“It’s impossible to walk from this book not thinking differently about things.”
That's what Weston Cutter of Corduroy Books said in his review of The Power of Glamour, and it's a theme that comes up again and again in comments about the book. “Reading this book made me look differently at the role glamour has played in my own life,” wrote Leslie Camhi in The New York Times Book Review.
Reading the book gave Kate Bolick an explanationfor why she loves the Vermont Country Store catalog but never wants to visit the real store. It gave Autumn Whitefield-Madrano insight into a beauty puzzle: "If women's magazines make women feel so bad about themselves, why do we continue to buy them?" For Ken Silber it crystallized a unifying theme in what he likes "to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy."
It might change how you think too. And to celebrate the new year, I'm giving away three signed copies of The Power of Glamour. To enter, post a comment on my blog at vpostrel.com, telling me why you should win one. I'll pick winners on January 10. My decisions are final and they may be arbitrary or random. You do not have to be a U.S. resident to enter.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on January 03, 2014 in
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.
The book (pre-order your copy here) includes four photos by the great architectural photographer Julius Shulman, including this one of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs.
One of the biggest misconceptions about glamour is that it is somehow feminine. Men are as susceptible to glamour as women, but it takes different forms for different audiences. One of the first uses of the word glamour in the modern sense was in reference to "the glamour of battle," and martial glamour is one of glamour's most ancient forms.
One of the delightful discoveries during my research was the work of photographer Virginia Thoren, who specialized in glamorously portraying fur coats in mid-20th-century ads. I hope to feature an interview with her in a later DG post but, in the meantime, you can see more of her work at the June Bateman Fine Art site.
“Is Madame familiar with the Clive Christian line?” asked the sales assistant.
Her thick, dark hair was smoothed back into a chignon, and the slim, elegant length of her was clothed in expertly tailored black, from the sharp collar of her silk shirt right down to the tips of her rather high heels. I stood up a little straighter and tucked an errant curl behind my ear. Yes, I said, I knew of the line. But I was looking for the JAR boutique.
“Ah, JAR,” she sighed. “Yes, of course. I like these perfumes very much. Let me show you.”
She led me into a tiny alcove off the main floor and delivered me to an immaculate, silver-haired man with a broad chest, large, square hands, and the bearing of a career diplomat.
“This is Robert,” she said, gesturing toward the diplomat. He shook my hand solemnly. “Robert, this young lady would like to have the JAR experience.”
At Robert’s request, I sat down on a soft, low chair in front of a small, black-lacquered table that held a collection of old-fashioned bell jars. Everything was swathed in shadow: the chair a maroon velvet, the carpet dark lilac gray, the walls covered in deep mauve. Two small spotlights punctuated the sepulchral gloom, glinting off the glass domes on the table and the silver in Robert’s hair.
Leaning forward slightly, Robert began to talk. First he told the story of the room and the mural and how many times JAR—who had flown in himself from Paris to oversee the work—had it repainted to meet his strict standards. I squirmed and snuck a look at the unlabeled bell jars. If the perfume blogs were to be trusted, each of them held a square of cotton soaked in perfume. Robert ignored my glance and continued telling me, in the same unhurried, respectful tones, the story of Joel Arthur Rosenthal, from the Bronx, and how he found his true métier in Paris as a jeweler for the very discriminating (and very rich) and became the capital-letters-no-periods figure he is today.
Then, turning a large leather binder around to face me, he began to page slowly through glossy color photos of JAR jewelry. Dazzling pavé surfaces floated up under the bright spotlight. Thousands upon thousands of tiny diamonds, emeralds, rubies, amethysts, citrons, and sapphires set in tiny hand-drilled holes made swirling patterns, unearthly flowers, shimmering butterflies and insects. Robert was dropping the names of movie stars and the wives of politicians and billionaires, and I was thinking about compulsion, perfectionism, and patronage—czars and pharaohs, Napoleon and the Medicis. And occasionally, it must be admitted, of Las Vegas: Pavé is not a technique that lends itself to sleek, modernist restraint.
At last we arrived at the moment when JAR decided to create his own perfumes—perfumes worthy of the name JAR. Robert paused, leaned back in his chair, and moved the bell jars to the center of the table.
“Are you ready to experience the perfumes now?” he asked. For a moment I thought I saw a glint of irony in his eyes. Resisting the impulse to wink, I inclined my head gravely.
One by one, he slid the jars in front of me, whisked off the glass, and tipped the base forward for me to sniff at the accumulated vapors as they escaped into the air. They went by like a series of fever dreams: a cloud of fiery clove-and-cinnamon-edged carnations thick and lush enough to drown in. Dirty hay and ripe animal—the filthiest, sexiest, most expensive barnyard in the world. An acre of gardenias blooming furiously in moist dirt and humid air. Carnations again, but lighter, touched with a sparkling chill and trailing other flowers and something like incense behind them. Berries and wine at the end of a perfect sunny afternoon. Something dark and sharp, smelling of dust, roots, caves, and cellars. And then something—
“Could I smell that one again, please?”
Obligingly, Robert tipped the jar toward me a second time.
And there it was again. The smell of the air just after a summer thunderstorm—an astonishing scent of trampled grass, broken branches, bruised flowers, and electricity. I closed my eyes and inhaled a third time, grateful for the dim quiet of the little alcove.
