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.
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.)
In the introduction to her essay collection, A Dedicated Follower of Fashion, fashion critic Holly Brubach makes a case for the cultural significance of fashion. It is, she suggests, “architecture’s feminine counterpart....Buildings and clothes are the primary components of our everyday landscape, and they embody the ideas and the attitudes of the time in which we live.”
While I agree with her about fashion’s significance, I’m not convinced that buildings are clothing’s masculine counterpart. They are too static, too permanent, and too communal. Architecture operates differently on the imagination. It tends to be more evocative in photographs than in person, while clothes are just the opposite.
Fashion’s real masculine counterpart is personal transportation, which since the early 20th century means cars. (It once meant coaches, as time spent with Madame Bovary or Sherlock Holmes will quickly demonstrate.) Like an outfit, an automobile wraps its owner in a new outer shell, both protective and decorative. Even the most ordinary car, like even the most ordinary clothes, thus holds some prospect of transformation while extraordinary cars, like extraordinary clothes, conjure up whole new lives. The glamour of both comes from the promise of escape and transformation.
Both cars and clothes also express, as Brubach said of architecture, the ideas and attitudes of their time. Yet, outside of the movies, they are only rarely deliberately paired to call attention to these correspondences. People who think seriously about cars usually know little about fashion, and vice versa.
As the exhibit’s copy notes, in the streamline era the echoes were sometimes deliberate:
Wealthy connoisseurs would collaborate with French couturiers, automakers, and coachbuilders to create perfectly matching ensembles. Even Chanel met with exclusive coachbuilders like Joseph Figoni to formulate matching automobile and fashion ensembles for a select few clients. Well heeled patrons often had long lunches in exclusive hotel restaurants with their coachbuilders and couturiers to order coordinating fashion and automobile ensembles to be debuted at prestigious parties or high profile events such as a concours d’elegance.
There might have been other, less official wardrobe coordination. The second car pictured is a 1937 Delage D8-120. Louis Delage, the car company’s founder, contrasted his products with the competition. “Gentlemen drive Alfas, and you’re driven in a Rolls,” he said. “But a Delage is something to give one’s mistress,” perhaps along with a similarly streamlined bias-cut dress.
[Car photos courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Fashion from Phoenix Art Museum Collection, photos by Ken Howie. Bottom exhibit photo by Virginia Postrel.]
John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, was already captivated by automobiles by age five. He knew the names and model years of all the cars on the road. He would sit behind the wheel of his father’s parked 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook, and instead of being in the mountains of West Virginia, he would look at his father’s maps of Colorado and Utah and imagine himself driving in the wild West.
As an adult, John loved to watch documentaries and didn't think enough were available on TV, so in 1982 he founded the Cable Educational Network and, three years later, the Discovery Channel. Over time, while doing work that he loves as chairman of Discovery Communications, he and his wife Maureen have become wealthy.
Keep in mind that most entrepreneurial ventures fail, but imagine success. Imagine yourself with a multi-million dollar net worth. Would you imagine continuing to work, starting new ventures, and spending some of your earnings on your personal interests? Or do you see yourself leading a life of leisure, perhaps traveling the world on some fashionable circuit?
John and Maureen Hendricks have realized the first fantasy: Their interests and personalities haven't changed. They aren't flashy, and the luxuries they spend their money on aren't designed to impress the world. John, like many entrepreneurs, continues to work hard at various ventures, and both he and Maureen are involved in charitable activities, including establishing two foundations. But their wealth lets them live the dream of indulging their lifelong passions.
With extra money to spend, John Hendricks began to collect autos in earnest. And to share his love of automobiles, he created the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum to exhibit his growing collection of more than 40 vehicles. This beautifully designed museum provides both an educational and aesthetic experience. John’s statement about the museum reveals his intense passion for automotive design.
The video above shows the prototype of legendary auto designer Harley Earl’s 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 on display at the museum. General Motors decided against producing the F-88 car partly because they were concerned it would compete with the Corvette. Only four prototypes were built and only this one survives. Hendricks purchased it at auction in 2005 for $3.24 million.
The Hendricks's shared love for the American Southwest led to their latest business venture, Gateway Canyons, a luxurious resort in a remote, spectacularly beautiful location in Western Colorado. The resort is now open after Phase I development, and includes the Experius Academy, a retreat for “introducing the most curious learners to the most passionate experts.”
