I’m not sure what I expected when I checked Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle (Oxford University Press, 2008) out of the library. Hollywood, the magazine and beauty industries, fashion history – yes, but money? Well, yes. We know nothing sells like glamour. But I didn’t expect money to be the driving force throughout glamour’s whole history.
Because that’s exactly it: nothing sells like glamour. And this is the key to the argument Gundle develops throughout the book, in which he traces the glamour of the Napoleonic courtesans through to the Hollywood stars and all the way to Paris Hilton (I’m sure he was disappointed to end with her too).
I guess it’s not that surprising, since women (who are most often associated with glamour) have been bought and sold in one way or another for centuries, as the examples above make clear. However, glamour itself – which is not quite beauty, not exactly sex, and not really status either – doesn’t appear to be directly linked to money.
And that’s because it isn’t – at least, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s what happens to glamour in a capitalist society. As Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The Beheld wrote of Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour, “Something glamorous must give form to an otherwise formless longing or desire”. And what happens when formless desires are shaped into glamorous images in a capitalist society? Yeah. We buy stuff.
So eventually glamour becomes pretty much synonymous with advertising, as we see all around us now. But how did this happen? Professor Gundle will explain.
Caroline Otero, one of the most famous courtesans of late 19th-century Paris (tipegozombi.blogspot.com)
After the American Revolution (1765-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), the structure of society changed in Europe and the US. The aristocracy declined, the middle classes emerged and grew richer, and industrialization gave birth to commodity culture. More people had more money (though still unequally) and there was more stuff for them to buy. Selling became an art form.
And that’s where glamour came in. Sounds obvious when put like that, doesn’t it? But when it comes to courtesans like La Belle Otero, for example, it was not as simple as using glamour to sell sex. Gundle explains that what made the top courtesans so desirable was not the promise of sex, but something broader: they were a lifestyle brand (that’s your heritage, Gwyneth) and association with them gave the customer an image of reckless wealth, style and luxury. That sounds familiar… Oh, hi Lindsay Lohan and Closer magazine.
This formula, product + glamour + aspiration = $$$ was used and intensified throughout the 20th century, selling everything from Hollywood films to vacuum cleaners – not to mention clothes and magazines. Gundle spends a lot of time analysing the history of these two, charting the rise of the fashion designer (as I discussed recently) from being purely a clothes-maker to the rich elite to, erm, a clothes-maker to the rich elite who also sells ready-to-wear clothes and perfume to those who can’t really afford it but wish they could. The magazines, of course, feed off this in celebrating the glamorous designer (Gundle picks Gianni Versace as the best example) and their celebrity friends, all of whom conveniently sponsor said magazines.
Nowadays, glamour is most often embodied in lifestyle aspiration which, Gundle says, is at the heart of celebrity culture. As role models in the shallowest sense, our desire to live like the celebrities shifts product like nothing else. In the Hollywood star system a young actor would be contracted to one studio for a set fee and number of films, and then moulded ruthlessly into the image selected for them. This image was then sold as an aspiration, which helped sell all manner of products designed to help the public achieve their dreams.
Young Greta Garbo (www.gretasrecords.tumblr.com)
And after the studio got hold of her (nenaghsilentfilmfestival.wordpress.com)
Gundle writes that when Greta Garbo – then Greta Gustaffson – arrived in Hollywood in 1925, she “looked like what she was, an unsophisticated girl from the backwaters of Sweden. Her front teeth were crooked, her hair was frizzy, and there was a hint of a double chin” (p. 173). Initially she didn’t photograph well, but then MGM cinematographer Henrik Sartov put her face in a particular pool of light, and the magic of Garbo was revealed. Of course, this magic then had to be plucked, preened and painted, but there it was. The studio built an image for Garbo of the mysterious, erotic European, and the building part is key: glamour is so enticing because it is something constructed, and therefore easier to achieve than beauty.
One is made, not born, glamorous. The constructed nature of glamour is clear in the word itself, which comes from an old Scots word meaning something close to trickery, and was introduced into modern English by novelist Walter Scott in 1805: it meant, to quote Gundle, “a magical power capable of making ordinary people, dwellings, and places seem like magnificent versions of themselves” (p. 7).
Which, to come back to the present, is precisely what Glamour magazine sells us. I’m not sure I needed more cynicism regarding popular culture and all its glamorous images, but that’s what Gundle’s book has given me – albeit a much better informed and impressive cynicism. It is a shame though, that glamour is all about the money, because it is also about aspiration – someone ordinary becoming a “magnificent version of themselves”, and this could be put to much better uses. If we glamorised something other than wealth and buying stuff we could really improve things, although I think it will take more than TV doctors in lipstick to get there.
January 17th, 2014 at 9:28 pm
Interesting piece. Kind of hopeful that a person has control over being glamorous, when they don’t have control over so many other things they might like to be. Glamour may be superficial, but it’s kind of intriguing at the same time.
I found this interesting: “what made the top courtesans so desirable was not the promise of sex, but something broader: they were a lifestyle brand”
Branding: sounds like a personal identity issue to me (branding yourself). I find it interesting how often personal identity is more important than sex.
January 20th, 2014 at 12:15 pm
Thanks! I also like the idea that glamour is something we can control (unlike beauty, for the most part), though in practice it seems like there is a lot of pressure for women to be glamorous anyway. Or am I confusing that with beauty and sex appeal? Blurred lines 😉
I hadn’t thought through the connection between branding and personal identity (I think there’s a blog post in that), and your comment makes me wonder if sex (and glamour) are often used as substitutes for personal identity. In our advert-saturated world, we’re encouraged to consider branding and personal identity the same thing though I don’t think that’s what you mean… Thanks again for commenting!