“They went by like a series of fever dreams: a cloud of fiery clove-and-cinnamon-edged carnations thick and lush enough to drown in. Dirty hay and ripe animal—the filthiest, sexiest, most expensive barnyard in the world. An acre of gardenias blooming furiously in moist dirt and humid air. Carnations again, but lighter, touched with a sparkling chill and trailing other flowers and something like incense behind them. Berries and wine at the end of a perfect sunny afternoon. Something dark and sharp, smelling of dust, roots, caves, and cellars. And then something—”
With a start, I remembered that Robert was holding the jar for me. I opened my eyes and leaned back. We looked at one another again. This time, fortified by the perfume, I grinned, and was rewarded with a faint smile, the gentle irony on clear display now.
“Would you like to try one of them on your skin?” he asked.
Of course I did. I wanted to try all of them. But I knew my greed would only make it impossible to smell any of them properly.
“May I wait a moment and then smell them again to choose one?”
We waited. Feeling that some kind of conversation was required, I leaned forward and confessed that I had come all the way from Texas to smell the perfumes.
“They’re like celebrities to me,” I said. “I can’t believe I actually get to see and meet them in person.”
His smile widened, “Oh, yes, I know what you’re talking about. I’m from Oklahoma. I remember feeling that way about a lot of things in the city.” He paused and sighed. “Some of them lived up to my expectations. Some did not.”
We had a moment of silence, thinking about cities and dreams.
And we went through them all again, though I already knew which one I would choose. I told Robert, and with great ceremony he anointed the back of my hand. We rose, I thanked him, and without a trace of self-consciousness we bowed slightly to one another, two courtiers taking their leave. Neither of us said a word about money.
Alyssa will be at Green Apple Books and Music in San Francisco tonight at 7 p.m. and at The Scent Bar in Los Angeles Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. For more on her West Coast book tour, which also includes Portland and Seattle, go here.
In Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, Alyssa Harad tells the story of how she found herself obsessed with perfume and how, through that obsession, she came to integrate the sensory and creative sides of her personality into her intellectual life. The book recently came out in paperback, and Alyssa begins a West Coast book tour this Thursday in San Francisco, followed by L.A., Portland, and Seattle (details here). Tomorrow we'll be running an excerpt from the book, and you can enter to win a copy here. As an introduction, DG's Virginia Postrel talked to Alyssa by phone.
VP: I like perfume, but I find it somewhat intimidating. It’s like wine—it’s complicated, hard to learn about without a lot of investment and direct experience. You can’t just read about it or look at pictures and get a sense for it. In your memoir, you talk about going to a local smelling salon, which is not something most of us have access to. And you also do this great thing where you introduce friends to perfumes. You bring them over samples that you think they might like and you tell the stories of the perfumes and you let them try them. For people who don’t have either of those options, what do you recommend?
AH: I didn’t have either of those options when I started out. I began reading the blogs. And I started with Now Smell This, which is a very typical place for people to start, and Bois de Jasmin. Both of those blogs have archives that you can search by perfume and Bois de Jasmin has an archive you can search by note, so you can look for things that you think you like. Then I would take that new language and order some samples or you can go to a perfume counter, if you’re lucky enough to have one—I didn’t really have one—and try a few things. It does get pricey, but it’s a lot cheaper than wine, I can tell you that. If wine came in $3.00 samples, I would know a lot more about wine than I do right now.
VP: Three-dollar samples through the mail too…
AH: Exactly. For me it was very similar to learning about a new cuisine. The first time you have Thai food you’re just sort of dazzled by all the flavors. And then the third time you have it you learn that, oh, that thing you really like is called lemongrass. And then you go read a cookbook and you learn that all the creaminess comes from coconut milk. So each of these things has its own vocabulary, and I think maybe the reason perfume is intimidating to people, besides the fact that the industry has given us absolutely no way to organize and decipher what they produce...
VP: What do you mean?
AH: When you go to a wine shop it’s organized by region and type of wine, right? So you know you like cabernet, you go look at the cabernet section. But perfume is a branded commodity, so each brand is trying to sell you a little piece of its empire, and each brand has its own array of scents within the brand. And the myth, the fiction, is that you will find everything you need within a certain line and you’ll be loyal to that brand.
VP: Which is interesting, because fashion doesn’t work that way. The idea of a fashion brand is that the brand has a personality.
AH: The lines, when they’re good, do have personality, but there’s another way to view perfume beyond the brand, which is by of language of scent that’s common to perfume. So you might figure out that you really like the smell of vanilla or you really like the smell of vetiver, which you might even not know what that is or what that smells like until you start reading and smelling perfume. And then when you do, there’s really no way for you to go to a mainstream perfume counter and find all the vetiver perfume.
The genius of the Jo Malone brand is that they actually named the perfumes after the things they smelled like. And a few of the niche brands began with perfumes that were decipherable as photorealistic smells. If you knew it smelled like in the world you could match it to the perfume. The Demeter line, which is a super fun line that shows up in some high-end grocery stores and hip boutiques, has a whole bunch of very, very simple one-note perfumes that have names like Dirt and Play-doh—and that’s what they smell like.
