Writers often treat glamorous and charismatic as synonyms (as does this online thesaurus). Both qualities are appeals that draw in the audience, but (as I discuss in my DoubleX article on Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes, excerpted below) they work in entirely different ways, with different implications for the ongoing relationship between audience, object, and broader causes.
Charisma is a personal characteristic like intelligence. A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. Charisma moves the audience but flows from the charismatic person. Even unsympathetic audiences can feel its power. (Charisma in someone hostile can be quite frightening.) Glamour, by contrast, is a quality like humor that emerges in the exchange between audience and object; its existence depends on the audience’s receptive imagination.
If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why he has so much trouble persuading the public that elected him to support his policies. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, in which the audience, not the subject, supplies the meaning, then it’s not surprising that Obama means different things to different people and thus has difficulty rallying his supporters in favor of a given policy.
A still photograph best captures glamour; a live performance most powerfully conveys charisma. Glamour operates at a distance; it requires mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the details with its own desires. The most effective live performers are charismatic on stage. They may also be glamorous, but that depends largely on the relationship between audience and the performer’s off-stage persona.
Charisma disappears with death. Charismatic figures are thus remembered only through accounts of their charms or the effects of their actions. As time passes, their personal magnetism becomes less and less understood, especially if there are no live recordings of their performances. Historians can tell us plenty about Jacksonian democracy, but we can’t fully comprehend why Andrew Jackson was its representative. Dolley Madison was famous in her day, but her charms are lost. Her only memorable action seems to be saving the Stuart portrait of George Washington when the British sacked Washington. Given the roles available throughout much of history, it’s not surprising that we remember far more charismatic men than women. Generals, politicians, preachers, and entrepreneurs change nations and leave behind institutions. Hostesses, courtesans, and teachers generally do not.
After death, charisma is sometimes transmuted into glamour. The charismatic figure loses his or her individuality and original appeal to the audience’s myth-making desires. Joan of Arc may be the preeminent example of this phenomenon. “Instead of a bold and charismatic leader, talented soldier, and quick-witted girl, she was recast symbolically as an agent of God, a simple peasant girl chosen to humble the great and powerful,” writes historian Larissa Juliet Taylor in The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, a new book that seeks to separate the woman from the myth. (Something similar happened with Dolley Madison's image, though to a much lesser extent.) By contrast, the evolution of Princess Diana suggests that, in life, glamour can sometimes be replaced by charisma—as the personal magnetism of the flawed “People’s Princess” substituted for the fairy-tale mythology of the youthful bride.
Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?
It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.
In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.
During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual complexity—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.
Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.
Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential...in Business and in Life is the self-descriptive title of a best-selling book by Leo Babauta. It is one of a growing number of books which offer advice for coping with the seemingly unending information, tasks, and choices offered by modern society. Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less deals with the paralyzing effect that having too many consumer choices can have. For example, now that Apple’s App Store has more than 100,000 apps, there are increasing numbers of blogs devoted to how to possibly choose among them, as well as asking questions like how many apps do you actually need or use?
In this light I found it interesting that some current guidebooks on style in fashion emphasize the importance of periodically paring down your closet. In her The Little Black Book of Style Nina Garcia writes, “Be an editor. Your closet should only contain amazing pieces—it is much easier to be inspired when you see five remarkable pieces then when you see twenty-five pieces and twenty of them are unremarkable. Pick out those key pieces and get rid of the rest.”
She advises being “ruthless when you edit,” and to keep only items that look good on you now, and make you feel good about yourself. She advises not to hang on to any item because of sentimental reasons, initial cost, or the hope that someday it will fit again. Esquire’s Handbook of Style offers similar advice for men about paring down their closet to items that look good on them now.
Both of these guidebooks also advise shopping for items that emphasize quality fabrics, careful construction, and timeless style over trendiness and bargain prices. And because they believe that good fit is crucial to appearance, they also recommend finding and using a good tailor.
On the fashion-design reality show Project Runway, the models always come in to be fitted, and this is a crucial part of the process. During the judging the way that the garment fits the model is a key factor. With the great variety of sizes available in stores, there is a good chance that you can find items that fit reasonably well, but a good tailor might make them fit exceptionally well.