Maureen Hendricks is avid quilter and art-quilt collector, and the Gateway Canyons facilities display numerous large art quilts, many of them by Katie Pasquini Masopust. Katie used to hold an annual quilt symposium Alegre Retreat in Santa Fe, which Maureen attended each year until rising venue expenses made it too difficult for Katie continue the symposium. The Gateway Canyon resort has given Maureen a way both to enjoy herself and to support other enthusiasts. With the resort’s support, Alegre Retreat now holds its workshops there. Staying at a luxurious resort to study and interact with some of the world’s best-known art quilters remains an expensive retreat for the participants, but Maureen’s passion for quilting is so strong that whether or not the quilting retreat becomes profitable is not her primary concern. She wants the aesthetic rewards of the Alegre Retreat to continue to be a part of her life.
Meeting them when my wife taught at Alegre, I was impressed at how inner-directed John and Maureen Hendricks are. If we fantasize about how we might spend multi-millions if we had them, would our choices likewise remain true to our preexisting passions? (Reflecting on this makes me consider my own passions.) Or do our fantasies revolve about living a life of luxurious leisure dictated by the images we see in fashion and travel magazines? (Such images definitely have appeal for me.) What about you? Imagining that you had some extra millions to spend, DG invites you to comment on how you might spend them.
Tesla Motors Inc., whose electric sports cars combine good looks, high performance, and high-status price tag with environmental correctness, government subsidies, and lots of good media, will go public on Tuesday. The company hopes its IPO will garner about $15 a share, for a $1.4 billion valuation.
Tesla's public offering represents an interesting chance to measure just how much glamour is worth. The business not only lacks profits but has minimal sales. "Glamour and excitement are not the same as a sound investment," warns the WSJ's Brent Arend in a much reprinted post. "Indeed the reverse is more often the case." Newsweek Nancy Cook is blunter, listing five reasons that Tesla will "never make money."
Of course, glamour stocks are nothing new to Wall Street. They have high price-earnings ratios because investors believe they have strong growth potential. Is Tesla such a rational glamour play? Or is buying into its IPO more like funding a movie or an airline startup--the triumph of hope over experience, glamour over good sense?
UPDATE: Tesla's glamour turned out to be worth even more than the company hoped. Shares went for $17 each, and Tesla increased the number it sold by 20 percent.
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.)
Car blogger Chuck Goolsbee posts some great photos under the heading “Car Photo of the Day.” The one above, featuring two of the world's most glamorous artifacts, is a particular favorite of mine. I’ll return to it in a moment.
In a post last month, Chuck contrasted two photos of the same car. The first is the kind of snapshot-as-note-taking that I shoot all the time. Since it’s mostly to jog the memory, the composition doesn’t matter much. Hence, the headless car buffs, with particular emphasis on the guy in the orange polo shirt and shorts.
The second shot, a photo within the photo, is this closeup of the Jaguar. “This is the photo in my minds-eye whenever I see an XK,” Chuck wrote. “That luscious bonnet and fenders, with all those light-capturing curves.”
Since cropping was the only manipulation required to produce the second photo from the first, few documentary purists would object. Recreating the photo held in memory didn’t require retouching the mechanical reproduction of the scene, only focusing closely on one piece of it.
But go back to the photo of the E-type Jaguar and the windmills (click the photo or here for a larger view). Simply by recording a still image, the scene has been glamorized, portraying the car and windmills as autonomous icons of technological grace—no maintenance or transmission lines required. At the same time, however, the photo calls attention to distractions that would have gone unnoticed in person: the rough asphalt in the foreground and the fence interfering with the car’s lines in the middle distance.
A glamorized version of the photo would remove or downplay these distractions, focusing the scene on its emotionally meaningful components. Profiled in The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, today’s leading retoucher of fashion photos, called blemishes and flaws “anomalies,” suggesting that they distract from the truth. A retouched scene would be literally false. But would it be more emotionally truthful?
One possibility would be to clean up the photo by cropping it, producing something like this.
There are fewer distractions now, but the photo seems cramped, with less sense of movement and the open road. Cropping may be journalistically legitimate, but it's emotionally unsatisfying.
