The Seduction Of Hair

Tangled-teaserposterhairevery-fullHair is having a major cultural moment. Disney’s Tangled, a retelling of “Rapunzel” that features what one blogger calls “ninja hair,” is a monster hit, while nine-year-old Willow Smith (daughter of Will and Jada) has become an instant star with her exuberant video “Whip My Hair.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, where they take both fashion and cinema far too seriously to produce celebrations of ninja-hair-whipping, the Cinématèque Française has mounted an exposition devoted to the portrayal of women’s hair in the movies. Titled “Brune-Blonde” (“Brunette-Blonde”), it runs through January 16, with an online version here. The poster features the naturally brunette Penelope Cruz as a platinum blonde, and the exhibit’s intellectual theme is Hollywood’s role in fostering a now-fading “blonde imperialism.”

There is something fascinating, seductive, and slightly unnerving about human hair. It’s a constant reminder of how little control we really exercise over the bodies that define us to other people. Lacking nerves and muscles, hair is simultaneously part of its owner and yet somehow not. A defining part of a person’s appearance, it takes conscious artifice to control. Contrary to the title, Rapunzel's long tresses in Tangled are never in knots. When they start to get in the way, an adorable trio of little girls fashions them into a flower-filled braid worthy of Botticelli.

In the era of the faux-disorderly “messy bun,” the phrase “not a hair out of place” now connotes too much control, Betty Draper-style. But, taken literally, getting your hair under control is still a glamorous ideal. All that’s changed is the definition of “in place.” As a friend once remarked, nobody in a movie love scene ever says, “Owww, you’re on my hair.” 

From The Archives: Travel Posters, Glamour, And Iconoclasm

Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.

Isle of man poster british railways 

This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.

Come to Sunny Prestatyn 
Laughed the girl on the poster, 
Kneeling up on the sand 
In tautened white satin. 
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a 
Hotel with palms 
Seemed to expand from her thighs and 
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March. 
A couple of weeks, and her face 
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; 
Huge tits and a fissured crotch 
Were scored well in, and the space 
Between her legs held scrawls 
That set her fairly astride 
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while 
Someone had used a knife 
Or something to stab right through 
The moustached lips of her smile. 
She was too good for this life. 
Very soon, a great transverse tear 
Left only a hand and some blue. 
Now Fight Cancer is there.

With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”

To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.

What Retrosexuals And Metrosexuals Have In Common (Besides The Obvious Pun)

Michael Westen Burn Notice  Writing in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, William Loeffler proclaims the end of the Metrosexual:

The man's man is back. And he's had enough of unisex salons, simpering emo music and the emasculating kryptonite of the Oprahsphere. 
Or so say a spate of ads, books and websites that hail the emergence of the retrosexual, whose attitude and style hearken back to the strong, silent type of the '50s and early '60s.

The retrosexual keeps things simple. He does not own more hair and skin care products than his wife or girlfriend. He does not "accessorize."

Think Don Draper, the dapper, jut-jawed executive played by Jon Hamm in the AMC series "Mad Men." He may be a philanderer, but you won't find a pink shirt in his wardrobe. Like the dark hero characters of ex-spy Michael Westen in "Burn Notice" and U.S. Marshal Raylon Givens in "Justified," "Mad Men" presents alpha males who live unapologetically by their own code.

Loeffler's is the latest in a string of articles on the so-called Menaissance (see for instance this 2006 Boston Globe piece). What struck me, however, was the juxtaposition of Don Draper and Michael Westen (I've never seen Justified)--both exceedingly stylish figures. They may not own a lot of grooming products, but they do accessorize. Westen's sunglasses are, in fact, one of the show's signature props and have sparked much online discussion from viewers who want their own versions. (That'll be $400.)

The real contrast isn't between these guys and overgroomed Metrosexuals but between both groups, with their grown-up polish, and the beer-bellied American male in comfy shorts and untucked oversized shirt. On my recent trip to research glamour in Shanghai (more on that later), I talked with author and marketing consultant Paul French who, among many other interesting things, commented on why, with a few exceptions, American apparel lines haven't been terribly successful in Shanghai. U.S. companies are too attuned to the sloppy casualness of the American market, and Shanghainese like to look sharp. They want Banana Republic, he said, not The Gap--something that apparently escapes the parent company of both. (Instead of BR, there's a local knockoff called Urban Renewal.)