Which brings us back to purchasing items that use quality fabrics and good construction. The tailor that I now use told me that people sometimes come to her with an item they have picked up as a bargain, and hope that she can tailor it to fit so that it looks great on them. They are surprised when in some cases she has to explain that there is a limit to what she can do if the material is of poor quality or the garment was poorly constructed.
After encountering so much advice on paring down, I decided to go through my closet, and I tossed out clothes that were worn out, no longer fit, were out of style, or that I hadn’t worn in years. Now I am surprised how much more inspiring it is to look through a selection of shirts when I like them all than it was when my closet contained lots of shirts that I was never going to wear again. The same with shoes, pants, jeans, and so on. I also noticed that many of the shirts that I threw out were ones I had purchased on sale and then had worn only a few times. Ouch. They weren’t such bargains after all.
Q: Is champagne still glamorous when you drink it out of a can?
I’ve asked myself this question a number of times over the past couple of years. I was first made aware of the champagne-in-a-can movement thanks to Paris Hilton’s decision to promote the modestly named Rich Prosecco by painting herself gold, Goldfinger-style. Shockingly, her endorsement didn’t send me to the store to stock up for my next celebratory fine dining occasion.
But when my local wine store started carrying Francis Ford Coppola’s Sofia Blanc de Blancs in packs of four pink cans, each with their own little straw attached, I was intrigued. I was already familiar with Coppola wines, which meet my basic wine-drinking criteria (pretty good and pretty cheap). Plus, I am just girly enough to find it hard to resist anything that comes wrapped in shocking pink. So I bought some.
And I liked it. Or, rather, I liked the wine once I poured it into a glass. But even with the little extendable straw, I couldn’t bring myself to drink it out of the can. There’s nothing glamorous about a grown woman pretending to be a little girl pretending to be a grown woman – and that’s what I felt like. A six-year old playing dress up, pretending my ginger ale was the other kind of bubbly. When the little girl does it, it’s glamorous. When the woman does it, it’s kind of pathetic.
So the answer to my question is, well, no. Champagne is not still glamorous when drunk out of a can. Which doesn’t mean I don’t still buy the cans – I like the wine and the cans are actually the perfect size for two people to split when they want to make one quick toast. But please, spare me the straws.
Recently up for auction, this Edward Quinn photo of Grace Kelly primping during the filming of To Catch a Thief presents an usual take on a common artistic subject: the beautiful woman at the mirror. From such classics as Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Kitagawa Utamaro’s portraits of beauties at their mirrors to this Mark Shaw photo of Audrey Hepburn, the usual composition uses the mirror to give the audience multiple views of the subject: front and back, the face from different angles, the woman as she sees herself and as she is seen by others.
Here, however, we see Grace Kelly entirely from the outside. We do not see the reflection she sees. Rather than a woman of fragments and angles, she appears in a unified view. The photo is a study of surfaces and textures: the shiny, soft hair she is brushing, the lacy gloves, the ornate top, the golden down on her tan arm, the shiny mirror overlaid on the dull trailer. The focal point, framed by her crossed arms is Grace’s face, made even more focal because we know she, too, is looking at it.
The glamour of the toilette points up the difference between male and female audiences (or, to use a phrase encrusted with all sorts of ideological theory, the male and female gaze). For male audiences, portraits of women grooming themselves have traditionally had a voyeuristic quality and were often an excuse for nudity. Projecting himself into the image, the viewer does not generally identify with the subject but with the scene; he imagines not being the subject but being with her. A female viewer is more likely to identify with the subject. She sees herself in the mirror—or longs to.
That feeling was articulated by many of the movie fans interviewed by Jackie Stacey for her study Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. Recalling their youthful filmgoing in the 1940s, women expressed longing and identification when talking about the stars they loved. “It wasn’t Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, it was me,” said one. Another said, “My favourite was Rita Hayworth. I always imagined if I could look like her I could toss my red hair into the wind…and meet the man of my dreams.”
