spanish isn't the one I chose.

I'm in Florence, spending the next month taking Italian four hours a day. It's a post-cancer adventure, and a retreat in hopes of getting a bunch of book writing done.

The contrast between my youthful devotion to French and my current interest in Italian (an interest that actually dates to my college studies of the Renaissance) tracks with a shift in U.S. culture. Sometime during my adult life, Paris stopped being Americans' ideal of glamour and was replaced by Tuscany. Look at all these Tuscan makeovers on HGTV, 476 to be exact, (here's the Parisian competition, only 29), or these 56 features on French style, compared to 100 on Mediterranean style, mostly Tuscan. Paris still has its fans, of course, but when the typical middle-class American envisions the perfect escape, Tuscany, not Paris, comes to mind.

Hence, before I left, everyone asked me the same question, Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?

Glamour supplies something people feel is missing in their regular lives. In the era when Paris was the epitome of glamour, Americans were longing for cosmopolitanism and style. Now America is arguably more cosmopolitan than Paris--certainly Los Angeles is--and la mode is as easily found in Italy (or rising from U.S. streets.) as in Paris. What is glamorous today is a life of enjoyment and simplicity: good, fresh food in a beautiful place. Tuscany.

Of course, as anyone who has read Under the Tuscan Sun knows, the ideal of Tuscany as the good, simple life leaves out a few things--notably the way things have a tendency to break down and the difficulty of getting those things repaired efficiently. Glamour always omits the blemishes.

I'm not, in fact, attracted to the good, simple, rural life. Preferisco la città. (I prefer the city.) My glamorous Firenze is the one that drove the Futurists crazy--the museum Florence of past greatness, not present life, a Tuscany of striving and strife. I haven't read Eat, Pray, Love. I've read Macchiavelli, Castiglione, Galileo, Vasari, and Petrarch. I'm here for the art and the history. But the food is definitely a plus.

Glamour & Function In The Kitchen

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With this post, we're delighted to add Kit Pollard to the regular DG team.--VP

A couple of years ago, my husband and I began a gigantic home addition/renovation project that included a new, expanded kitchen. I love to cook, but when we sat down with our architect to talk about what was important in the kitchen design, I was all about good party space. Counter space? Whatever. I just wanted shiny appliances and a really long island where everybody could set their drinks when the dancing started.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Super-glam New York decorator Miles Redd admits that his old kitchen (he’s since redecorated), and its 1930s Hollywood glamour-puss vibe, is all about the party and, of course, the cocktails (more pictures here and photos of the new space here). It’s a gorgeous room – all black and white and stainless steel – and the appliances are top-of-the-line. I'm not sure how much action his oven sees, though. The room's careful, fancy clutter and super-shiny surfaces are really more conducive to popping champagne corks than to peeling potatoes.

Unfortunately, at my house, I had to be at least a little bit practical. No lamps or liquor on the countertops for me, and a lot more focus on storage and functional work area. Vintage Venetian crystal lamps are pretty, and I’m sure the quality of the lighting is fabulous for parties, but when your counters are covered with light fixtures and vases and bar trays, where do you chop the vegetables?

Glamour Takes A Stab At Female Icons

0302-alexis-bledel-as-rosie-the-riveter_li Glamour's photo spread of today's fresh young talents impersonating the dead, the old and the fictional female icons women could not be more inadvertently hilarious.  It's so bad, it could be an ANTM photo shoot, and you know how silly those are. (Last night, Tyra had the hamsters dressing up as good little girls, which was just as icky as it sounds.)   The copy claims:

You can do anything! That’s the message of the seven decades of female risk takers, rule breakers and style makers here. We celebrate them with the help of some very-2009 young talents.

It's a toss-up as to which impersonation is the worst. As Rosie the Riveter, Alexis Bedel just looks peevish as she displays her lack of upper body strength.  While I'm not so naive as to believe that she actually thought up the accompanying quote, at least  it sounds semi- convincing. 

But the Women of Woodstock is  equally inane.  Hippies and their "we can do anything" spirit? Obviously, no one at Glamour was alive then.   

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DG Q&A: Alastair Gordon

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Airports and beach houses, hippie crash pads and geodesic domes. Alastair Gordon's prolific writings combine a critic's eye for architecture with a social historian's instinct for cultural meaning. I discovered his work through his fascinating 2004 history, Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure, which was a great resource when I was writing about airline glamour. His latest book, Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties, takes on a less conventionally glamorous topic. What might these two topics have in common? "For me," Gordon told DG, "architecture is ONLY interesting as far as it reflects cultural aspiration and the prevailing spirit of the day."

DG: Many reviews of Naked Airport invoked the "vanished glamour" of air travel. What destroyed that glamour, and how was the loss reflected in the design of airports?

