The Seductive Smell Of Escape

Escape to a tropical island has long been the promise of travel ads featuring glamorous scenes of beaches, palm trees, and hammocks. Now it's apparently become a fashionable promise for mass-market products none-too-subtly selling the way they smell. (To see larger photos, click the images.)

Glade hammock ad spread

And while Old Spice has gone viral with its over-the-top manly man ads, its packaging isn't as tongue-in-cheek.

Old Spice
Note that both Old Spice versions promise to make you smell like freedom.

Still The Wild One?

Marlon-brando While strolling past the Santa Fe, NM plaza, the amplified music of the folk singer entertainer was temporarily drowned out by a group of motorcyclists riding by. Their loud bikes shouted “look at me,” but I had already guessed what I would see. This would not be a youthful motorcycle gang led by a Marlon Brando  The Wild One look-alike, but aging fathers and grandfathers reliving the feelings of their youth. The do-rag of the gentleman who stopped closest to me held back not the luxuriant hair of youth, but the thinning gray hair of upper middle age. His minimally muffled Harley-Davidson might have sounded slightly menacing, but the rider looked benign. His portly figure spoke of too many beers and too much sitting, and for the sake of his body he would have been better off walking, hiking, or bicycling.

But this ride was not about how he appears to the outside world, but how he feels inside. Like many summer riders, during most weeks of the year his life revolves around the typical responsibilities that tie a man down: a wife, a family, a house, and a regular job or profession (assuming he’s not retired). But for the moment he is riding free: he has escaped all of that and feels unencumbered by conventional obligations.

Granted he may have to bring along a Lipitor prescription for his high cholesterol, and perhaps other medications for high blood pressure or other ailments, but these are far from his thoughts. And tonight he may have to phone home to let his wife know he is safe and well, assuming that she is not driving a support vehicle for the group and will meet him later at some prearranged motel. But none of that matters now. At this moment in time he has escaped the restraints of everyday existence, and with “Born to be Wild” as his mental soundtrack, he can imagine himself a youthful free spirit riding toward the unknown adventures of his future existence.

Digital Dollhouse: The Glamour Of Home Decorating Without The Mess Or Cost

In her delightful memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I reviewed here), Meghan Daum pokes loving fun at herself, her mother, and everyone else smitten with house glamour and the redecorating and relocation it inspires. Among her insights is that: 

In home ownership there are two realms: the visible and the invisible, the fun and the unfun, the parts for which there are paint chips and plant nurseries and catalogs filled with doorknobs and drawer pulls and reproductions of Art Deco light fixtures and the parts for which the only gratification is that your water is running and your lights are on. 

Even if you find the perfect house, you eventually have no more space for new furniture or no more money (or time) for redecorating. The fun part is over and you're just fighting entropy.

Digital Dollhouse ocean view office 

Digital Dollhouse offers an escape: all the fun, visible stuff with none of the entropy fighting. (The room above is the office in my beach house.) Sounding a  bit like Daum, founder and CEO Jesyca Durchin writes on the company's blog:

Are there 12 step programs for people addicted to design magazines? My heart races when I rush to my mail box just looking for the bright catalogues from which I will buy nothing. I love to dream about redecorating my kitchen (not that I am much of a cook.) Or even just arranging my dishes (and in my imagination they are always clean and matching) just so in their perfectly nestled cupboards. Currently we have a serious pot problem (not that kind) in our kitchen. The pots are lurking in a dark corner cabinet, piled incorrectly and ready to snap at an unsuspecting hand should you want to umm…boil an egg.

But in my dream dollhouse I can have glorious dishes and pottery and pots that won’t bite. In playing digital dollhouse I can arrange and re-arrange to my little hearts content. I don’t think about things like general contractors or the fact that our plumbing doesn’t allow for more than an intermittent drip in our kitchen should the sprinklers start going. In my dream kitchen, dishes are always new and glasses are always clean.

Digital Dollhouse, which has 289,000 members, is child-friendly--it hit big last October, when Mattel added it to's online game network--but its most adept and obsessed designers are adults.

Below is a room called "Glamorous", by Debbie McLaney, one of my favorite DDH designers. Those valances are made of pillows, illustrating one of the common themes of the best rooms: repurposing the rather limited elements available in DDH space to create the effects you want. (Here's an article about the technology behind the site.)

