This is an review of a book, The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel, which was published in Harper’s Magazine last year.
In the late 1970s I was pushing the pram down Heath Street, a vertiginous road in Hampstead with Heath at the top end and Hampstead Tube Station and the High Street full of fancy shops below. From the top of the hill I saw a bright glow down by the Tube, but it was too far to make out what was going on. Certainly, something. It was an aura of light easily outshining the broad daylight, shimmering, gleaming. People are always filming in Hampstead, using its quaintness to signify older times, when it was a village, in a garden of which Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale. I supposed that was what was happening (although the tube station siting was a bit of a twentieth century give away). Arc lights and the strange mixture of limbo and fevered activity of a film crew on the street you are walking along, when your normal day bumps into them. As I descended, the light got brighter, increasingly dazzling but still contained in a small area. About halfway down the hill I could see there was no technical equipment, just a small circle of regular-looking people standing around the origin of the light. Eventually I got near enough to identify the source of the illumination. The brilliant shimmer I’d seen from the top of the hill transformed into an aura around two quite small people, still too far to see details, but nothing obviously special about them apart from that bright aura flowing directly from them. Closer still, the couple’s features became clear. The mysterious shimmer resolved into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Or as we called them then, ‘Richardburtonanelizabethtaylor’. They had been taking a stroll around Hampstead and were waylaid at the station entrance by a handful of people wanting autographs. These were the starriest stars I’d ever seen close to in ordinary life, top of the tree stars, and I still remember their physical aura as actually light. It/they sparkled and fizzed. It struck me that they had absorbed and accumulated all the decades of spotlight, arc-light, limelight that had shone on them, all the excitement of eyes that focused and peered at them, all the giant waves of attention, adoration and curiosity that continually engulfed them, and now, like fleshy batteries, they radiated it back as visible energy at the world. If it wasn’t true light, it was a core of specialness so powerful that it burned through them and out to the surrounding air. Without that brilliant aura, until I was close enough to recognise them, they would have been a slightly over-dressed (some priceless diamond or other on her hand lending an extra sparkle of its own, his hair more tailored than cut), moderately handsome though plump, couple of tourists, American probably, like many who had wandering around Hampstead on their itinerary. With the light, they were Marc Antony and Cleopatra, The VIPs, Faustus and Helen, George and Martha, the Oberon and Titania of Hollywood, stepping out of the big screen into the regular day and shedding some of their fairy dust over the pavement.
That was my only face-to-face with indisputable glamour. Meeting ordinary famous people is different. They are what they do, what you admire or despise them for. It’s interesting or disappointing. You engage with them as experts or producers. This high glamour encounter was different. It was electrical and electrifying. There was no way in which an onlooker could engage, only look and be amazed. It was also in one way, strikingly similar to my previous looking-at-a-distance encounters with glamour: in the audience at the movies with the added patina of time and vintage clothes. In the presence, unmediated by screen or page, the radiance functioned as an electric fence, a safety screen, as well as being an inner glow of stockpiled attention. I wondered if there was an on/off switch: either they were lit up all the time (even when they were alone together, or alone alone?), or their lights clicked on as soon as they were recognised and hands reached out, ostensibly for autographs, but really to feel the tropical warmth of their glamour glow.
Virginia Postrel in her book The Power of Glamor would suppose the latter. Glamour, she tells her readers ‘does not exist independently in the glamorous object…but emerges through the interaction between object and audience….One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.’ According to her, Mr and Mrs Burton’s light would be in the eye of the beholder. A member of the Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t have seen their light, unless the missionaries and anthropologists had brought a copy of Cleopatra to their neck of the forest and given them a lecture on the cultural history of western cinema. Yet, what about that glow of specialness I perceived in the distance long before I had the faintest idea of its source?
Webster’s Dictionary in 1902 defined glamour as ‘a kind of haze in the air making things appear different from how they really are’. This, rather nebulous explanation, would make glamour free-floating, existing prior to or separate from either object or beholder. Unattached fairy dust. Magic looking for somewhere to settle. This is not really glamour as we understand it in the 21st century, but it does have something of the etymology of the word. Glamour, first used by Sir Walter Scott in literary English, is a corrupt form of the word grammar from the French gramarye or grimoire. [see OED] From a book of spells, to forms of knowledge both occult and academic, to Burton and Taylor. Postrel finds the word in Jane Eyre who has ‘the glamour of inexperience over her eyes’ enabling her to see Rochester’s gloomy mansion as splendid. It is a veil that deceives. For Joseph Conrad, the young are susceptible to glamour. ‘Oh, the glamour of youth!’ and ‘the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort.’ A haze again, a charm that deceives. So the magic is there, but there’s more of conjuring about it than magic. A sleight of eye that deceives us about the humdrum world. In real life, according to the etymology, nothing is glamorous. We have been warned. Postrel then quotes Garbo, as the world-weary, loveless and disguised Queen Christina, discussing the differences between Swedish and Spanish methods of courtship with John Gilbert’s Spanish Ambassador, Antonio. She calls his Spanish ways ‘glamorous, and yet somewhat mechanical.’