For women in particular, there is a second kind of glamour of the toilette: the makeover fantasy, which combines the desire for transformation with the idea of being pampered by professionals. “It’s exciting to have important people do stuff for you,” said a nurse from rural Arkansas on ABC’s Extreme Makeover. Hollywood stars not only represent the promise of beauty and fame but also—thanks to their squadrons of makeup artists, hair stylists, wardrobe designers, and, nowadays, everyday fashion stylists—the dream of having an aesthetic entourage on call.
In classical music the combination of virtuosity and glamour has most often been associated with attractive opera stars, conductors, or soloists who play instruments such as piano and violin. The attire of such soloists when they perform is often extraordinarily glamorous, as I written before. Their publicity photographs often highlight their physical attractiveness. A more recent trend is to produce videos. Here is an interesting video of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in the process of being photographed for potential publicity shots. (Chee-Yun’s fabulous hair has been featured in a Korean Pantene commercial.)
Another violinist, Vanessa-Mae (of Thai-Chinese heritage, born in Singapore, and raised in London) began to study piano at three and violin at five. She amassed her hours of practice early, and was recording professionally by age thirteen. In her teenage years she began to combine her virtuoso skills as a violinist with her interest in pop music. She took full advantage of her exceptionally beautiful face and figure by using glamorous makeup and provocative costumes, and launched a popular music career that has made her one of the wealthiest young entertainers in Britain.
She is a controversial performer because some of her hit recordings are arrangements of well-known classical works combined with a techno-style dance background. There is an example of this below, in which her live-performance version of Vivaldi includes a dance-beat, an electric violin, a sexy costume, and bodily movements that are anything but “classical.” (In the video she inadvertently demonstrates how to slip gracefully in high-heels. Another example of her mix of classical, techno, and sexy presentation is her version of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Whether it is fun and exciting or a tawdry bastardization is a matter of debate and taste.)
Whatever one thinks of how Vanessa-Mae has used her virtuosity as a violinist, there is no question she earned her skills through thousands of hours of arduous practice. In some of her music videos Vanessa-Mae portrays a young woman in peril, or operating in a mobster world, or isolated in cold, remote locations. These videos evoke the long-standing theme that a person can become a prisoner of their extraordinary skills, partly because these skills become ties that bind others to the person that possesses these skills, and vice versa. At left is one of the many Renaissance representations of Hercules Gallicus in which he conquers not by brunt strength, but by eloquence. And as a skilled rhetorician there are chains running from his tongue which bind his audience to him, and vice versa.
The virtuoso performer is also bound to the continued hours of practice that are necessary to maintain those skills. In the 1970s young Czech violinist Václav Hudeček become so famous in his country that he attained rock-star-like status. But in his own words, he didn’t have time to lead a wild lifestyle. “Violin is a very difficult instrument…if you want to play Brahms’ violin concerto, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, very beautifully, you have to practice, you know. Not all day long, but five, six, seven hours a day.”
When you hear stories of virtuoso performers burning out or losing their edge, you have to imagine not only the thousands of hours spent building their skills, but also the ongoing hours of practice required to continue to perform at a virtuoso level. Fame might give you the opportunity to party in high style (especially if you are strikingly attractive), but to actually do so could soon lead to decreased performance ability. We can all think of cases in which the achievements of an athlete or performer thrust them into the limelight, and then they spent so much time enjoying their new found fame that their skills rapidly declined.
An perfect example of this was 1960s British soccer star George Best. Many people consider Best the most brilliant soccer player Britain ever produced, but he is just as well known for having squandered his talent by living a playboy lifestyle. Best’s bio reveals his obsessive pursuit of soccer skills as a child, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for anyone whose virtuoso skills bring sudden fame. His career at the top lasted only six years before his pursuit of “birds” and booze eroded his skills. Best himself understood that fame and his good looks had played a part in undermining his career, providing him with opportunities to party and drink that he was unable to resist. He joked ironically, “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.”
George Best was one of the first celebrity footballers, and women threw themselves at him. As he joked, “I used to go missing quite a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” (He was not exaggerating.) At times he didn’t seem to regret his escapades, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Because he could not discipline himself to stay in shape for soccer, or to stay away from alcohol, he became a difficult, less productive teammate who was soon out of the sport. He died at age 59 of complications after a liver transplant.