Glamorous Digital Dollhouse room

Here's another room, by designer nounoir, that not only uses the pillows-as-valance trick but also turns plates into recessed lighting and another pillow, on the bureau, into what I take to be a mirror or picture frame.

Pillows and Plates Digital Dollhouse

The physical laws governing DDH are different from those in the real world. Objects can only rotate on their vertical axes. Some can levitate while others stick to the walls or floor. You can hang a mirror on a window, for instance, but you can't put it on the ceiling. In this room, I used the levitation option to suggest wire plant holders.

Ocean oasis with sleeping dog and levitating plants Digital Dollhouse 

Despite the site's name, there are very few dolls in the Digital Dollhouse world and none in the beach house. (The site also has a Victorian.) For adults, at least, that's good. Without people, the rooms have an expectant quality, inviting viewers to project themselves into these idealized spaces or to imagine their owners' stories. The sense of mystery tends to make any well-designed room, regardless of palette or style, feel glamorous. And, of course, there are no cords on the lamps.

Real Estate Glamour: "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House"

Craftsman house for sale los angeles  Meghan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House breaks from a long-standing trend in nonfiction publishing. Instead of a clever title followed by a long explanatory subtitle, it has no subtitle at all. It doesn’t need one, because the title itself so perfectly encapsulates a common, but rarely articulated longing. The book is all about the intense glamour of houses you don't have. I review it in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the beginning of the review.

For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.' "

The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.

Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.

Read the rest here. You can buy the book (and read a good author interview) here.

[Los Angeles Craftsman house for sale from Redfin via Curbed L.A.]

The Glamour Of The Nutcracker

Clara-gift New year, new decade. Reflecting back on the holiday season I realized that The Nutcracker had come up several times in conversation. One family had taken their children, another person’s best friend had been once been cast as Clara, and so on.

The Nutcracker is glamorous on many levels. Ballet itself is one of the most glamorous forms of dance, as has been discussed here before. The orchestra, especially as used by a composer like Tchaikovsky, can be a glamorous sound machine (more on that in a moment). And the costumes and stagings of this ballet are often captivating.

The Nutcracker plot joyously celebrates aspects of the winter season that are often denigrated because they seem more pagan than religious. Some historians argue that Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because that was the Roman date for the winter solstice, a tradition time for celebrating the return of the sun and longer days. The Nutcracker acknowledges that festive parties, colorful decorations, and receiving gifts are memorable and exciting, especially to a child, whatever the reason for celebrating.

The ballet’s central character Clara is an adolescent poised between childhood and young adulthood, and she has desires and longings in both domains. Boys remain mischievous and clueless about her dreams of the future. But in this ballet’s dream a prince arrives and transports her into a magical world. No wonder that countless young ballet students dream of being cast as Clara, and that mothers take their daughters to see this timeless fantasy.

I do not mean to slight men here. The ballet was created by men. The ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, and the story adaptation, original choreography, and music were all done by men. In Hoffman’s original story the heroine is named Marie and the nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew. How he came to be a nutcracker is a complex story involving magic spells, and Marie’s love for him eventually lifts the curse and he becomes himself again.

In the ballet Drosselmeyer’s ability to create life-size mechanical dolls makes him seem a kind of magician, and sets the stage for dreams of giant mice and toys that come alive to battle them. Scenes like this are bound to delight children.

Pas-de-deux Yet Clara’s trip to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a dream of transformation into adulthood, and in that land Clara becomes a woman and a prince becomes her escort. In her dream Clara becomes a princess-to-be whose life is filled with fancy costumes, elaborate entertainments, and dances that show her perfect poise as a adult.

Tchaikovsky’s music plays a major role in the success of the ballet. Tchaikovsky had a keen ability to create musical textures that can stimulate a listener’s imagination. At the same time his ballet music is easy enough to follow that we have mental room left to take in the dancing. This same openness also leaves room for his ballet music to interact with our imagination, allowing us to project auras such as “mystery” and “longing” onto what we are hearing. (Densely intellectual musical textures such as fugues seldom allow this.) 

In creating ballet music that seems glamorous, Tchaikovsky became a kind of conjurer. By developing an awareness of how particulars sounds and musical textures could stimulate a listener's imagination, he used that awareness to create music that encourages listeners to generate imaginative illusions.