Christina: Evidently you Spaniards make too much fuss about a simple elemental thing like love. We Swedes are more direct.
Antonio: Why, that’s civilization – to disguise the elemental with the glamorous.3
(Films in 1933 trusted their audiences’ wit enough to play meta-fictional games around their most glamorous and disguised pair of movie stars.)
So glamour is something that doesn’t exist in and of itself. It consists in yearning and lies. If magic’s not your thing, then call it editing, which some people, those concerned with ‘glamour businesses’ — film, photography, fashion, publishing — feel lends respectability to their endeavours. George Hurrell, the Hollywood photographer during its glory years, who is repeatedly quoted, says, a little mysteriously: ‘All of us glamourize everything, including the documentaries [sic] who glamorize filth and squalor’. Designer Isaac Mizrahi follows up the attempt to dignify glamour workers: ‘If glamour is magic, if it’s really about casting a spell, one should happily confront the manipulation of it all. It’s adult to manipulate and only human.’ It doesn’t seem to me that the second part of the sentence is explained by the first, though it must be supposed to. There is, Postrel emphasises, ‘something civilized, and distinctly human, about glamour.’ You can’t really argue with the human-ness of glamour. Very few animals, as far as we can know, edit reality. If they could, it would presumably seriously hamper their life and reproductive chances. Survival in the natural world is about knowing what’s what and if it wants to eat you. But the word ‘civilized’ slips in to Postrel’s argument rather too easily. Phrases like ‘adult and only human’ and ‘civilization’ pack a lot of assumptions. Postrel signally fails to examine them.
This is odd because her stated intention in the book is to provide the popular understanding we all have of ‘glamour’ with the theory which has been lacking, even, apparently, for cultural-studies scholars. Her theory of glamour, she says, is needed to prevent these scholars from falling into such ‘ludicrous’ error as the claim by historian Stephen Grundle that Paris Hilton is “indisputably glamorous”, when clearly she was ‘the anti-Grace Kelly’ who, Postrel tells us, is indisputably glamorous. Her aim is to help us to sort the Kelly-wheat from the Hilton-chaff. Hilton was merely ‘rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, and stylishly dressed’. ‘Subjectively speaking’, you might expect her to add, given her insistence, just four pages later, that glamour depends on the ‘perceiver’s receptive imagination’; but not so: with Hilton and Kelly and so much more we are being handed a Postrel-dictated objective truth.
Postrel’s position and arguments throughout the book are often opaque. She chides the cultural-studies scholars for lacking theory, but has an evident animus towards what she calls ‘intellectuals’: ‘Sophisticates often kid themselves that they’re realists immune to [glamour’s] influence…’ She is responding to historian of science Rosalind Williams’s contention (Postrel calls it ‘lecturing her readers’) that ‘Truth is not found in dreaming’. Postrel continues: ‘One job of intellectuals is to puncture glamour by reminding us of what’s hidden. But intellectuals are by no means exempt from glamour’s effects. They simply have their own longings and hence their own versions of glamour, including in some cases the ideal of a life without meaningful illusions.’ She nowhere shows that intellectuals exempt themselves from the concepts with which they engage and analyse. I’m not aware that there is a unified job description for ‘intellectuals’, but if there were it would be to do with examining ideas, their origins and development, not merely with bursting everyone’s favourite balloons. Postrel sets up the intellectual as her straw man who is out to do battle against her truth of the positive virtues of glamour. In fact, she references only two ‘intellectuals’, cultural historian John Berger and Rosalind Williams in order to dismiss their negative views and failings. This lack of substantial sources makes her text as light as whipped egg white. She counters Berger’s association of glamour with social envy with a quote from Jay-Z ‘that dream-self we all long to be’, and a eulogy by Naomi Wolf, in Harper’s Bazaar, on Angelina Jolie. ‘Over the course of the essay, Jolie’s life functions as proof that the longings that inform Wolf’s own oeuvre are attainable’7, blindsiding the 99.9 recurring of the world’s population who have not and never will attain an iota of Jolie’s life. She gives us Cate Blanchett’s view from an interview in Glamour UK, and designer Norma Kamali’s view of 1930s glamour. She references to pop singer Fergie’s 2007 video for her song ‘Glamour’, but nowhere do we get anything of Lacan on the unconscious gaze, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology or Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, all looking towards our perception and creation of icons. Nor is there any mention of Guy Debord on The Society of the Spectacle from 1967, or Walter Benjamin’s 1939 key essay Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility both of which reflect directly on the idea of representation taking over from direct experience, and rendering it a distortion. The nearest we get is an Annie Leibovitz advertisement for Louis Vuitton bags, in which Angelina Jolie sits moodily alone on a deserted jetty in Cambodia with nothing but some designer fatigues and a completely inappropriate LV bag, explained by Postrel as intended for a high end audience that dreams authenticity but rarely tries to live it. It evidently is enough to prove her point that glamour is about transformation and escape. Either she believes that intellectuals have nothing to tell her whatever they say, which is more arrogant than any intellectual I’ve come across, or she doesn’t want to muddy her book’s potential with anything that might look ‘difficult’.