Having read this interesting post in which photographer Mark Harmel discussed the sort of minor retouching he does to clean up distractions, I asked him what he would do with the Jaguar and windmills photo. He sent back this subtly altered version of the photo.
“The wide angle lens stretched the car out—especially in the front end,” he wrote. “I compressed it and cleaned up the grass some. I compare my style of retouching to wearing those Bose Noise-Canceling headphones. My job is to remove the visual distractions. In this photo I also cleaned up the grass some to fill in a hole. I might actually do more so there is that fluffy seed-top runs all the way across.”
The side of the road is less distracting, though the grass is now a bit too regular. And by correcting the car's front end, he made the photo more realistic—but less glamorous.
“Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination,” was George Hurrell's formula for creating glamorous portraits. That prescription runs contrary to journalistic full disclosure. It also acknowledges the selection involved in all creative presentations. Neither an article nor a photograph reproduces the world in all its continuity and complexity. Ultimately, the correct selection depends on the creator's purposes and the audience's expectations.
So which version of the car and windmills photo do you like best? Or can you do better?
I can only imagine the hate mail this post will generate. Even if you dislike cars, my sense is that you'll have a list of cars you believe are more glamorous than others. And it is very likely that none of your cars are on my list of glamorous cars. For a person like me, who suffers from an abiding love of automobiles, as well as a deep fascination for all the people who've designed, built, and raced them, putting this list together was pure torture. In the span of fifteen minutes I created a list of 47 contenders, and only via much gnashing of teeth and multiple strokes of the delete key was I able to whittle it down to the final ten.
Here they are, the ten most glamorous cars made after 1945 (in order of date of manufacture--any other ranking is just too difficult):
Lancia Aurelia B20GT (1950): the archetypal two-door gran turismo, this Lancia is a most elegant expression of Italian design in the postwar period. This is the auto for two people deeply in love to tour the lakes of Lombardy. I fell in love with it after seeing it at speed in the pages of Tintin. Of all the cars on this list, this is my favorite.
Aston Martin DB5 (1963): Goldfinger. Silver. Ejector seat. Tire-slashing wheel spinners. Not so much about James Bond, more about Sean Connery. British glamour at its best, and arguably the high point of Aston Martin design.
Ferrari 400 Superamerica (1963): For those of you who equate the Ferrari brand with gold-chain reruns of Magnum PI, please consider this: in the early sixties, Ferrari made just 47 of these bespoke beauties, each fettled with a hairy V-12 motor up front and exceptionally pure bodywork from Pininfarina. These were fast, glamorous cars built for kings. This was the Ferrari of Rockefellers, the Aga Khan, and Gianni Agnelli.
Mercedes-Benz 600 (1964): When a movie director wants to tell us that a very evil, very powerful, very nasty dictator (albeit one with good taste) is about to arrive, he is likely to choose this car. All joking aside, some truly awful human beings occupied the back seat of this car. Ultra expensive in its day, the 600 is still the ne plus ultra of the Mercedes brand. It's rumored that you can still buy a new one today if you have enough cash...
Lamborghini Miura (1966): One of these came to a tragic end at the start of The Italian Job. I've stayed away from out-and-out sports cars on this list because the experience of driving them is often less than glamorous, but because the Miura captures all that was outrageous about pre-Vietnam '60s culture, it made the cut. If you could afford to buy and run one of these, you had money. And if you were attractive enough not to be shown up by its timeless styling, you certainly qualified as glamorous.
Cadillac Eldorado Brougham (1957): Harley Earl's unique view of the universe is best personifed by this car, with its tailfins, dagmars, brushed stainless steel roof, and intricate metal detailing throughout. It featured suicide rear doors, stainless steel drink tumblers, a cigarette case, and even a perfume dispenser. Open those doors, and you half expect Marilyn Monroe to tumble out in all her platinum glory.
Porsche 911S (1970): I had to put a Porsche on the list. So I chose the one that Steve McQueen drove around the countryside of Le Mans at the start of his movie of the same name. Before the 911 became a testosterone wagon, it was a compact, even lithe vehicle powered by a relatively small motor. An elegant Porsche. As such, I think it's the most glamorous car ever driven by McQueen, who was one glamorous dude.