In the following Pas de Deux between Clara and her prince (Bolshoi Ballet production), no words need be spoken. Clara’s prince becomes her ideal consort. He is there for her whenever she needs support to display her poise. Tchaikovsky’s music supports them both. One of his friends bet Tchaikovsky that he couldn’t compose the theme for a pas de deux with a scale. Tchaikovsky asked if the scale could go downward. When that was allowed, Tchaikovsky took the bet, and won with the main theme of this music. Tchaikovsky’s ability to create something extraordinarily evocative out of simple material demonstrates his deep understanding of what works as ballet music. His music captivates our hearing, but leaves enough room in our minds to appreciate the staging and dancing, and even to imagine that we are feeling something similar to what these dancers are feeling. And that is a beautiful illusion to experience.

[Clara’s Gift photo by adjustafresh. Pas de Deux photo by violscraper. Both used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

Travel Glamour And The Domesticated Sublime


This photo of Jade Mountain in St. Lucia originally appeared in our Hotel Week interview with Tamara Haber Percy of Mr & Mrs Smith. The photo below is from an Urban Daddy Jetset email (and slide show) titled “A Pirate's Tour of the South Pacific”, about Remote Land’s Bali to Komodo private yacht trip.

Komodo Yachting Trips Bali to Komodo

Both images are intensely glamorous, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene and feel the promise of escape. The still waters create a sense of grace, the mountains a feeling of mystery. We identify with the ship, imagine ourselves gazing at the green peaks from the orange chairs. Both images are also sales tools. They are designed to create longing.

What’s particularly striking about these two photos, as opposed to the more common image of sandy beaches, is that they both incorporate craggy, rather barren mountains—the sort of awe-inspiring scenery traditionally associated with the fearful beauty of the sublime. Yet there’s nothing fearful about either scene. The chairs in the first image and the ship in the second promise comfortable, safe havens for the visitor. We can experience the pleasures of the sublime without the usual element of fear.

Much luxury travel is, in fact, about domesticating the sublime, from old-time Alpine resorts to the new luxury camp on Antarctica, which features “private domed tents and cuisine from an award-winning chef.” With enough technology and effort, travel businesses can provide access to the most rugged wilderness without threatening the lives, health, or taste buds of their guests. (Of course, there are still customers who want to suffer, at least somewhat. Hence the market for what John Tierney dubbed explornography.) Not just the image but the actual experience of the sublime can be “glamorized” by containing or removing some of its dangers.

Cosplay Visions

Little-bo-peep This Japanese vision in pink and white is engaged in cosplay (costume play) in Tokyo near Harajuku station. Virginia wrote about cosplay and the glamour of dressing up in July. In Tokyo many girls and young women engage in cosplay on Sundays, and are happy to pose for photographs. This Little Bo Peep costume has some interesting details: she is wearing a crown necklace and a giant costume jewelry ring. This has historical implications because Western royalty also used to masquerade. She is referencing not just a nursery rhyme, but also the history of costume play.

One of the most famous costume players was Marie Antoinette, whose husband Louis XVI gave her a fake hamlet called Hameau de la Reine within the park of Versailles. There Marie gained a fantasy setting for her costume play, complete with docile, well-cleaned livestock, and porcelain milk pails. Here the Queen and her attendants could play at being elaborately dressed shepherdesses and milkmaids.

In 18th-century England nobles loved to attend balls masquerading as sumptuously costumed rural characters. Anti-masquerade clergymen felt that no moral woman should attend one. Nonetheless, the masquerades became so popular that conservatives warned that suggesting that the difference between nobles and peasants was a matter of appearance was a danger to the established social order. As Terry Castle writes in Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction :

The anti-masquerade rhetoric of the period offered a clue to the masquerade’s ultimate demise when it exposed the masquerade as a threat to bourgeois decorum and rationalist taxonomies. Mask and costume, the signs of a joyful exchange between self and other, had to be laid aside, and more sober pursuits embraced.

Lolita-bubbles In Japan another popular cosplay character is Lolita, and she is often costumed in Goth black. The young woman shown here blowing bubbles evokes both childhood innocence and a seductive nymphet. The bow on her head seems girlish, but the Goth clothing and the black-cross necklace seem more witch-like. Perhaps the iridescent bubbles she is conjuring are charmed, and have the power to bewitch.

Nabokov’s novel provides no more basis that Lolita should wear black than the nursery rhyme does that Little Bo Peep would dress in pinks and whites. And, clearly, no real-life shepherdess wore fancy clothes while tramping about with her sheep. But this is costume play, and so it is rightfully playful.