By way of illustration, French recounted what observed when two jet-lagged Americans came into the McDonald's where he and his 10-year-old son were having breakfast:

I noticed the Chinese were giggling at them. And then I looked at them. These guys were about my age. They’re in their 40s, right? And they had T-shirts, baseball caps, shorts, and then sort of sports shoes that looked like they had some tractor tires on the bottom of them. And I looked at them and then I looked my 10 year old who was not quite as casual as them.....If you put them on a bus and drove them around town, people would think they were retarded and going to the special place that they’re looked after for the day. I mean just isn’t it a shame? They never grew up mentality but they did physically.

No one would say that about either Michael Westen or Brad Pitt. What makes Retrosexuals seem manlier than Metrosexuals is their sprezzatura. They hide the artifice it takes to achieve their look. But the popularity of both models suggests that at least some American men want to escape the pressure to be sloppy.

Wireless Glamour: Why Lamp Ads Hide The Cords

Crate & Barrel lamps without cords Notice anything missing from the lamps on this page of a recent Crate & Barrel catalog? Of course you do. You read the headline. With one exception (top left), the lights glow without benefit of electric power. They have no cords.

Whether through careful styling or the handy use of Photoshop, the catalog’s designers have removed the unsightly evidence that these wares require external support. Or maybe the photographers just clipped off the cords.

There’s high-brow precedent for such editing. Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s delightful design curator, tells me that when she arrived at the museum she discovered that all the cords had been removed from the collection’s lamps. Some unknown museum employee had apparently thought trailing cords spoiled the designs—authenticity be damned. Paola had the lamps rewired. After all, modernity includes electricity. Like the Crate & Barrel catalog, however, the photos on the MOMA sitestill omit cords. (There are exceptions, but they’re rare and recent.)

Erasing a lamp's cord makes the photo not only neater but more alluring. The viewer isn't distracted by thoughts of where the cord would need to go in the room or by fears of tripping on it. And such wireless autonomy is itself glamorous, suggesting a beauty and function independent of the unromantic infrastructure of power plants and the annoying expense of electric bills. Like the glamorous protagonists of escapist Golden Age movies, who had plenty of money but never seemed to work, lamps without cords need no outside support.

Achieving Elegance

GraceKellyIn trying to achieving an elegant effect suitable to a situation, there are many ways to go wrong. At one end there are  possibilities that suggest we made insufficient effort. These can range from a sense that we made no effort (wearing rumpled “around the house” clothes) to being underdressed or out-of-style relative to the occasion and everyone else.

Elvis-gold-lame There are also many ways to “try too hard” or show questionable taste: ranging from overdone glitz to being decades out of style. Ever since Liberace took glitz over the top in Las Vegas, some entertainers have confused glitz with glamour. This photo of Elvis Presley in his gold lamé tux exemplifies how show-biz costumes can become outrageously glitzy. Such costumes inevitably crossover into kitsch when wore offstage (whatever you think of them onstage).

One of the widely acknowledged exemplars of elegance was the appropriately named Grace Kelly, show in the above photograph at left. You can find several articles on the web discussing how to look or dress like her, and the emphasis is often on a certain simplicity in clothing design, jewelry, color choices, and use of makeup.

On the other hand, “elegance” implies more than mere simplicity. Dictionary definitions of “elegance” often include the word “pleasingly.” For example: “pleasingly graceful and stylish in appearance or manner,” or, relative to solving a problem, “pleasingly ingenious and simple.” As Albert Einstein said about science, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This is one of the great quandaries of style in many fields, including fashion, art, and writing. If you want your work to be elegant, you have to do enough to create a pleasing effect; otherwise you will have failed to achieve your aim. In fashion, true elegance can be stunning in effect. Thus effects that are dowdy, shoddy, or just plain dull fail to qualify.

Jessica-biel On the other hand, once you have done enough to achieve an elegant effect, adding elements that seem extraneous can weaken the sense of artful simplicity.

Jessica Biel, a beautiful woman, wore the Prada dress shown at left to the 2009 Oscars. The bow on the front was widely criticized as looking sloppy and extraneous, and some critics were surprised that the normally elegant Prada seemed to have  miscalculated in this instance. Yet the outfit cannot be faulted as glitzy became the color scheme and jewelry are so classic and restrained.

For those of us who feel the bow looks “added on,” rather than ingeniously integrated, it is a single design flaw, but nonetheless regrettable in that we feel that we might have admired the dress without the bow. In contrast the addition of rhinestones to Elvis’s gold lamé tuxedo is of little consequence. The gold lamé has already pushed the concept of a formal tux so far into glitz-ville that some extra sparkle just turns it into extreme kitsch—gold lamé made superbly lame.

Virtuosity And Beauty: A Precarious Mix?

