Ever since writing about the relative glamour of New York and LA, back in December, I’ve been thinking – and trying to write – about the glamour of my own city, Baltimore. Finding glamour in anything requires a little detachment, so it follows that it’s difficult to clearly see the glamour in the place you live everyday.
It’s especially difficult when that place is Baltimore, a city best known right now thanks to David Simon and his series, "The Wire." The underbelly of the city that’s on display in the show holds a certain type of glamour for some people (like Anthony Bourdain, who made it the lens through which he examined Baltimore in an episode of "No Reservations" ), but by and large, the actual residents of Baltimore don’t consider our very real problems glamorous.
Fortunately, the city is bigger than one TV show. Big enough to hold several types of glamour, in fact.
I asked a couple of the more glamorous women-about-town, Meg Fairfax-Fielding (who writes the fantastic blog Pigtown Design) and Lisa Simeone (who writes for several publications and has a blog of her own, Glamour Girl, on Baltimore’s Style Magazine website), for their opinions on what makes the city glamorous. Right off, both women mentioned the city’s architecture.
Simeone says, “I think Baltimore's architecture (does that count?) is extremely glamorous. We have some of the most wonderful architecture in the country here.” And she’s right. Simeone was able to list, off the top of her head, ten different buildings and neighborhoods that are, by any objective terms, home to fabulous historic architecture of the most glamorous sort. Beautiful buildings have the power to make people feel good, too. “How can one fail to feel glamorous,” she asks, “while swanning about in front of such buildings? All you have to do is look up, and you see beauty everywhere.”
For Fairfax-Fielding, the glamour is in the details. “Look at the curve of a railing or the detail in a piece of architecture is uplifting.” She goes on, “Keeping your eyes open often catches you a glimpse of an elegant older lady or gentleman. One of the most glamorous old Baltimoreans is decorator Billy Baldwin who grew up in Roland Park. His classic elegance and timeless style is still reflected in contemporary design.”
Baldwin’s not Baltimore’s only historical icon of glamour, either. Edgar Allen Poe, and his particularly dark brand of literary glamour, lived and worked here. Both Wallis Simpson and Pauline de Rothschild spent their formative years in the city (Baldwin and de Rothschild were close friends). Yes, they had to escape to fully realize their glamorous selves, but this is where they got their start.
Interestingly, neither Simeone nor Fairfax-Fielding mentioned Baltimore’s “hon” culture, which I consider glamorous in the most over-the-top, drag queen sense of the word. With their teased hair and 50s-inspired outrageous clothes, they’re tacky, sure, but glamour’s not always refined.
Hons have something in common with their more tailored counterparts in glamour, too, in that they're of the past, even if they’re celebrated in the present. Actual hons are a dying breed, even if they are actively promoted everywhere from John Waters movies to popular restaurants.
Simeone made an effort to identify the spots and occasions when the glamorous Baltimoreans of today make an appearance, but even she admits that, “Baltimoreans, like most Americans, don’t exactly dress up for everyday events, so you’re likely to see a lot of t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.” The silver lining? “When you do see a fashionably dressed man or woman, you notice it.”
Still, it seems that Baltimore’s glamorous glory days exist mostly in the past. Fortunately, this is the kind of city where the past isn’t simply tolerated, it’s celebrated. Every year, thousands of people break out the AquaNet for the city’s annual HonFest. Buildings are lovingly restored by both individuals and institutions. The city’s football team is named after a Poe poem, of all things.
So we keep the glamour alive in Baltimore, even if we don’t reinvent it each day.
[Photo credits: Baltimore skyline by Flickr user ktylerconk, used under the Creative Commons license. Detail of the staircase in Wallas Simpson's former home, the about-to-reopen Hotel Brexton, used with permission, by Meg Fairfax-Fielding. Poster from HonFest 2009, used with permission, by Baltimore artist Patrick Kelly.]
Shown at the Paris Fashion week last Thursday, the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection immediately caught my eye. Not because I am particularly fond of Vuitton (like too many other fashion houses, it has fallen prey to the Plague of Excessive Logos), but rather because of the references to Vienna.
Dominated by narrow-waisted suits, crisp riding boots and structured bags, the collection is described as having been inspired by Vienna's Age of Splendor, and by the Vienna of today. As Vienna has been my home on and off for the past several years, I could not help but ruminate on my own impressions of the city's style, and on the implications of its new status as Fashion Muse.