AG: Several reasons that the glamour went out of air travel: a more competitive airline business with new companies offering lower prices. I flew with my parents to Europe numerous times in the 1960s and we always dressed up as if attending a special event. Those were relatively small planes, the service was good and the airports were manageable. The Boeing 747, introduced in 1970, was the final insult, ushering in mass air travel and lowering general standards of service and aesthetics, bringing cramped seats, poor cuisine and overworked staffs. The jumbos also threw airport terminals into chaos because none were designed to handle such crowds. Architects and planners responded with sprawling, mall-like terminals that stripped away the final vestiges of romance. Nor did the threat of hijacking and terrorism help. Being scanned by machines or interrogated by poorly trained personnel is never sexy.

DG: In that book, you write about an airport sign that says, "Excuse our appearances. We are tearing down yesterday to make room for tomorrow." You write, "But the idealized 'tomorrow' never comes." How does architecture relate to cultural aspiration?

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AG: For me, architecture is ONLY interesting as far as it reflects cultural aspiration and the prevailing spirit of the day. Almost all of my books have been about social history reflected in the built environment: Weekend Utopia looked at how the modernist beach houses of the post-war period were idealized icons of Cold War aspiration (the flip side of all those basement A-bomb shelters.) Naked Airport traced the evolution of the airport as a symbolic as well as functional "artifact," one that by its very nature could never live up to its utopian promise. Kennedy International, for instance, was designed in the late 1950s to be a showcase for US-style democracy (vs. Soviet-style communism) with an eclectic array of architectural styles, formal gardens, fountains, reflecting pools, chapels, etc. to evoke a welcoming "Ellis Island of the Air." In my most recent book, Spaced Out, I wanted to document, and in a sense reclaim, the trippy environments of the psychedelic sixties and show how they reflected the cosmic aspirations of that generation.

DG: Hippie dwellings seem too grungy for glamour, but they do (or did) have a certain romance. What attracted you to that subject?

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Hey! I think hippie culture is very high fashion, whatever that means, and it seems more relevant now than ever with so much renewed interest in green/sustainable design, planetary survival, living simply and bling-less. (Just before Christmas, I was involved in a big "Have a Happy Hippie Holiday" event at Barney's in NYC that Simon Doonan conceived.) At some point I realized that the sixties were a major cultural renaissance and not merely a youth revolt. What attracted me was the wild exuberance and innocence, the seeking of expanded consciousness and new kinds of spirituality, especially in light of Bush/Cheney's fear mongering and the culture of control that arose after 9/11. I suppose the book was also a way to reconnect with my own adolescent wanderings.

DG: What surprised you when you did the research?

AG: Everything surprised me. All of my assumptions and prejudices went out the window. It turns out that the official version of the 60s was a complete distortion of fact. I grew up during that period but was too young to really participate as a mover/shaper. By the time I was eighteen it seemed over and then, suddenly, everyone was dissing the movement as an aberration. (Of course, Altamont and Charlie Manson didn't help.) I wanted to go back and make a narrative that wasn't dumbed down or dismissive. I tried to be as generous and open-minded as possible. (My wife would point out wherever my text became too judgmental.) Everyone I interviewed had a different story: a million mini revolutions happening at the same time, sometimes overlapping, sometimes taking place simultaneously but separately, and very little of it was documented. The outlaw architects and builders I researched were trying to reinvent the very idea of human community; replace the conventional family with tribal patterns; expand consciousness; live in harmony with nature; work with recycled materials; live off grid; create revolutionary structures like geodesic domes, yurts and organically curving womb rooms. It's easy enough to make fun of them today but they may be the ones that end up having the last laugh.

DG: In Spaced Out, you write about the "reckless longing for other states of being." Is that longing something that can be expressed architecturally? Was it inevitably disappointed?

AG: Yes, I think that longing was expressed architecturally, but unfortunately we don't have many monuments from that period as reference points. I began the book with a visit to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's sustainable city in the Arizona desert, because it still exists. But most of the architectural spaces from that period were more insubstantial and didn't survive. Early psychedelic explorers described how corners dissolved, hard edges softened, straight lines curved, colors exploded, ceilings and floors blew away. This new kind of spatial experience was translated into all kinds of temporary environments (some called it "LSDesign"): crash pads, womb rooms, teepees, tents, tree-houses and basic shelter built out of unstable materials like mud, straw bales, recycled wood or blown polyurethane. But the temporality was also what made theses structures beautiful. The counter culture was all about being in the moment so who was worrying about resale value or termites? Yes, of course, it is bound to disappoint because it can't last very long. You do eventually get sick of leaky roofs, shared communal spaces and eating out of the same bean pot. But to me that was what was so compelling about the period: this reckless sense of abandon, that anything was possible, that yes, society could be reinvented and rebuilt from the ground up. I think we're seeing this legacy reconstitute itself today.

DG: You now write for the WSJ's luxury-oriented magazine. How has the financial crisis affected what stories you do? Is there room for luxury and aspiration in the current environment?