In classical music the combination of virtuosity and glamour has most often been associated with attractive opera stars, conductors, or soloists who play instruments such as piano and violin. The attire of such soloists when they perform is often extraordinarily glamorous, as I written before. Their publicity photographs often highlight their physical attractiveness. A more recent trend is to produce videos. Here is an interesting video of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in the process of being photographed for potential publicity shots. (Chee-Yun’s fabulous hair has been featured in a Korean Pantene commercial.)

Another violinist, Vanessa-Mae (of Thai-Chinese heritage, born in Singapore, and raised in London) began to study piano at three and violin at five. She amassed her hours of practice early, and was recording professionally by age thirteen. In her teenage years she began to combine her virtuoso skills as a violinist with her interest in pop music. She took full advantage of her exceptionally beautiful face and figure by using glamorous makeup and provocative costumes, and launched a popular music career that has made her one of the wealthiest young entertainers in Britain.

She is a controversial performer because some of her hit recordings are arrangements of well-known classical works combined with a techno-style dance background. There is an example of this below, in which her live-performance version of Vivaldi includes a dance-beat, an electric violin, a sexy costume, and bodily movements that are anything but “classical.” (In the video she inadvertently demonstrates how to slip gracefully in high-heels. Another example of her mix of classical, techno, and sexy presentation is her version of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Whether it is fun and exciting or a tawdry bastardization is a matter of debate and taste.)

Hercules_Gallicus Whatever one thinks of how Vanessa-Mae has used her virtuosity as a violinist, there is no question she earned her skills through thousands of hours of arduous practice. In some of her music videos Vanessa-Mae portrays a young woman in peril, or operating in a mobster world, or isolated in cold, remote locations. These videos evoke the long-standing theme that a person can become a prisoner of their extraordinary skills, partly because these skills become ties that bind others to the person that possesses these skills, and vice versa. At left is one of the many Renaissance representations of Hercules Gallicus in which he conquers not by brunt strength, but by eloquence. And as a skilled rhetorician there are chains running from his tongue which bind his audience to him, and vice versa.

The virtuoso performer is also bound to the continued hours of practice that are necessary to maintain those skills. In the 1970s young Czech violinist Václav Hudeček become so famous in his country that he attained rock-star-like status. But in his own words, he didn’t have time to lead a wild lifestyle. “Violin is a very difficult instrument…if you want to play Brahms’ violin concerto, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, very beautifully, you have to practice, you know. Not all day long, but five, six, seven hours a day.”

When you hear stories of virtuoso performers burning out or losing their edge, you have to imagine not only the thousands of hours spent building their skills, but also the ongoing hours of practice required to continue to perform at a virtuoso level. Fame might give you the opportunity to party in high style (especially if you are strikingly attractive), but to actually do so could soon lead to decreased performance ability. We can all think of cases in which the achievements of an athlete or performer thrust them into the limelight, and then they spent so much time enjoying their new found fame that their skills rapidly declined.

George_Best_1968 An perfect example of this was 1960s British soccer star George Best. Many people consider Best the most brilliant soccer player Britain ever produced, but he is just as well known for having squandered his talent by living a playboy lifestyle. Best’s bio reveals his obsessive pursuit of soccer skills as a child, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for anyone whose virtuoso skills bring sudden fame. His career at the top lasted only six years before his pursuit of “birds” and booze eroded his skills. Best himself understood that fame and his good looks had played a part in undermining his career, providing him with opportunities to party and drink that he was unable to resist. He joked ironically, “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.”

George Best was one of the first celebrity footballers, and women threw themselves at him. As he joked, “I used to go missing quite a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” (He was not exaggerating.) At times he didn’t seem to regret his escapades, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Because he could not discipline himself to stay in shape for soccer, or to stay away from alcohol, he became a difficult, less productive teammate who was soon out of the sport. He died at age 59 of complications after a liver transplant.

GQ magazine named George Best one of the 50 most stylish men of the last 50 years, but there is no question that the temptations of a playboy lifestyle destroyed his talent. If his virtuosity had been some evidence of virtue, then he lost that virtue when he neglected to continue to hone his skills. As the biography posted at the International Footballer Hall of Fame notes “George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.” After describing some of the amazing goals that he scored in his few years at his prime, the bio ends, “the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been.”

[Photo of Maria Sharapova by Chris Gampat used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Travel Glamour And The Domesticated Sublime

JadeMountain

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.

Retouching And The Photo In The Mind’s Eye

Jaguar & windmills

Car blogger Chuck Goolsbee posts some great photos under the heading “Car Photo of the Day.” The one above, featuring two of the world's most glamorous artifacts, is a particular favorite of mine. I’ll return to it in a moment.