I started with perfumes like that—that were easy to decipher. It’s so rare for most people to really think about smells that people feel sure they have no vocabulary, or even that they don’t smell anything at all, until you put it in front of them. So I have this experience all the time where I’ll tell somebody, “Smell this. It smells likes lemons and basil.” And they look at me like I’m crazy and then they smell it and they say, “Oh my god, it really smells like lemons and basil.” (laughter) They’re so shocked that they’re able to identify the scent. And I have to say, I have never seen someone have that experience more than once in a row and not want to have it again. It’s a very addictive experience to discover that you have this capacity to identify things in the world. And, you know, that’s the beginning of the end.
VP: One of the these things I found frustrating about your book is that you would talk about a scent but you would never give its name, and I wondered why that was.
AH: The main reason, as I do state in the author’s note, which is that the scents are discontinued and reformulated so quickly that I was genuinely afraid that I would describe things in the book and then people would go and find them and they would smell nothing like what I had described. I didn’t want people to be thinking, “She’s crazy. This doesn’t smell like that.” (laughter)
The more subtle reason was that there were so many brand names in the book that it began feel like an infomercial for perfume, and there were moments when I really wanted the reader to be thinking about whatever imaginary scents they were conjuring up in their head and the emotion of the theme, rather than writing something down on their shopping list.
Then the final reason is that some of these perfumes don’t smell that way to me anymore. So the perfume I’m describing to you is the perfume as I smelled it in that moment. The biggest one of these for me is the honey perfume that I talk about in chapter two.
VP: The one your now-husband smells and says, “It smells like you.”
AH: That perfume—well, first of all, the name of that perfume is Botrytis, which you probably know from the wine world is the noble rot. It sounds like a disease, because that’s what it is. So I would have had this long explanation of why I fell in love with a perfume named after a disease in the middle of this touching love scene. (laughter) So, there was that sort of writerly problem.
Also I still really like it a lot, but it’s not quite the same thing to me now as it was when I first smelled it. I wanted a chance to explain that to people when I revealed the name. I assumed that the book would have an afterlife online and that it wouldn’t be the beginning and the end of the reader’s experience. So it didn’t seem too torturous to have people wait until I told them online what all the perfumes where.
I have been a little behind, of course, in putting them all in one place for the website. But in the meantime, if people really, really want to know something, they can just ask me. I tell people all the time.
VP: You kept discovering people who love perfume but never talk about it, or at least you didn’t know about it. I remember one of your husband’s super macho relatives was an example. Is this some kind of “don’t ask don’t tell” thing, or was it just that it hadn’t come up because you hadn’t been interested in perfume?
AH: Probably a little bit of both. I think for the people who collect it—who have more than one bottle or maybe more than 10 bottles—it’s kind of a don’t ask don’t tell thing. Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo. There’s been a lot of blowback I think, though people don’t wear perfume in the extravagant public way that they used to wear, say, in the ’80s when everybody could still smoke in public. So people might be wearing a lot of perfume, smoking, and wearing a lot of hairspray. (laughter) There was just a lot more olfactory noise going on. Now everybody is trying to be very clean, and there’s a lot of talk of allergies, and perfume is a very easy target. Most workplaces are scent-free. So it’s not something that people comment on.
“Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo.”
VP: When you say most workplaces are scent-free, do you mean they are de facto scent-free or they actually have “don’t wear perfume” policies?
AH: It depends on where you work. There’s definitely a lot of talk about the “office scent.” You can see that in the women’s magazines. If you’re going to wear a scent at the office, it’s presumed that you will wear something that’s very quiet and very clean and will not offend anybody. And many workplaces actually have a no-scent policy. If you work in any aspect of health care, for example. There are a lot of nurses in the perfume community and they’re full of these little tricks that they do to just have a tiny bit of scent to keep them going through the night shift.
VP: I first heard about the book by reading an excerpt in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I thought was a brilliant place to put an excerpt because the book is only ostensibly about perfume. The bigger story, as the title suggests, is about an intellectual—specifically an intellectual woman, specifically a feminist intellectual woman—learning that it is OK to find pleasure and meaning in something that’s sensory and supposedly frivolous. Although we come from very different places, I identified with that.
I’m always struck by how people who would never dismiss music or food or even sex—it’s fine to talk about sex all day long—have so much trouble with visual or olfactory or tactile pleasures. One way to turn this rant into a question is to say one of your friends said, “I just don’t want to be the kind of woman who wears perfume.” What is that statement about? What is she getting at?
AH: Oh, god, you would have to ask her. I feel like I knew the answer to that question before I got into perfume, because I felt that way, and then somewhere along the line the number of people I knew who wore perfume and the ladies who wore it became so diverse that I had trouble conjuring up who that woman was that I was afraid of.
I know that for me it has a lot to do, not even so much with being intellectual, as there’s a certain kind of traditional femininity that I associate or that I associated—I’ve changed quite a bit on this—with things like blowing your hair dry on a regular basis and wearing high heels and wearing foundation makeup every day. A sort of very groomed, very high femme presentation that was very straight in all senses of the word.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like people like that—it was just that I had failed. (laughter) Growing up in Boise, Idaho, I was in the land of ladies who are very put together like that. And I always thought there was some kind of rulebook that I had missed out on. It wasn’t even that I was in rebellion—I was just sort of failing. (laughter) And so I had to go and look for other ways to be a girl and to be a woman, and they didn’t seem to come along with things like perfume. So this adventure, both with the perfume and dealing with becoming a bride, was my way of rethinking and feeling my way into that kind of femininity, and looking for all the ways it could be expanded and maybe all the ways that I had been wrong about it. And it turned out that a lot of it was actually very important to me and connected to creativity as well.
