I have a rocky relationship with the concept of glamour.
On the one hand, “glamour” has the allure of glimmering lights, sexy satin dresses and sumptuous indulgence. As a young girl growing up in the ballet, I loved the contrast between the gritty concrete of backstage and the shining lights and velvet chairs in the front of the house.
On the other, I did a lot of reading on magic and rhetoric back in my school days which introduced me to the concept of glamour in magic–the idea that one could effectively bewitch someone into seeing something that wasn’t there. Applied sophistry, if you will.
Then, of course, there’s Glamour magazine, one of the trashier but still classy mainstream fashion magazines. I rarely read Glamour, even back when I was really into fashion magazines. It was one step up from Cosmo…but that’s not saying much.
With all that in my head, I had no idea what to expect from a book called The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Oh, I was certainly intrigued by a book that promised to talk about visual persuasion that was not written by a stuffy academic, but there are quite a few fashion-type books that promise a lot but deliver very little. Most fashion people are people- or thing-oriented, not idea-oriented, so their books tend to focus on the what, not the why or the how.
That is not the case for this book. Author Virginia Postrel is an idea person, and she delves into deconstructing the concept of glamour and what it entails, rather than simply defining it in stylistic terms and distracting us with a lot of pretty pictures. (That is not to say that there aren’t a bunch of pretty pictures, because there are. I’m very glad I bought a hard copy of this book, because some of the photos are well worth staring at in print.) She explores the idea of glamour in various ways, and traces it through history to show the ways in which it has influenced humanity (even before the word itself was invented).
Glamour is not charisma (a personal characteristic) or romance (which implies hardship) or spectacle (which inspires awe). Glamour isn’t something one can be born with, or can purchase. Instead, glamour is much, much more.
Glamour is not a product or style but a form of communication and persuasion. It depends on maintaining exactly the right relationship between object and audience, imagination and desire.
Glamour is an effective rhetorical tool, which can be bent to the desires of the person wielding it. The effective use of glamour harnesses our desires to see what we want to see, which is often a heightened, non-real version of the world, or a “reality distortion field.” By focusing attention on what isn’t strictly Real, glamour is “always suspect” as Postrel points out, because it draws our attention away from honesty and transparency.
As I read past the definition and history of glamour into the section in which Postrel writes about its implications in the modern world, I started getting really antsy. There were a lot of connections forming around the edges of my mind, building up like clouds before a thunderstorm, of glamour and where the world has found itself. Of why, perhaps, the world has seemingly gone mad. Of why someone like Donald Trump, who surrounds himself by the trappings of glamour but who is not bound by them (case in point: his hair–not glamourous in the least), was elected President of the United States.
What we tend to think of as glamour is solidified in the trappings of the 1930s; Hollywood glamour, art-deco, and movies like Metropolis. Postrel draws a tight parallel between glamour and the Modernism of the early 20th century–the allure of central planning, globalism, and the shiny, sexy, atheist utopia.
All glamour is escapist, but not all escapism is glamour. The escape that glamour offers is of a particular type. Glamour is a way of “see what is not there,” not simply forgetting what is there. Although glamour does provide immediate pleasure, it doesn’t numb or distract desire. To the contrary, it intensifies longings by giving them an object. Glamour thus implies and fosters hope, from individual aspiration to collective utopian dreams.
To me, then, either glamour is in bed with the forces within history that are trying to draw our world into one centralized, pre-planned horror show, or those forces have done a stellar job of harnessing the power of glamour to propagandize for their own purposes. The fact that Postrel herself uses Barack Obama as an example of glamour, indicates that the latter is true. To further support that theory, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine, does her best to glamorize favored candidates like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. But is that to say that the Left is inherently glamourous? Or does it depend on glamour to stay alive?
On a more practical note, this book is useful both to understand the glamour in the world around us, and as a guidebook for bending glamour for our own purposes. I’ve enjoyed watching Mike Cernovich step up his style game this summer after he read and recommended this book. Idea people tend to dismiss artifice as unnecessary, even though the visual elements of persuasion are just as important as the ideas and worlds encapsulated in those visual elements.
The right pair of sunglasses, for example, are key:
Glamourous sunglasses, after all, highlight as well as veil. They call attention to the face, most of which remains visible, and even the darkest lenses allow a hint of eye to show every now and then, when the light is just right. (Mirror shades, by contrast, are less glamourous than intimidating.)
Good visual style, then, is as much about the ideas behind the style as it is about the next “must have” sunglasses or newest, hottest designer. Glamour can be cultivated in one’s look, posture, hair, clothes, style of speaking, and also in the words one uses–the picture one paints of the future.
Glamour is an extremely powerful tool that it seems we can’t live without, even though it focuses our desires away from what is real. We need hope and desire in our lives–what else would drive us forward?–and most of us are intelligent enough to understand where the fantasy ends and where reality begins.
Does that reconcile for me the problems with glamour? Is glamour rescued from its associations with sophistry and deception? Short answer, no. Glamour is alluring, but will always be suspect, because truth is hard enough to find on this earth without extra layers of perception getting in the way.
If used right, it could be the ultimate “lie that tells the truth.”
Go read The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion