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.
When tonight's episode of Covert Affairs airs, most fans of the USA Network spy drama will be looking at sexy leading lady Piper Perabo, who plays rookie CIA operative Annie Walker. I, however, will be wondering what sort of sleeveless outfit her boss Joan Campbell, played by Kari Matchett, will be sporting.
Unless she's on assignment, Annie dresses like a typical Washington professional--in suits (though not in the clip below). Joan, however, never covers her arms. Is this a new form of power dressing? Is it Michelle Obama's influence? Or is it yet another Hollywood fantasy? (They've been putting female detectives in tank tops for years. But at least they also have jackets.) You'd think that Langley's air conditioning alone would dictate more coverage.
Shortly before the 2009 Oscars, I blogged about how the red carpet arrival has become the touchstone image of Hollywood glamour, with the fantasy of recognition supplanting the penthouse luxury of old movies.
The latest incarnation of this now-iconic image showed up in Sunday's paper: a one-page flyer for 9Lives cat food, featuring Morris the Cat as the arriving star. Parody or homage?
I'm collecting "glamour of arrival" images. If you come across one, please let me know via email to vpostrel-at-deepglamour.net or in the comments below.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on August 29, 2010 in
One of the most successful companies producing Merino wool clothing is Icebreaker, a New Zealand company. Icebreaker is known for using evocative images in their advertising, and their Summer 2010 ads are no exception. In one a fair-skinned, wide-eyed naked woman rides a dark-skinned, naked Merino-ram-headed man who is at least three times her size. The ram-man is leading a column of Merino sheep numbering in the thousands. (The image shown is a crop taken from the central quarter of the full image.)
One of the themes of Icebreaker’s advertising is symbiosis, with human forms covered in soft, warm, odor-absorbing Merino wool clothing. However, the use of naked human bodies in snowy mountains seems completely beside that point. I have always found their ads fun, but some people who live and work near the Icebreaker store in Portland have found huge window displays such as this image offensive. A salesperson in the store told me that this image has been the most controversial yet.
Some people object to the petite fair woman being carried off by the huge, dark-skinned beast, which they feel has both racist and sexist overtones. But, as seen here, in one of their earlier ads an even fairer and frailer woman clearly has the advantage over a darker-skinned beast-man more her size. And it is a longstanding cliché of Romance novels that the fair heroine falls for a tall, dark, handsome, somewhat unruly man whom only she can manage to tame.
Icebreaker does not shy away from the cross-species “monster” implications of their images. Early ads showed a white-haired woman with sheep ears. But beast-humans have a long mythological history—witness creatures like satyrs, centaurs, and the Minotaur. According to Greek legend the Minotaur, born with the head of a bull and the body of a man, was the offspring of a mating between the wife of Minos, ruler of Crete, and the Cretan Bull. I suspect that Icebreaker is merely pushing the notion of symbiosis into mythological imagery.
I suspect few men can see an image of a woman preparing to shear a beast-man’s groin without feeling a twinge of terror, but ultimately I see these images as more fun and tongue-in-cheek than genuinely disturbing. On the other hand, I also think that there is no question that they were intended to be provocative, and in that sense, they have been successful. Apparently too much so for some people’s comfort.
Addendum, August 30, 2010: A few days after writing this post, I remembered that in his delightful book The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant to represent the scale of our newer language-oriented, reasoning part of the brain in relationship to the faster, automatic processes in various older and incredibly powerful parts of the brain. Our ability to accomplish things depends in part on creating a good working relationship between the rider and the elephant.
The day that the post went up, my wife Carol and I did a lovely, but tiring 5.5 mile hike in the Columbia Gorge. That afternoon we spent some time driving around Oregon with Carol giving me directions from the map. At some point, as the afternoon wore on, I began to feel like the car and I were a beast, and that Carol was a rider directing us. I expressed that thought, and Carol said if the beast was tired it was all right if we went back.