So for me this isn’t as much a story about going from academic work to creative work as it is about going from intellectuality to sensuality.
VP: People often say, “Why are shoes so popular for women? Why are they so meaningful?” and one answer is, “Well, the reason is women of all sizes and shapes can wear beautiful shoes.” Given my history with shoes, I’m not entirely sure that’s true…
AH: Me neither. (laughter)
VP: …but it’s sort of true. And the same thing is true of perfume. You don’t have to be a size two or even a size six to wear really wonderful perfume. Maybe some of the appeal is that because it is so intangible some of the constraints that women are used to thinking about are not there.
AH: I think that’s definitely true. I know that for me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible. But not maybe as invisible as it was when you were just thinking about it, because people do smell you and you smell yourself and you walk a different way, and you you present yourself to people a different way and you might, if you’re me, be inspired to make your outsides match those more tangible fantasies that you’re now having.
VP: Can you give us some examples of ways that you do that?
AH: With these sort of grand French perfumes that are very “night of the opera” perfumes, I can be fairly messy but be wearing vintage jewelry and some red lipstick, and I just feel dressed up. I no longer feel like a schlump (laughter) without necessarily having to fit into the clothes that might match that, or wear shoes that make my feet uncomfortable. It gives me a very easy way of trying on a whole new persona and carrying it around with me during the day.
I was just talking to the manager at Lucky Scents, the Scent Bar in L.A. When he shows people how to pick a perfume he tells them that you’ll recognize it because you’ll recognize a piece of yourself. You already know the scent—you just haven’t met it yet. (laughter) You haven’t met the scent that matches that piece of yourself that you’ve been carrying around. I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. When you smell these perfumes that profoundly move you, it’s an experience of recognition. In the same way that you might recognize yourself in a book or a painting. There’s that piece of your experience that you didn’t think was possible to articulate.
VP: Are there any invisible selves that you’ve tried on this way where after a day you thought, “That is not me”?
AH: (laughter) Well, I have a few that aren’t very sustainable, where I wear the perfume very rarely and when I do it I very rarely wear it more than one day in a row. For me the best examples of that are these big, white flower scents. White flowers are the really rich, lush, heady flowers like lilies and jasmine and tuberose and gardenia. Jasmine now, I think, is very much a part of me, very comfortable. But there’s a tuberose scent called Carnal Flower by Frederic Malle, and I wear it when I want to be a diva. (laughter) And that doesn’t happen that often. Every now and then I want to feel like I own the spotlight.
VP: So picking one of the themes of my own book, which is coming out in November, one of the things I liked about your book was that you often refer to distinctive kinds of glamour—you actually use that term—that appeal to different longings and different ideals, which is a big theme of my book. You talk, for example, about a perfume with “a bookish, coffeehouse kind of glamour” that made you “feel like a hip, black-clad version of myself—thinner and longer-legged, with one of those rumpled haircuts and the black-framed glasses all the people who intimidated me in college used to wear.” I’m curious to what extent your intellectual life, or your career, has been shaped by glamour?
AH: Now that I think about it, that it’s absolutely central to my intellectual and creative life. I enjoy being dazzled, I’m an enthusiastic person, I like being a little overwhelmed and swept up but then because I know that about myself, I’m also suspicious of it. So I think I’ve spent a lot of time either being entranced by somebody and their ideas, because they have a kind of glamour for me or being on guard, reacting against glamour and trying to not be enchanted and besotted. (laughter) I think, you know, that arc that we were talking abour—from intellectual to sensual—part of what came along with that was allowing myself to be enchanted and enraptured without worrying too much about whether I was committing some kind of political or moral sin. And I now really, I think, have a much easier relationship to glamour and I have a lot more fun with it. I just admire the magic tricks that other people perform to produce their glamour. Even if I can’t myself, I really appreciate that in other people.
VP: I mean, I think there’s a rarely remarked upon glamour—the bookish coffee house kind of glamour. There’s a glamour of the intellectual life…
VP: …that has nothing to do with a specific person’s performance of it. It’s just very compelling, the same way a person with a different sort of personality might picture, say, the glamour of being a movie star.
AH: I was thinking about how glamorous my dissertation advisor was to me, and still is in many ways, and what she looked like and how she performed that glamour and how much we were all very crushed out on her. I think a lot of teachers have glamour, no matter what they look like or what they wear, just because of that relationship.
VP: Going back to perfume, you wrote about the success of expensive perfumes—Joy and Scandal—during the Depression and you pointed out that they sold way too well to have just been bought by the rich. What do you think is the significance of luxuries like that in difficult times?