Over the course of my life in Vienna, I have continuously struggled with how I relate to it. On some level, it has become deeply familiar and even quite mundane, while on another level it has remained a romantic hallucination. In many ways, Vienna is a continental European city like many others – rich in heritage but dynamic in contemporary culture. The streets are full of young trendy people, the museums offer impressive lineups of cutting-edge international artists, the UN Headquarters looms large, and no matter where you are, you can be certain that a Starbucks or an H&M is not terribly far off. And yet, Vienna is not quite of this time. The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains present, its rigid, explosive splendor running through the city like a rogue undercurrent.
Experiencing Vienna in this manner is like having persistent double vision, or perhaps even triple vision – whereby reality, history and historical fiction co-exist and struggle for domination over the cultural landscape.
When I ask myself why this is so, one obvious thing that comes to mind is the architecture. Unlike that of other German-speaking cities, Vienna's architecture has largely remained intact after the Second World War. Enormous neoclassical structures erected for the sole purpose of glorifying the Empire continue to surround the city center along the Ringstraße. The towering white marble, the black wrought iron, the vast stretches of cobblestone, and the tall chestnut trees, create a backdrop that insists upon itself and undermines the passage of time. In a sense, it is a romantic backdrop. But the brand of romance is the kind that makes one feel overpowered and somewhat uneasy. The architecture - both in its grandiosity and in the sheer fact of its continuity - sets a mood over the central district that even an army of neon Starbucks and H&M signs cannot overpower.
Granted, architecture can be seen as a passive influence. But there are other areas where Vienna's anachronistic atmosphere is maintained by choice. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of the Viennese Cafe. One can walk into any number of Viennese cafes that look as if they have remained basically unchanged since the 1920s: gilded interiors, plush red upholstery, starched white tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos, sugar cubes in tiny silver bowls, newspapers attached to wooden holders... the head spins from the elegance, and extravagance of it. And the elaborate coffee nomenclature puts other countries' terminologies to shame. (When in doubt, just order a Melange - and stay away from what the Viennese call a Cappuccino unless you want your coffee made with pure cream instead of frothed milk.)
It is not just the look of such a cafe that functions like a time machine, but the atmosphere as well. In a Viennese cafe, you will be called by your title. You will not encounter crammed floor space, even if it means that the cafe is serving only a quarter of the patrons that it could be serving. And you will never be rushed to free up your table, even if you have been nursing the same cup of coffee for hours while a crowd of hopefuls queues outside. And no, such places are not gimmicky tourist traps; they are perfectly normal cafes where the Viennese themselves go to relax.
And then of course, there are the head-turning persons you see in Vienna, the likes of whom I have not encountered elsewhere: from the ladies in floor-length fur coats and sculptural hats who look as if they've walked out of a silent film, to the serious men with heavy, intense gazes and thick streaks of gray in their hair regardless of their age, to the people wearing traditional national costumes as formalwear on a night out. True, the “retro” look has been internationally popular for over a decade, but I feel that in Vienna the look isn't “retro” at all, as it is done entirely without irony. The mixing of the old with the new simply reflects the city's nonlinear sense of time and its playful attitude towards contemporary realities.
An interesting trend I have noted, is how many fashion ateliers in Vienna are simultaneously involved in costume design for the theater. Of all the arts, theater probably occupies the most important position in Vienna, and has enormous cultural influence. Perhaps this explains why even the most contemporary boutiques seem to be at least partly inspired by dramatic turn of the 20th Century style: the designers who make the clothes for the streets are the same ones who create the costumes for the local stage. It would also explain why the past that mingles with Vienna's present seems to be not so much a historically accurate past, as a fantastical one: a romantic notion that the city embraces and projects back onto itself.
Getting back to the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection, I think that in large part it succeeds in portraying all of these things. The clothing is architectural, theatrical, and communicative, and there is a conceptual depth to it that exceeds what I have come to expect from Vuitton. The garments are rigidly tailored while suggesting fluidity, tightly closed while expressing a potential for openness. They evoke Sigmund Freud's writings on hysteria, Egon Schiele's images of tortured lanky youths, Gustaf Klimt's gilded motifs, and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis while mixing traditional and contemporary materials and employing deconstructive techniques.