Glance The cosplay characters sometimes overlap. A parasol is usually part of the Little Bo Peep costume, but this young woman glancing back from beneath her black parasol suggests a combination of shepherdess, Goth, and Lolita. Her features are still somewhat child-like, but the costume and makeup are grown up and provocative. This unexpected mixture is part of the charm of the costume, and, with her appraising gaze, this Little Bo Peep/Lolita looks dangerously sexually precocious.

These elaborate costumes involve significant expenditures of time and money. And, as all of these photos show, these young women act the roles they are portraying. As Virginia has written, the chance to participate in cosplay, to be noticed, to stand out, and to be photographed is a social activity these young ladies find richly rewarding.

I imagine that these young women gain poise from cosplay that carries over into their everyday lives. Playing someone other than themselves may genuinely expand their sense of self. Terry Castle wrote that the 18th-century masquerades were “a profound mingling of opposites, an absorptive, endlessly satisfying embrace of self and other.”

(The "Harajuku girl" photo is by jaybergesen, and is used under the Flickr Creative Commons license. The "Lolita" photograph is by Bryan Campbell, and is used by permission. The "Glance" photo is by Tommy Cuellar and is used by permission.)

Blogs, Fashion, And The Resurgent Glamour Of Smoking

Celia smoking cigarette Flickr malias

Jennine of The Coveted is calling on fashion and street blogs to stop posting “images of cool, chic people standing around casually smoking.” Such images, she argues, promote a seductively glamorous image of a gross and dangerous habit. “Even...people who hate smoking in real life, get a voyeuristic joy out of these cool people who are immune to health hazards and smelly breath.”

“Would it be too much to ask to put out the cigarette for a moment, for the sake of social responsibility?” she asks.

She’s not the first to make that argument. Her prime target, The Sartorialist, has long drawn criticism for showing so many street-fashion icons with lit cigarettes. (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) The topic has become something of a joke among commenters, and this post included a disclaimer declaring that the image isn’t supposed to celebrate smoking.

St Tropez smoker black leather FaceMePLS Flickr

The problem, of course, is that these cool, chic people do smoke, particularly on the street. (The New Yorkers in these photos often look like they’re on the street precisely because they’re smokers fleeing no-smoking buildings.) But, Jennine correctly notes, such photos are always selective. Why not edit out the cigarettes? In effect, she’s arguing that fashion blogs should further glamorize their subjects by deleting their nasty habits.

In truth, these blog photos rarely glamorize smoking. Unlike images like this, this, or this, they don't emphasize the smoking. It is unimportant to the image and the emotions it evokes. Rather, these photos normalize smoking, by depicting cigarettes as no more unusual or problematic than cell phones. You have to care about cigarettes to imbibe any message about them.

Of course, that normalization is something of a change from the treatment of cigarettes in my youth, when smoking was generally viewed as a low-class habit for losers. The unrelenting campaign against it has given smoking new cachet, making it an emblem of “heroic, sexy social outlaws,” as one observer put it in British Vogue.

Still, the main pro-cigarette bias on fashion blogs isn’t overt. It’s a side effect of the photographic medium. The still image removes the smoker from time and, thus, from the long-term consequences of the smoking. In this way, the photos are indeed glamorous, offering escape into a perfect, and illusory, moment beyond entropy, age, decay, or death.

[Celia enjoying a cigarette by Flickr user Malias, St. Tropez smoker by Flickr user FaceMePLS, both used under Creative Commons license.]


Hotel Week: Bringing Glamour Back


Glamour is fragile. It tends to vanish with too much time or scrutiny. In response, people are always promising to “bring glamour back” (or declaring that “glamour is back”). Such promises are particularly common in three industries: fashion, airlines, and hotels. In airlines, they’re never fulfilled. In fashion, they often are. In hotels, there are more misses than hits.

Take the subject of this 2005 ad, the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, the curved façade takes a good photo. But as a lived experience, the hotel offers little more than any other nice Hyatt. It does not inspire longing. Remodeling and a new spa did not change the hotel’s cultural resonance.

In fact, preservationists are now fighting plans to demolish the Century Plaza to make way for a complex that would include two mixed-use towers and make Century City more pedestrian-friendly. The arguments for preservation implicitly acknowledge that the hotel has little emotional or aesthetic importance today. “It is among the purest representations of 1960s Los Angeles planning and architectural philosophy we have left,” writes the LAT's Christopher Hawthorne--a back-handed compliment. The WaPost's Philip Kennicott called it “a hard building to love.”