AH: If I can be a little bit obnoxious and quote myself, I say in the book that it’s a kind of promise. It’s a covenant kept with the idea that life should be about more than their survival. Luxuries, I think for many people who will never own a piece of art or anything that has been validated as being high culture, are a piece of beauty. I used to have these quarrels with the social workers in my life about the hierarchy of needs, where there’s this idea that people, first they have to have shelter and food and then they can start to think about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
A friend told me a story about this woman he knew who was homeless and was kind of traveling and sort of sleeping with people, so that she would have a place to stay. The first time she got some money she bought a bottle of perfume instead of buying food or putting that money down on a room to stay for the night. Because it was something that she could keep with her, and it was a piece of herself maybe that she didn’t have access to in that kind of extremity.
VP: You talk about how swapping “turned something that was supposed to be about conspicuous consumption into a gift economy.” That strikes me as kind of a defensive statement, as if there’s something wrong with buying and selling. I understand that it’s nice to get stuff cheap or free because you can go ahead and enjoy yourself more, but does this reflect a view that it’s OK to have beauty but not to pay for it? How do you feel about commerce?
AH: Many of these perfumes were made deliberately hard to access. They’re only available in a few outlets or maybe only one city. They are not as expensive as a pair of Manolos but they for regular folks, $150 to buy a perfume is a lot of money. I and many people I’ve spoken to feel the presence of invisible velvet ropes when they go into those really high-end boutiques and department stores. And so to me it’s this kind of joyful thing that the swapping culture just removed all of that.
When you’re getting these things in the mail, it’s not about the fancy bottle anymore and it’s not about the place where you bought it. It’s really only about the scent, and it’s coming to you wrapped in bubble paper. (laughter) It’s got a handwritten label on it, and so now suddenly it’s about people sharing things with each other. And I really love that inversion.
The bigger question about whether or not I’ve come to terms with commerce I think is an open one. I would hope that I have a much more nuanced relationship to it now than when I began. I think I had some kind of reflective grumpiness, from my long graduate school training, about things that were marketed to or created specifically for people who have a lot of cash and a lot of power, because I’m kind of always rooting of the underdog. Now I think of it in a much more complicated way. I think this kind of coveting and wanting a little piece of luxury is something that runs the socioeconomic gamut.
And also sometimes things that are very cheap are much more exploitative in terms of the labor structure behind them than things that are very expensive and being made by one person. So it’s complicated, but I think that as long as there’s serious economic injustice in the world I would hope that my relationship to consumerism is ambivalent and in progress. I hope that I would always sort of be questioning my ongoing relationship to that and how it works and what I’m buying into.
“For me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible.”
VP: My limited experience is that the perfume sales people in high-end places are not especially snooty compared to, say, how one might assume people selling similarly expensive dresses would be. Oddly enough I find it less intimidating to go to the Frederic Malle counter at Barney’s than to a counter in Macy’s.
AH: I think in order to sell perfume at that Barney’s counter, you have to really like perfume. So you have to like it and know it and enjoy it and be able to talk about it in a way that goes beyond making your commission.
Most of the people who work the mid-range or low-end counters in department stores are paid directly by the brand that they’re selling, and they’re often hired part-time. They’re rarely trained, and they often only know about the two or three things that they’re trying to push that have just been released.
The big exception to that in Nordstrom. Nordstrom’s has a special program that they train all their perfume people with. That’s also a place that you can go where it’s policy to make you a sample and they just sell it in a completely different way.
VP: Some perfume enthusiasts believe only natural fragrances are acceptable, what you call perfume’s original language. You don’t make that dichotomy. You embrace modern synthetic chemistry as well. Why is that? What is your philosophy?
AH: Because I really like perfume and I want as much good perfume as possible. And so I want perfumers to have the palette that they want to work with. Part of it is my personal aesthetic preference. When you work with synthetics it’s much easier to control the architecture of the perfume. It’s much easier to control the way the perfume unfolds on your skin and the amount of space there is between the different smells that you’re using to create the chords or the sort of melody of the perfume and you have a much wider range to work with. But really, it’s just because I’m a greedy hedonist. I just want as much good art as possible.
For details on Alyssa's appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, go here.
Critically acclaimed author and Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel offers a provocative theory of glamour, elucidating how this dominant cultural force shapes our most fundamental choices, channels our deepest yearnings, and reveals who we really are.
Skimming the glossy pages of a magazine or glimpsing a flashy billboard, it’s easy to reduce glamour to mere celebrity or glitz. Yet glamour is a potent cultural force whose magic reaches far beyond the spheres of fashion or film, influencing where we choose to live, which careers we pursue, where we invest, and how we vote. Even in its most seemingly frivolous forms, despite its transient and illusory nature, glamour articulates our secret longings and exposes our true characters.
Analyzing icons from Achilles to Angelina Jolie, this is the first book that examines what glamour truly is: not an aesthetic quality or specific style, but a product of our imagination, emerging through the interaction between object and audience. Deconstructing the many iterations of glamour—from travel to battle, aviation to wirelessness, Postrel also illuminates how this pervasive phenomenon works, and in doing so, she empowers us to be smarter about how we engage with the world around us.
Aside from its intellectual content, The Power of Glamour is a beautiful object. It has more than 100 photos and will be printed in four colors on high-quality paper. At 256 pages and dimensions of 9.1 inches x 7.4 inches, it is not a coffee-table book but, rather, a "real" book that is also aesthetically pleasing--perfect for gift giving. (For the paper-averse, however, there is also a Kindle edition.)