Range Rover (1970): the first generation Range Rover was styled by engineers, but like the American Jeep which came thirty years earlier, its design process spawned something of great purity from an aesthetic point of view. As its basic, utilitarian design added layers of luxury and power over the years, it was transformed in to the ur-SUV, a temple of jet-setting glamour and power. If in 1957 the Eldorado would have been your vehicle of choice, in 1987 you wanted to be seen in a Range Rover. The most glamorous ride ever to sport external door hinges.
Toyota Prius (2004): not the dowdy first-generation model, nor the overly angular third gen edition. The second-generation Prius defined "hybrid" as a glamorous technological paradigm. Not only is this the only Japanese car on my list, but the Prius is the only one that Leonardo drove. Like all the other cars on this list, its glamour has its roots in power, but in this case it is about its relative lack thereof. What a difference 50 years makes... given a choice between this and the Sunbeam, I bet Grace Kelly would have driven one, too.
With the state’s never-ending budget crises, jammed freeways, and high cost of living, California dreamin’ is out of style. “We are now the state that can’t,” Stephen Levy, the go-to guy for quotes about the California economy, told the NYT earlier this week. Calling the state “increasingly ungovernable,” the WaPost's Dan Balz writes:
The rest of the country has long looked to California as the future. It was once a leader in developing public infrastructure, and it created the most enviable system of public universities in the nation. Now the nation sees California and worries that its economic and political troubles will infect other states.
So the answer to the question at the top of this post would seem to be NO WAY!
But consider the Ferrari California, released last year. Why would Ferrari name its hot new car the California if California symbolizes traffic jams and screwed-up government? (For a higher-resolution version of the video, directed by Michael Mann, see the Ferrari California site.)
And why would Apple label all its products “Designed by Apple in California”? (This unaffiliated Apple reference site even adopted the slogan as its domain name.) Ferraris and iPods are both glamorous products. Why connect them to an unglamorous place?
You think of California, not the actual state, with its endless dismal boulevards full of muffler shops and donut stores, but the California of memory: the Beach Boys, the Summer of Love, and the beatniks, a utopian land of opportunity, an escape, where you go when you leave behind the cold winters and your conservative parents back in Cleveland.
And “Apple” in California is, of course, on the literal level, a computer company, and not a very nice one, but put those words together and you think of apple orchards, and the Beatles, and you think of how Forrest Gump got rich off of Apple stock. And “designed in California...” It's not made. It's designed. In California. Like a surfboard. Or a Lockheed XP-80.
And, of course, it might distract your attention from the fact that we no longer make things like this in America. We design them, but they pretty much have to be made in China. Either way, the iPod slogan Designed by Apple in California triggers a flood of emotional responses that just make you happy to have selected this MP3 player.
I think there’s something else operating as well. California may seem too familiar and troubled to Americans in other states, but it still has glamour abroad. The UCLA student store attracts Asian tourists stocking up on souvenirs. The Ferrari California is aimed particularly at buyers in China and Russia. Is the Golden State still glamorous when seen from afar? And, if so, does distance explain the glamour, or is there something more?
When I saw this commercial for the Kia Soul with the adorbs hip hop hamsters, I realized the Soul looks an awful lot like a mix between my new car, the Scion XD, and the Scion XB, which is an awful like the new Nissan Cube, an odd-looking, economical box on wheels that is reminiscent of those higher-end boxes, the tank-like Hummer and early Land Rovers, both initially meant for hunting lions or terrorists, or terrorist lions, depending on your point of view.
So what is it with the oval vs. the box: the box suddenly representing all that is young and hip and the oval equaling money and sophistication? I think it might be the old skool style bringing back the boxy revival--remember the Volvos of the 80s, the Hart to Hart Mercedes that was the matchbox of of my dreams or BMW’s 80’s box-- they all still makes me croon for the days of Sixteen Candles and the Brat Pack and I went and bought a Scion, maybe for that reason. (Paging Dr. Freud!)
But I guess if you’re spending $80,000 and up on a car, luxury isn’t about capturing kitsch, irony, or youth culture. (Note: youth culture, not youth. $80K will probably get you a young girlfriend, though.) The appeal of the oval is more about capturing the speed of the compact design of Porsche. Or maybe it’s nostalgia for those molded steel curves of the Studebaker.
I wouldn’t know. I bought a car that could be mistaken for the hip hop hamster car. And that is just fine with me.