Stairway to nowhere Hotel glamour isn’t about what celebrities or presidents have frequented the building. It’s about the yearnings the hotel conjures in its audience, the escape and transformation a visit promises to provide. No one understood that better than Morris Lapidus, the architect best known for designing the Fountainebleu and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach. He wrote:

I was convinced that just as a store had to be designed to make people want to buy what the merchant had to sell, so a hotel had something to sell also. What was that something? A home away from home? Absolutely not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a new experience—forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills. Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used to see with a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid nourishing meal. Not on your life! We were coming out of the war and the postwar period. People wanted fun, excitement, and all of it against a background that was colorful, unexpected; in short, the visual excitement that made people want to buy—in this case, to buy the tropic luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun. A sense of freedom from the humdrum lives the guests had. A feeling of getting away from it all.

Lapidus was famous for features like the “stairway to nowhere,” designed to give guests a platform from which to show off their finery. He made guests feel like stars. “Lapidus understood that a hotel lobby is a theater for amateur narcissists,”  writes Tom Austin in Travel & Leisure. Though critics denounced them as tacky, to their intended audience, Lapidus’s hotels epitomized glamour. (For an excellent analysis of glamour in mid-century Miami Beach, see architectural historian Alice T. Friedman’s 2000 Harvard Design Magazine article, “Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach”.)


In succeeding decades, that glamour dissipated. (The Fountainebleu’s builder went bankrupt in 1977.) The nouveau riche for whom the hotels were designed got old. Younger generations had different aspirations and ideals of luxury. But, after a $1 billion renovation, the Fountainebleu reopened last November. “The glamour is back at the Fontainebleau,” declared the announcer at the hotel's opening celebration, which doubled as last year’s Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

Is the glamour really back? Unfortunately, I haven’t persuaded any editors to fund a reporting trip to decide for myself. Matt Rudd of the London Times makes a good case that the hotel is just too big for glamour: “In order to fill anything like 1,500 rooms, you need thousands of people, and they can’t all be Frank Sinatra.” Glamour requires mystery and exclusivity--and a lot fewer truck-parts conventions.

It is possible to bring glamour back to a hotel that has lost it, but “glamour” can’t just mean luxury or a history of association with dead celebrities. I thought the Palmer House in Chicago might have made it work, by playing up its architectural appeal, but complaints about small rooms and mini-beds suggest that modern standards may conflict with historic floor plans. (I have no first-hand experience.)

Riviera Palm Springs handicapped restroom sign 

The in Palm Springs has had more success. It’s got the luxury and dead celebs, plus the Hollywood Regency decor that sometimes gets called “modern glamour.” But what makes the Riviera’s glamour convincing is the hotel’s intimacy, which makes guests feel like they’ve entered a special world. and, most important to me, the occasion of my stay there: the (simulcast of the) 2009 TED Conference, which features (as one blogger put it) “the glamour of intellectual power wrapped in exclusivity.” Plus, you can’t beat the Riviera’s restroom signs.

[“Stairway to nowhere” photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., public domain Library of Congress collection. Riviera restroom sign photo by Virginia Postrel.]



Silhouettes And Landscapes: The Glamour Of Window Views

Woman@window in west

Taken in the 1930s, this vernacular (i.e., anonymous) photo represents one of the visual motifs particularly effective in creating a sense of glamour: a silhouette of someone contemplating a landscape vista. (In this early DG post, I discussed some condominium ads that used a similar composition.) Mysterious and stylized, the darkened figure invites us to identify with her and the longings she feels as she looks out on the landscape beyond her enclosed surroundings. This particular photo also creates a contrast between the settled world of bent-wood chairs and ashtrays and the wilderness beyond. Its composition glamorizes the possibilities of the distant hills. We could imagine, however, a reversed composition that made the interior seem cozy and inviting.

The juxtaposition of a shadowed foreground and a lighted vista can arouse similar yearnings for escape even without a human subject. This photo, contributed to the DeepGlamour pool by Flickr user Michele Strudwick, contrasts the open possibilities represented by the sea and lighthouse with the constraints of the darkened room from which we view that landscape.

Brant point round window lighthouse view

The shadows are not entirely negative, however. They give the scene its mystery and, by framing the landscape, enhance the vista's grace. They show us just enough of the outside world to make it tantalizing.

[Photo by Flickr user Michele Strudwick used with permission.]