Now when I look at the image of the woman riding the beast-man I consider the possibility that she may be doing her best to control the direction of the herd by using her hands to steer the ram-man's head where she wants to go.
At a recent dinner in the harbor town of Newport, Oregon, the appearance of our youthful waitress sent confusing messages. She appeared to be about 20, had a slender figure, and wore no makeup on her innocent-looking face. She had heightened the aura of innocence by gathering her hair into pony tails on either side of her face, in a style popular with Japanese schoolgirls.
I then noticed that the edge of her left eyebrow was pierced by a delicate gold ring, and that each ear had multiple piercings. When she walked away, I could see that a dark-blue geometric tattoo covered most of her left calf. The piercings and tattoo suggested considerably less innocence than the rest of her appearance. Yet when I was paying the bill she mentioned that a customer had just spilled beer on her, which upset her because she didn’t drink.
Many people work part time as servers while going to school or pursuing careers where income is unpredictable. I would have loved to ask our waitress some questions about herself, but I was there with some of my wife’s relatives, and somehow it didn’t seem appropriate. On occasions when I have asked, I have discovered that I was being served by pre-med students, actors, artists, published novelists whose sales were modest, graduate students, and a variety of other aspiring individuals. For them, working in a restaurant was seldom the role that they most identified with, and from their appearance you would often have had a hard time guessing their larger aspirations.
I found this waitress intriguing. Was her innocent look a guise imposed upon her by this family-friendly restaurant? When she was not working as a waitress, did she wear makeup, and did it go with the tattoos and piercings? Was her abstinence from alcohol part of a healthy diet lifestyle that helped her stay slim? Did she have unsuspected aspirations? Was her “normal” appearance so different that I would scarcely recognize her? Did she turn into some glamorous creature of the night when she went on dates? Or was she simply an innocent young woman whose piercings and tattoo were nothing more than her idea of fashion?
["A Smile with Every Meal" is from Andrew Stawarz's Flickr photostream, and is used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]
DG: How would you describe PaleoFuture—the site and the concept—to someone who'd never seen it?
Matt Novak: The PaleoFuture blog looks at past visions of the future, primarily focusing on 20th century predictions of the American future. Paleofuturism, or more commonly retrofuturism, looks at the predictions of scientists, advertisers, designers, and average people to see what those predictions say about the time in which they were created and how they may have shaped our current times.
DG: How did PaleoFuture come to be?
MN: In 2007 I was taking a writing class that included starting a blog. While most people in the class started blogs about their personal lives I decided that I wasn't very interesting and would write about something else. I started to explore this idea that I had been thinking about since I was a child: how people of the past imagined the future.
MN: Images of the future are reflections of the time in which they are created. The future was most glamorous at times when this abstract idea of glamour was important to popular culture. The 1950s is considered a golden age of American futurism. The 1950s techno-utopian ideas of progress sometimes appear to be reconciling the shiny plastic future alongside the more traditional ideas of glamour and the American dream.
MN: My favorite images of retrofuturism often come from a Sunday comic that was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune from 1958 until 1963. [More examples here, here, and here.]
DG: You recently wrote on your Twitter feed that "Nostalgia is not a disease, but a symptom of fear." How do you define nostalgia? Do you have to have experienced something yourself to be nostalgic for it?
MN: Nostalgia as a symptom of fear is far too broad of an idea, and frankly I regret saying it so matter of factly. There is an important distinction I feel that we should make between personal nostalgia and societal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is that smell of your first teddy bear or the feeling of your first kiss. Personal nostalgia is a wonderful part of the human experience. But I feel that personal nostalgia is anecdotal and thus dangerous when used as ammunition to describe this desire to return to a "better time." I find that more often than not, the time and place that society is nostalgic for never existed. Romanticizing the past, while perfectly fine when applied individually, can stifle progress.
DG: Is PaleoFuture a nostalgic site? If not, why not?