Chuck goolsbee jaguar

In a post last month, Chuck contrasted two photos of the same car. The first is the kind of snapshot-as-note-taking that I shoot all the time. Since it’s mostly to jog the memory, the composition doesn’t matter much. Hence, the headless car buffs, with particular emphasis on the guy in the orange polo shirt and shorts.

Bettershot

The second shot, a photo within the photo, is this closeup of the Jaguar. “This is the photo in my minds-eye whenever I see an XK,” Chuck wrote. “That luscious bonnet and fenders, with all those light-capturing curves.”

Since cropping was the only manipulation required to produce the second photo from the first, few documentary purists would object. Recreating the photo held in memory didn’t require retouching the mechanical reproduction of the scene, only focusing closely on one piece of it.

But go back to the photo of the E-type Jaguar and the windmills (click the photo or here for a larger view). Simply by recording a still image, the scene has been glamorized, portraying the car and windmills as autonomous icons of technological grace—no maintenance or transmission lines required. At the same time, however, the photo calls attention to distractions that would have gone unnoticed in person: the rough asphalt in the foreground and the fence interfering with the car’s lines in the middle distance.

A glamorized version of the photo would remove or downplay these distractions, focusing the scene on its emotionally meaningful components. Profiled in The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, today’s leading retoucher of fashion photos, called blemishes and flaws “anomalies,” suggesting that they distract from the truth. A retouched scene would be literally false. But would it be more emotionally truthful?

One possibility would be to clean up the photo by cropping it, producing something like this.

Jaguar & windmills cropped

There are fewer distractions now, but the photo seems cramped, with less sense of movement and the open road. Cropping may be journalistically legitimate, but it's emotionally unsatisfying.

Having read this interesting post in which photographer Mark Harmel discussed the sort of minor retouching he does to clean up distractions, I asked him what he would do with the Jaguar and windmills photo. He sent back this subtly altered version of the photo.

Retouched jaguar & windmills

“The wide angle lens stretched the car out—especially in the front end,” he wrote. “I compressed it and cleaned up the grass some. I compare my style of retouching to wearing those Bose Noise-Canceling headphones. My job is to remove the visual distractions. In this photo I also cleaned up the grass some to fill in a hole. I might actually do more so there is that fluffy seed-top runs all the way across.”

The side of the road is less distracting, though the grass is now a bit too regular. And by correcting the car's front end, he made the photo more realistic—but less glamorous.

“Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination,” was George Hurrell's formula for creating glamorous portraits. That prescription runs contrary to journalistic full disclosure. It also acknowledges the selection involved in all creative presentations. Neither an article nor a photograph reproduces the world in all its continuity and complexity. Ultimately, the correct selection depends on the creator's purposes and the audience's expectations.

So which version of the car and windmills photo do you like best? Or can you do better?

[Photos © Chuck Goolsbee, used with permission.]

Hotel Week: Miami & Looking Beyond The Glamour

Virginia's post about the hotel industry’s perpetual promises to “bring glamour back” reminded me of my recent trip to Miami—a city that was originally built, and then renovated, with glamour in mind.

Atmosphere at LIV

To my eye, though, the city is full of reminders that glamour is often only skin-deep. At first glance, Miami is gorgeous. The people are fabulous, wearing dramatic (and tiny) clothes that would never fly in most American cities, and the architecture harkens back to a long-ago era when cocktail hour started promptly at 5 p.m. and jeans weren’t considered acceptable dinner attire.

Look closer, though, and the glamour fades away. As I walked around the city, I kept thinking of that line from Clueless, “She’s a full-on Monet. From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it's a big old mess.” “Big old mess” might be an exaggeration, but looking closely at glamorous people and places often reveals the flaws and strain under the façade.

The photo above was taken by my friend (and future sister-in-law), Marcail, during our trip—it’s one of the banquettes at LIV, the nightclub at the Fontainebleu hotel. Marcail took the shot to remember the club's “atmosphere,” but I think it tells a bigger story about Miami and about a lot of what we perceive as “glamorous.” Glamour is often shiny on the surface, but marred with rips and tears that expose the rough underneath.

On a banquette, the tears are literal and in a building, they might be dingy paint or scuffed floors—all easily fixed. But when it’s a glamorous persona that comes under scrutiny, the discrepancy between the surface and what’s beneath is sometimes more serious—think Marilyn Monroe or Britney Spears a few years ago. In those cases, maintaining the glamorous image adds strain that widens the gap between façade and reality even more.

[Photo credit: Marcail Moran, who says that she and her stilettos are at least partially responsible for one of those rips.]

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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.]