GQ magazine named George Best one of the 50 most stylish men of the last 50 years, but there is no question that the temptations of a playboy lifestyle destroyed his talent. If his virtuosity had been some evidence of virtue, then he lost that virtue when he neglected to continue to hone his skills. As the biography posted at the International Footballer Hall of Fame notes “George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.” After describing some of the amazing goals that he scored in his few years at his prime, the bio ends, “the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been.”
[Photo of Maria Sharapova by Chris Gampat used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]
You’re in New York on vacation and have just come out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (left) or Bergdorf’s, FAO Schwartz, or the Apple Store (above).* All along the sidewalk are vendors vying for your souvenir business, most of them selling images of various kinds.
Unlike traditional souvenirs, however, very few of these pictures portray famous things tourists might actually see in New York: the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, Starry Night, the Unicorn tapestries, Central Park buggy rides, the Brooklyn Bridge. Most represent instead symbols associated with the glamorous idea of New York. Audrey Hepburn is far more popular than the Statue of Liberty, sketches of shoes more common than skyscrapers. There are no famous paintings, only vintage Vogue covers. These souvenirs don’t capture memories. They remind tourists of why they first dreamed of going to New York.
Is this phenomenon unique to New York, or have you seen it in other cities as well? What sort of souvenirs do you bring back from your travels?
*If the photos are stacked on top of each other, enlarge your window.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on November 02, 2009 in
In How Buildings Learn author Stewart Brand quotes Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” While remodeling the home we purchased in Colorado, my wife and I had bookshelves built into one room, and had swing-arm lamps attached to the walls near two easy chairs. During construction we called this room our “library,” and now when we want to read and relax, this room has become a haven that beckons to us.
One small appliance in the remodeled kitchen has also reshaped my daily life. The graceful device shown in the photograph is an InstaHot, which, through a small electrical heater located under the counter, delivers filtered, near-boiling water with the touch of a lever. This small convenience has transformed me into a tea drinker.
My wife starts her day with coffee, then moves on to dark teas, and then herbal teas. But coffee bothers my stomach and makes me nervous. So I have never been able to enjoy coffee.
And I had never become a tea drinker. I realize that many people find putting on a pot of water for tea a special pleasure, but to me it always seemed a bother. But now I had access to a beautiful object that magically delivered super-hot water when you pulled it’s red-tipped lever. It cried out to be used, and I began to try various green teas, and then herbal teas. Soon we filled two cabinet drawers with a wide variety of black, green, and herbal teas.
Now each morning, afternoon, and evening I hear the seductive call of the InstaHot, urging me to enjoy the pleasure of some fragrant tea. And, especially as the weather cools, I have learned that sitting in the library with a good book and a cup of hot tea can create a feeling of priceless luxury and relaxation. When the house was being remodeled, neither of us realized just how much we would learn to enjoy this quiet retreat, or that I would learn to love tea.
Both images are intensely glamorous, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene and feel the promise of escape. The still waters create a sense of grace, the mountains a feeling of mystery. We identify with the ship, imagine ourselves gazing at the green peaks from the orange chairs. Both images are also sales tools. They are designed to create longing.
What’s particularly striking about these two photos, as opposed to the more common image of sandy beaches, is that they both incorporate craggy, rather barren mountains—the sort of awe-inspiring scenery traditionally associated with the fearful beauty of the sublime. Yet there’s nothing fearful about either scene. The chairs in the first image and the ship in the second promise comfortable, safe havens for the visitor. We can experience the pleasures of the sublime without the usual element of fear.
Much luxury travel is, in fact, about domesticating the sublime, from old-time Alpine resorts to the new luxury camp on Antarctica, which features “private domed tents and cuisine from an award-winning chef.” With enough technology and effort, travel businesses can provide access to the most rugged wilderness without threatening the lives, health, or taste buds of their guests. (Of course, there are still customers who want to suffer, at least somewhat. Hence the market for what John Tierney dubbed explornography.) Not just the image but the actual experience of the sublime can be “glamorized” by containing or removing some of its dangers.