MN: I do my best to present PaleoFuture as neutrally as possible, though my personal opinions on society, technology, or progress often bleed through. I think many people who visit my site find it to be nostalgic because they're projecting. People often think that even the future used to be better.
DG: You often post mysterious requests on your Twitter feed—advice on finding a book on theme park design or an old robot or jet pack in Los Angeles. What do you do when you're not blogging?
MN: I work for a non-traditional marketing company in Minneapolis called Street Factory Media. We do stuff like this (and by "like this" I mean I cast and managed that stunt). I'm moving to Los Angeles in September and will be working for the same company.
DG: What do you think of the upcoming Tron movie?
MN: Haven't seen it obviously but I'm excited to check it out. I'm generally fine with movie remakes, sequels and prequels. I'm much more of a cinelibertarian than most of my other film nerd friends.
DG: Is there anything glamorous about the future nowadays?
MN: Today? Very little. We're certainly at a low point for futurism at the moment given the amount of apocalypse porn that is being produced (see: Collapseand Countdown to Zero). But as the economy improves I think we'll see many more glamorous and optimistic visions of the future.
DG: What images would be on a PaleoFuture site about 2010 in 2050?
MN: This question is the most clever attempt at making me predict the future that I've seen. But, no dice. I don't know the future and the beautiful thing is that no one else does either.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour?
Poise and grace. Confidence is the most essential ingredient to glamor.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?
4) Favorite glamorous movie?
To Catch a Thief. I've always found Grace Kelly to be more glamorous in To Catch a Thief than Rear Window, though I think Rear Window is a far superior movie.
Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.
This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.
Come to Sunny Prestatyn Laughed the girl on the poster, Kneeling up on the sand In tautened white satin. Behind her, a hunk of coast, a Hotel with palms Seemed to expand from her thighs and Spread breast-lifting arms.
She was slapped up one day in March. A couple of weeks, and her face Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; Huge tits and a fissured crotch Were scored well in, and the space Between her legs held scrawls That set her fairly astride A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas, while Someone had used a knife Or something to stab right through The moustached lips of her smile. She was too good for this life. Very soon, a great transverse tear Left only a hand and some blue. Now Fight Cancer is there.
With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”
Fashion stylist Angie at the excellent YouLookFab.com blog recently challenged readers to tell her how much they'd have to be paid to wear this outfit in normal, everyday life. Among the first 70 replies prices ranged from $100 to a cure for cancer ("no amount of money would be enough"). Amazingly, a real online retailer charges £135 for the hot mess.
The outfit is hideous and inappropriate to pretty much every context. It also sends a strange signal about the wearer's identity (Hooker working Comic-Con? Unfortunately paired Project Runway model?).
But what about outfits that aren't downright ugly, just unconventional or signals of the wrong identity? How sensitive are you to social expectations? To making sure your wardrobe matches your self-image? How do you balance those two factors when identity and taste clash with convention? When I interviewed cosplayers at Anime Expo, several told me they wished they wear Edwardian-inspired fantasy outfits every day. On a more mundane note, I myself spend most days in jeans and T-shirts even though in theory I'd rather wear suits or dresses. It just seems strange to dress up to work at home.
So, to add to Angie's question, here are some less outre outfits to consider.
These pink and orange Lily Pulitzer silk pants sell for $98. I'm sure they have many fans, but they're definitely for people with very specific tastes. And they say the wearer is either a super-preppy or a wannabe. Along similar lines, consider madras pants, available for both men and women.
What would someone have to pay you to wear them to work? Or would you happily pay for the privilege yourself?
Finally, no such discussion would be complete without the classic Juicy Couture velour tracksuit, complete with rhinestone-encrusted crown. Everyday glamour? Or the wrong sort of signal? What's your price?
Got an outrageous outfit to share? Please add your own challenges, with links, in the comments below. We'll award a DeepGlamour goody bag to the one we like the best.