The LV collection is rather impressive really. But... Well, quite frankly, it brings to mind what has been available in Vienna for as long as I have lived there. If you want Viennese splendor that embodies all the anachronistic complexity the city has to offer, visit Vienna itself and walk through some of the neighborhoods that are lined with independent boutiques carrying Austrian designers, including the areas around Neubaugasse and Kettenbrückengasse. Viennese style is at its best in its natural habitat.
[LV runway images via Louis Vuitton/ Antoine de Parceval; all other images belong to the author]
At the end of every DG Q&A, we ask the interviewee a set of "either/or" questions - as in, "Which one is more glamorous: champagne or single malt Scotch?" One of those comparisons is New York vs. Los Angeles. And a lopsided question it is.
Of the twenty people who have answered that question, only one - ONE! - chose LA. That was film critic Karina Longworth, who explained, "I'm an LA native and I miss it terribly." Which isn't exactly the same thing as choosing LA over NYC. Besides Karina, two people chose neither city, three worked out a way to choose both, and 14 picked New York.
Why is this? Why does New York get Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra, while LA gets Randy Newman?
Is it because New York seems somehow more serious and grownup than LA? Recently on Slate, Troy Patterson agreed with a reader's assessment that MTV's show The Hills is a "horrendous attack on humanity," but gave its East Coast spinoff, The City, a pass, even suggesting its "heroine," Whitney Port, is a modern day Mary Tyler Moore. Yes, The City has a legitimate fashion industry focus (and no Speidi) but in its early days, The Hills was supposed to be about fashion, too, but that never quite panned out.
Or is it the weather? Jackie Danicki, another of our interviewees, might have summed it up best when she chose New York as more glamorous, "if only because all that sunshine doesn't allow the dark side you need for proper glamour."
Possibly it's just a matter for the brand consultants. When people answer this question, they're probably thinking of Manhattan, a tiny island. The borough's geographic boundaries are a blessing, branding-wise. When we talk about West Coast glamour, it's often about Old Hollywood, or about the dreamy image of California. That's not the same as talking about LA, with its freeways and sprawl and smog. Los Angeles, with all its space, doesn't stand a chance against petit Manhattan.
Or maybe its just personal preference. If I had to pick, I'd choose New York every time, too, but that's because I am from the East Coast, feel comfortable with the pace and grit of Manhattan, and something about LA (all that blonde hair) makes me nervous because its unfamiliar.
Would the rest of the DG team (especially the ones who live in LA) agree? I doubt it.
[Photo of New York skyline by Flickr user ajagendorf25. Photo of Los Angeles skyline by Flickr user Kevitivity. Both used under the Creative Commons license.]
The poster seems less like an ad for the Bolshoi, however, than for Moscow—propaganda presenting the ideal of a cosmopolitan capital of grace, beauty, and high culture. For whom was it intended? Not foreign tourists, certainly, since they wouldn’t have understood the Russian. Yet to a provincial Russian, the poster’s glamour would have presented a cruelly tantalizing prospect. Under Soviet rule, movement to Moscow was strictly limited
, and even today internal passports
restrict free migration to the capital. “You can only see this in Moscow” is the promise of life somewhere over the rainbow, ideal but unattainable.
And New York is the most beautiful city in the world? It is not far from it. No urban night is like the night there.... Squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into the aether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will.
--Ezra Pound, "Patria Mia," New Age, September 18, 1912
Taken in 1932, Berenice Abbott's "Nightview" is one of 60 iconic New York photos in this exhibition at the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe. (Check out the link to see more.)
The exhibit's most glamorous shots are from the 1930s and '40s, when New York was the symbol of American modernity, and many of them are night views, with windows bright with promise. These aren't realistic photos of city streets but abstracted, suggestive portraits that spark the imagination.
In his brilliant book Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies James Sanders points out that the New York of classic movies--the city of penthouses and jazz clubs--was a glamorous composite created by homesick New York writers exiled in Hollywood:
The city they were creating was not just the one they were remembering, however romantically. The writers were, after all, professional imaginers, and it was an imaginary city they were bringing into being. It would be animated not only by the memory of what once had happened there, but by all the things that could have happened, or should have happened. To memory was added imagination, and it would be these two potent faculties that would animate the dream city and give it special force and flavor....
If the real New York had many tall buildings, it had plenty of low ones as well, especially in its outer boroughs and residential districts. But the dream city would seem to be all vertical, every scene playing in a penthouse, on a terrace, in a rooftop nightclub, every window looking onto a view of rising towers.