AG: Yes, I think "luxury" and "aspiration" are being substantially redefined and down-sized, and that is obviously a good thing. There's a noticeable turning away from conspicuous excess. I'm certainly not writing about giant MacMansions in the Hamptons or architectural ego trips. I just published a story in our last issue about a group of small guest huts on wheels that Tom Kundig designed in Washington State: "the architectural equivalent of sack cloth and ash," is how I described the rusting steel walls and plywood interiors.

The client had plenty of money and could have built anything but he chose to make a statement. The huts are simple but incredibly elegant. I'm working on a story for the next issue about how young architects are donating their services to design affordable housing, schools and community parks. This is a promising, and inspiring, trend. And yes, there's room for luxury and aspiration in the current environment but the days of unapologetic Greed (with a capital "G") are over.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour? Intelligence mixed with a physical sense of self.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? I really don't believe in "icons" but I guess for a woman:Michele Obama walking up Pennsylvania Ave. with her beautiful daughters; for a man: Sean Connery in opening scenes of Dr. No.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? A necessary part of the human ritual. Glamour doesn't have to be a luxury.

4) Favorite glamorous movie? Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962), a perfect degree of Euro-style angst mixed with glamour.

Eclisse

5) What was your most glamorous moment? Meeting my wife at a softball game in East Hampton and/or the nanosecond on red carpet at Academy Awards before photographers realized I wasn't a real celebrity.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? "Rocket" Hermes portable typewriter from the 1950s.

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7) Most glamorous place? French Leave Beach, Eleuthera.

8) Most glamorous job? My brief career writing glamour copy for Calvin Klein in the early 1990s, or my even briefer career writing for Hollywood in the 1980s.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't Hollywood

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized Alien abduction

11) Can glamour survive? Only if it comes from the street.

12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, not necessarily, but genes might have something to do with it.

EITHER/OR

1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Usually Cate but I like how Angelina's becoming a real woman and less of an action vixen.

2) Paris or Venice? Paris most of the time but Venice once in a while.

3) New York or Los Angeles? New York and almost never L.A.

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Diana, I guess, but Grace was lovely.

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kyoto, only because of those raked gardens.

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6) Boots or stilettos? Boots only because it's hard to find stilettos for my size 13 feet.

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? I don't like either one but Art Nouveau if I was forced to spend time with it.

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Vintage E-type Jags are cool if fussy but I always liked that James Bond Astin Martin with the ejection seat.

9) Armani or Versace? Neither. Really. Neither.

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Vreeland I guess because I met her once and she seemed pretty elegant.

11) Champagne or single malt? Single malt.

12) 1960s or 1980s? Of course: the 1960s but the 1980's will soon have its day again.

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13) Diamonds or pearls? I don't wear any form of jewelry but if I did I guess I would wear a diamond nose stud.

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate, only because I think she's getting more beautiful despite cocaine controversy.

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Are you kidding? Sean Connery

[Kyoto garden courtesy of Flickr user alq666 under Creative Commons license.]

Geek Glamour: The Sunset Boulevard Of Superheroes

As I've suggested in The Atlantic, Watchmen is the Sunset Boulevard of superhero comics: a mythic debunking that, for all its revisionism, depends on the audience's appreciation for the original glamour of its subject.

Gibbons and fanDave Gibbons, the graphic novel's illustrator, was at Borders in Century City yesterday. After the long line of fans had cleared, I asked him a few questions about the glamour of superheroes. He talked enthusiastically about the transformation represented by superheroes' costumes and gear and about the glamour of heroism himself. But, most emphatically, he disagreed with my use of the word debunk to describe Watchmen's relation to superhero glamour.

"Alan Moore and I loved superheroes," he said.

The original Watchmen, like most comic books (or Dickens novels), came out in installments. Whenever an issue ended on a particularly bleak or revisionist note, Gibbons said, they'd start the next one with a glimpse of the wonder of being a superhero.

In an interview with Adam Rogers of Wired, Gibbons praised the Watchmen movie for capturing the geek glamour of superheroes:

"I think because Dan Dreiberg, Nite Owl, is kind of the geek superhero. He's the one that—well, he's the one that I would be, perhaps the one that you would be as well. I just love all of those gadgets and the car, and the whole feeling of that underground lair I thought they captured beautifully in the movie. And the whole, you know, glamour of being a superhero. As much as Watchmen is set in a real, kind of gritty world, there is that wonder of being a superhero, that joy you must feel when you sail off into the night in your wonderful machine and your cool costume. I think that's been captured wonderfully."

Not to mention Silk Spectre's perfect hair, which is as impractical as the capes Edna Mode banned in The Incredibles, but somehow never gets in the way.

Win Watchmen tickets: I have two tickets to the 12:15 a.m. show on Friday (just after midnight Thursday) at the Arclight in Hollywood for the first DG reader to send an email telling me which superhero you think is most glamorous and why. The tickets are in the regular theater, not the dome, in the middle of the 2nd row, seats B-16 and B-17.  To enter, send your email to Virginia-at-DeepGlamour.net. Entries may be published in a future DG post.