Posted by Virginia Postrel on May 20, 2013 in
Cameron Silver, the owner of the L.A. luxury vintage shop Decades, is known for dressing Hollywood stars for the red carpet, using a remarkable eye for seeing contemporary style in vintage clothing. With his book Decades: A Century of Fashion, he demonstrates the sophisticated knowledge of fashion history that undergirds his success as a retailer and stylist. A survey of 20th-century women’s fashion, the book is beautiful, but it’s also smart, recalling styles often written out of fashion chronicles. Its history of the 1970s, for instance, includes not just the sexy “satin-skinned beauties” of Studio 54 but also the “prairie-chic sensibility” of Laura Ashley's maxi dresses. Contrasting muses—Cheryl Tiegs versus Bianca Jagger, for example, or Joan Crawford's tough-minded “Consumer” versus Rita Hayworth's eye-candy “Consumed”—add further nuance, reminding readers that decades do not come with simple, one-note themes. (Google Books offers some limited previews of the book.)
Silver is also, inevitably, the co-star of a Bravo reality show called Dukes of Melrose, whose dramatic tension derives primarily from the conflict between his big-spending ways and his budget-conscious business partner Christos Garkinos. Silver thinks like a museum curator, justifying expensive purchase by their rarity and long-term potential, Garkinos like a merchant, wanting rapid stock turns. On shopping expeditions, Silver also indulges his somewhat outré personal style, picking up things like a mink sweatshirt as well as merchandise for the store. (For examples of his personal style, see Silver's Coveteur page.) I talked to Cameron Silver by phone in late February, shortly before the show's debut.
DG: What makes a garment vintage?
Cameron Silver: That's the million dollar question. Originally it was a garment that was at least 15 or 20 years old. But now with the change in fashion and designers retiring or dying or jumping ship, fashion becomes collectible much faster and can be considered vintage in a much shorter period of time.
DG: What is special about vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: I think vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have. And truthfully, almost everything modern is derived from the past.
DG: There is a very literal style divide: If you were in the 1930s, you couldn't have worn clothes that were 40 years old. It would have looked absurd. But someone today can wear anything from the '20s on.
Cameron Silver: It is true. In the 21st century, we are able to look at the 20th century in a very modern way, which is one of the points of the book. You can wear anything from the last 100 years and look contemporary with the way you style it. And that is a really interesting point that you make, that one could never have done that in the 1930s. I think that is a cool point.
DG: A dress or suit or jacket can be glamorous, but aside from the specifics of a given garment, is the idea of vintage glamorous itself?
Cameron Silver: I think it is in the eye of the beholder and it really depends on what you are attracted to. My personal aesthetic is that I believe in the democratization of glamour and I like everything glamorous day to evening, and that is really what we do in the store. But just because it is vintage doesn’t mean it's glamorous. There are plenty of things from the past that would be 180 degrees from glamour.
DG: I was getting not so much at the idea that anything old would be glamorous, but whether this sort of concept of “the vintage” has itself become glamorous, at least in the eyes of certain audiences.
Cameron Silver: I think that the notion of saying something is vintage as opposed to just used gives it a certain panache. I think that is one of the reasons why the period when something is called vintage keeps getting closer and closer to present day. There is a little extra validity in saying, “This is vintage” as opposed to just saying, “This is old” or “This is used.” It doesn't necessarily mean it is glamorous, but it makes people feel like it is glamorous.
DG: Why has the popularity or at least the visibility of vintage fashion—whether it is high-end very glamorous sort of couture gowns that you would find at Decades or the sort of more everyday clothes that somebody might sell on Etsy—increased so much? What is the appeal?
Cameron Silver: For lack of a better definition, it is just—it is cool. It makes you seem like an insider. People who wear vintage tend to be the fashion leaders, not the followers.
I think that is the reason why so many celebs were interested in vintage initially, especially like the late '90s, early 2000s. It separated them from the pack of generic, fashionable stars. They were the ones that found and discovered something one-of-a-kind and unique, with history. A celeb in vintage really owns her style as opposed to a celeb in something borrowed from a designer. It's like, “Where did she find that dress? Who is this designer? When was it made?” It becomes a much more, in a sense, glamorous story.
“Vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have."
DG: Do you have favorite examples of that?
Cameron Silver: I’d say specifically Nicole Kidman, because she was an early supporter of Decades and I had felt that she really defined her persona very effectively following her divorce from Tom Cruise by wearing vintage designer clothing. We dressed her, famously, for the New York premiere of Moulin Rouge and she word this great vintage white Azzaro jersey dress and it was a brand that people had not heard of in a long time. It really sparked interest in Nicole Kidman as not just a fashionista, but as an insider, as an icon. I think vintage is very successful in pushing people's credibility in the fashion world.
DG: Is that because if you go wrong with vintage, maybe you go more wrong? Is it riskier, so that when you pull it off, you look better?
Cameron Silver: I am going to say if it was right 50 years ago, it's right today. I mean, if you are looking at vintage in a modern way. I think there are more risks in wearing modern designer clothing. You rarely see a celeb ripped to shreds in something vintage. It happens way more often when it's someone trying too hard to wear something very editorial that is off the runway.
DG: So vintage has a kind of timeless quality. Is there a generational divide? Is wearing vintage more popular with younger people?