Every scene. The mythic city, the dream city, the city of imagination is less a place of stories than a series of scenes--static shots into which the audience members can project their own longings. The glamour of the setting lingers in memory after the particulars of plots and characters fade, encouraging the audience to imagine their own stories in that glamorous version of Metropolis.
The most powerful cinematic image of the mythic city, Sanders suggests, is thus not a glamorized version of the real New York but a fully imaginary shot: the Emerald City of Oz.
Dorothy and her friends indeed stand transfixed—but not by aesthetic pleasure. In that gleaming skyline, they see the fulfillment of their dreams. In that place, perhaps only in that place, will each find the special thing he or she is looking for. These towers will somehow change their lives.
This is what makes the view so powerful, so moving. From a distance, the skyline is everything they could have imagined, and more. Soaring, glistening, grand but comprehensible, its upward leap precisely mirrors the feeling in their hearts. Its very improbability—all those slender, dizzying towers, bundled tightly together, cresting ad the center—simply adds to its impact. For how could their lives be truly transformed, after all, in a place of ordinary appearance? Magical events call for magical settings.
Through a kind of urban grace, the skyline of New York—in one sense simply the overscaled product of technology and real estate—became the locus of one of the most potent collective emotional experiences in the life of America. Into Manhattan’s towers were focused the hopes and dreams of millions, until the very girders and facades were permeated and charged with a sense of human possibility, as the skyline’s own skyward aspirations became fused with the personal yearnings of millions. The dream city, even in this most unworldly of guises, lets us share that transactive spark.
LA Live really lights up downtown.
There's a certain mystique in being regarded as a regular at some establishments. While the Four Seasons and the Waverly Inn are places to be seen, the really intelligent scenester knows being utterly at home in place with a dubious reputation is far more glamourous.
Playboy.com has released a list of Top Ten Dive Bars (and the NY Post came up with their own, just to be difficult.) But my own sentimental favorite is the Tune Inn, in Washington DC. Since Esquire "discovered" it a few years back, the Tune has been on nearly every list possible. In January, a new generation of Hillites will discover its joys.
But when I was living on 3rd and A, behind the Supreme Court and kitty-corner from the ACLU, the Tune wasn't quite so well regarded. It was always packed at Happy Hour, but during the day, I could spend all afternoon in a booth, dawdling over a draft beer, a bad cheeseburger, and a book. In DC, most people had jobs with regular hours, and freelancers were few. I got my mail there, when I was between fixed addresses, I listed the number as an emergency contact, and I ran a tab so I could eat between paychecks. (The bartender cashed my unemployment checks, too.) After a Christmas in Montana, I brought back frozen elk meat, and the kitchen turned out elk burgers for the lunch rush ( the owners were big hunters, judging by the wall decor.) When I got engaged, I had a bridal shower at the bar, if unwrapping edible panties in between shots counts as a shower.
Walking on the wild side of Washington seems rather quaint when viewed from Los Angeles, many years later. Everyone needs a home away from home, though, and the Tune was that and more.
No overhead wires.
I wrote about wireless glamour here.
UPDATE: In case you're wondering, it costs at least $1 million a mile to bury power lines in Southern California. Thousand Oaks spent $5 million to bury 1.4 miles worth. I imagine it would cost more on the westside, where everything is pricier.
Each ad offers multi-layered glamour. Glimpsing only their partial profiles, we project ourselves into the role of the young condo dwellers. They invite us to imagine sharing their new life, being them or being with them. And they in turn contemplate the scene beyond their windows and feel its transformative glamour—the promise of a skyline's mysteriously glistening windows or a river's passage toward unknown destinations. Although the two ads are almost identical in composition, they are in fact selling two different ideals. The Metropolitan promises "the future of the city," a bustling alternative to the suburban life typical of Dallas. Rector Square, by contrast, offers tranquility, an escape from the noise, garbage cans, and graffiti of other Manhattan neighborhoods. "What’s outside your window?" the ad asks, and the project's website depicts the unappealing alternatives. As aesthetically formulaic as these two ads appear, they work by evoking the different yearnings of different audiences. Glamour's real power comes not from the formal composition but from the responsive audience’s imagination.
[As always, click the photos to see larger versions. Thanks to Laura Thomas at SHVO for obtaining a copy of the Rector Square ad and to its creators at Agency Saks for permission to reproduce it, here and in the book. And thanks to my friends at D Magazine for finding a Metropolitan ad in their files and to Keith Walker at DTZ Rockwood for reprint permission.]