Cameron Silver: I think a lot of people initially get that assumption that it is for the kids. But our clientele is very broad, from teen to well into their 80s. I think that it knows no age barrier. I think the notion that if you wear something that you could have worn 40 years ago that it looks wrong, I don't think that is necessarily the case.
A stylish woman can wear something that has been in her closet 40 or 50 years. And quite often, we have customers who come into the store and they're like, "I had that 30 years ago!" And they like it again. They wish they had kept it or they'd had the money to buy it then. Obviously I don't want to see an 85-year old woman in a micro-mini Alaïa, but I would love to see her in an Alaïa trench coat. Just because it is an Alaïa trench coat from the '80s doesn't mean that she can't wear it. When we are looking at vintage clothing in a very modern way, it makes it easier for any generation to shop with us.
DG: You write in your book, “I participate in the creation of effortless seeming glamour, acknowledging that the illusion of perfection doesn't come naturally to everybody.” The idea of the effortless is very important to the idea of glamour. What is it that people don't see?
Cameron Silver: For example, I am, on Sunday, fitting an actress who is starting a new show on ABC and we are doing like a zillion different fittings. There is so much going on. We're going to try something like 200 dresses, I bet, for four or five appearances. Things will get altered, and we are going to use every secret weapon we have. Obviously your undergarments are more important than your outer garments. So today I was schlepping, picking up stuff from stores and showrooms. The process is not necessarily glamorous. The results can be. But it takes a lot of work.
That is also a very American approach to glamour. I always look at my Parisian friends who will go to a black-tie gala and they will just wear—like woman will wear a pair of black tux pants and a little tank top and a marabou-feathered jacket and put her hair back and some sexy heels and lipstick. We are a little bit regimented in America with our glamour.
DG: I wonder how much of that is worrying about things that are going to be recorded photographically.
Cameron Silver: Yes. I have a friend Sarah DeAnna who has got a book called, Supermodel YOU. She is a very successful model and the book is about using techniques that supermodels use in every walk of your life. As we were talking about ideas for when her book comes out and marketing, I said, "Everyone is a model now because everything gets documented" in the sense that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Everyone needs to know how to give their best face. Nothing is candid any more. It doesn't matter who you are. If you are getting photographed, it is going to end up in some social media.
So imagine what it is like when it is ending up on a social media with 2,000 or 3,000 photographers at the Oscars. It takes a lot of extra work to kind of enter the storm.
DG: Speaking of behind the scenes, you now have a reality show, Dukes of Melrose, on Bravo. What made you want to do the show?
Cameron Silver: I agreed to do it at a very vulnerable moment. [Chuckles]
I was super burnt out. I was like, “OK, I'll do it.” I still question why I agreed to do it, to be perfectly honest [chuckles]. But I am hopeful that the show will ultimately be a great example of infotainment, giving an insider's experience of the world of Decades and fashion, fashion history and also be entertaining. It is also the way the industry works now. I want to keep growing, I kind of have to do it. Michael Kors did his show, Rachel Zoe has done her show.
DG: Reality shows all thrive on conflict, as does any drama, which is the opposite of effortlessness. Have you had any concerns about whether revealing that behind-the-scenes stuff, or even playing it up, would damage the glamour of Decades and the looks that you create?
Cameron Silver: For sure I have reservations about it. I'm not a producer on the show. I won't watch any of the episodes. Whatever I did, I did authentically. I am sure there will be many, many moments where I am not seen in my best light. But I think true glamour reveals its underside. And I think that, as Marlene Dietrich said, “Want to buy some illusions?” It is all illusions.
Cameron Silver: And when you go behind the white swinging doors of Decades to the back office that is where sort of the Wizard of Oz bag of tricks gets revealed.
And I don't really mind that. I always liked the storm of being in the backroom. Or the fact that when you go behind the doors of Cartier, or where I used to work at Boucheron, it is not as perfect as it is on the sales floor. The beauty and magic of retail is that then you get on the floor everything is supposed to look seemingly perfect.
DG: Mystery is another key element of glamour. How does wearing vintage create mystery?
Cameron Silver: I think primarily because you just don't know what it is. The fashion pundits can't predict what you are wearing when you step out of that limo. It breeds individuality. I love the idea that all these fashion pundits at the Oscars have no idea what this actress is wearing. There is something rather intoxicating about not knowing the answers right away.
DG: In the book you tell a story about how once you were at one of these vintage shows full of, as you put it tactfully, “decidedly unspectacular merchandise” at the Santa Monica Convention Center and you found this perfect black velvet Halston gown. How often today do you find such buried treasures? Or now has the market gotten so developed that you do most of your scouting in closets of people you know have great taste?
Cameron Silver: I was at that same show at the Santa Monica Civic about two weeks ago. And I found the most gorgeous gold, sequined early '30s mermaid gown. I found the most amazing custom couture I. Magnin dress that was really like a bonded sample of Dior. I still have that eye that no one else has. So I may not find everything at that show, but I always find some gems that not everyone's eye might be accustomed to.
But I think that this gold sequined dress is the most amazing dress. It is so good. And we have a picture—it was purchased by the dealer--with the original owner, who was a radio personality, wearing it. It is so cool. And it was hanging on a hanger and I noticed it is actually extremely sexy and I couldn't believe that no one had picked up on the dress. But, you know, they just—not everyone can find the gem.
DG: So I was going to ask you whether the vintage market has developed so much that you can't find such treasures, but obviously you can.
Cameron Silver: You still can. I don't know if the layperson can do it as easily. It is not like you are going into a thrift store and finding the dress for $25. But it is still possible to find good things.
DG: Do you have to be really small to wear great vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: Not at all. Again, I believe in the democratization of glamour. I also believe in democratization of being sexy. It is a little bit more difficult with older pieces because I think that if somebody was larger, that the clothes weren't really offered for a woman to wear of a broader size range. Nowadays it is completely different and there are so many options for a woman. I dressed Melissa McCarthy for the Oscars last year. We made a custom dress with Marina Rinaldi.
If you dress your decade, there are certain body types that work better for certain decades. Adele wears quite a bit of vintage and she is not a stick. She is deliciously curvy.
DG: You write that the '30s “made fashion unapologetically effortless” and you contrast them to the '20s. You write that “in the 1920s the rebels all looked alike,” which is interesting, but “in the 1930s, getting dressed became a mode of self-expression.” What was so special about the 1930s?
Cameron Silver: I think it's just '30s are really synonymous with the bias cut. The beauty of the bias cut is it has kind of no construction. That is one of the most effortless ways to dress. You just lift your arms in the air and let the dress slide down your body. Wear your hair up; wear your hair down. I love those '30s gowns. They are so modern looking.
DG: Do you have a favorite fashion period?
Cameron Silver: I'm very 1970s. I love it for several reasons. It is really the acceptance of American sportswear having an international audience after the great fashion showdown at Versailles 1973. American designers suddenly had an international forum to sell. I love the minimalism of the '70s. I'm a very Halston—that's very much my aesthetic. But at the same time I love Saint Laurent Russian collection. And it's really what everyone references still today, is all of those great '70s look.
DG: Is that the aesthetics of the clothes or something about their social and cultural meaning?
Cameron Silver: I love the fantasy of the '70s because it's kind of a return to Weimar, Germany. It is super decadent--you're thinking of the Studio 54 culture. It is sort of like people are acting like it is the end of the world. In a sense, to some degree, it was because the '80s came and AIDS and Reagan. Fashion in the '70s is really flamboyant yet it is often really pure.
If you look at American sportswear and in the early '70s you still have a lot of the countercultural effects of the past and then the late '70s start to be about the beginning of power dressing. I grew up in the '70s and I completely relate to them.
DG: At the conclusion of your book, you write, “As designers demonstrated over and over again via self-referential homage, they just don't make fashion the way they used to. Thank goodness they don't or I would be out of business.”
Cameron Silver: Very true.
DG: What do you mean by, “They don't make fashion like they used to”?
Cameron Silver: We live in a world of immediacy and disposable fashion, and the quality isn't there. The quality is so inconsistent. I am just amazed when I am wearing some expensive suit by an Italian or French brand and the button falls off the jacket the first time I’ve ever worn it. I think it is just crazy. So I think that quality is the main thing and also the exclusivity. It is just everything is everywhere. Every department store to me feels like I am shopping in a duty free. Shopping Barney’s in New York, the ground floor, looks no different to me than Terminal 4 at Heathrow.
DG: Is there anything that you would like to say about anything about glamour?
Cameron Silver: I have this philosophy that everyone should live their life like they are walking on a red carpet. That is not to say you need to be in a gown all the time, but there is just a certain confidence and certain—I’m trying to think—there is just a certain—I don’t know. I just think that glamour is democratic and everyone should have a little glamour in their life. It makes the world a little bit more beautiful.
Dita Von Teese is glamorous when she works out. It is possible to be glamorous all the time. You always—you will certainly attract attention if you live your life a little bit more glamorously.
LOVE that fulfills you, FRIENDS who delight you, WORK that intrigues you, BEAUTY which enchants you,
These are the rocks to build upon for health, success and joy. These are the secret keys to making living fun."
Entertaining is Fun is less a book about glamorous living than a book about embracing life and having fun (defeating the “Will to Be Dreary,” as Mrs. Draper calls it). But her life, with its country estates, many servants, and umpteen dress-up occasions was glamorous nonetheless.
In the book, Mrs. Draper’s mission was to loosen up the stuffy early 20th-century definition of “entertaining.” “The word sounds pompous and effortful,” she opined. “I like better, ‘having your friends to the house.’”
Of course, though she said, “fussy, formal parties are definitely out of style,” much of her advice sounds fussy today. Her primary advice – that the hostess who wants to have a fun party must be fun herself – holds. But in 2012, having your butter pressed into shapes sounds quaint and, yes, fussy.
Much of Mrs. Draper’s other advice, including a very serious recommendation that hostesses provide tons of clean ashtrays and stock “emergency rations” of canned turtle soup (among other things – she loved canned goods), is charmingly old-fashioned.
But her message – work hard to make your life fun – is as relevant today as it was in 1941. Mrs. Draper’s spiritual heirs are all over the internet from the video-making Fashionably Bombed sisters to ever-rhyming glamour girl Mrs. Lilien.
Who undoubtedly would agree that Mrs. Draper was the one, who helped the World War II generation make throwing parties fun.