For Walter Benjamin, the revolution in reproducibility (mass publishing, photography, cinema, all forms of popular media) that started to become technologically available in the 19th century, is the very source that brings glamour to the cultural fore around that time, and what strips the individual – the ‘authentic’ – object, of its ‘aura’ as he calls it.
The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for the sameness in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.
There are many seriously and interesting ideas in philosophy and cultural studies available for a thorough discussion of the theory of glamour, but Postrel doesn’t seem to have delved into any of them or thought them worthy of mention. It seems impossible to write a book on the nature of glamour without a single reference to Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp, at least, or some philosophical, historical background on the nature of beauty and taste. All this is absent in any serious way in Postrel’s book. Instead she seems satisfied to limit her theory and make glamour virtually synonymous with the function and activity of advertising: ‘By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure even as it heightens our yearnings. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.’ This she directly equates to the undeniable fact that advertising is the heart (if that’s the right word) of capitalism. Her first precondition for glamour is ‘the willingness to acknowledge discontent with one’s current situation along with the ability to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances’ And western commercial culture is what facilitates this. ‘By opening up opportunities for economic advancement and offering goods and services that beautify, educate, and otherwise promote self-improvement, modern, commercial societies provide many such avenues’. Sometimes it reads more like an advert for the advertising industry.
She wants to rescue the concept of glamour from any accusation that it is malign and to show that glamour ‘is a life-enhancing force for the good.’ In the end, being able to take seriously Postrel’s theory of glamour depends on whether you can take her complacent view of the social and economic society in which glamour thrives. In order to rescue ‘glamour’ from its negative aspects, she sets up John Berger as her arch intellectual villain. She does so by reducing his ground-breaking and humane 1972 investigation into the social perception of art and advertising, Ways of Seeing, to a single sentence. She calls it ‘an influential theory’, rather undercutting her claim to be providing the first theory herself. But she tells us, Berger (who has read Benjamin) argues that glamour ‘elicits social envy in order to sell commercial goods, by showing us people who have apparently been transformed…and are as a result, enviable”. Although she admits that his description captures ‘glamour’s transformational promise’ it seems his ‘desiccated view’ misses many of its most potent appeals. ‘He is blinded by envy, conflating it with desire.’ There are few people less dried up in their thought or their being than John Berger, whom she also, later, refers to as ‘crabby’. His chapter on what he calls publicity in Ways of Seeing, proposes that advertising offers images that ‘make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life.’ It offers pictures of how the spectator’s life could be; ‘glamorous day-dreams’, Berger calls them, which leave a palpable gap between an individual’s reality and what he would like his reality to be. Envy and desire in a sense that Postrel fails to comprehend, are indeed coterminous in the image he sees of the dream on offer. He envies his own future, dream self, as if he were present in the advertising image, and links that to the idea of being envied by others – of himself becoming that distant unachieved object that seems to constitute happiness and success. ‘The happiness of being envied is glamour’ he says. This is parallel to the modern desire to be famous: the state of being known and envied by others who you don’t yourself know. We want to become these glamorous creatures, but we don’t want everyone to be them; we want the exclusivity, the unreachability that makes glamour glamorous. What Postrel variously calls glamour’s necessary mystique or mystery. ‘Publicity does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable – yet could be,’ says Berger, whose thesis is hardly different from Postrel’s: ‘[Glamour] reminds us what [sic]we find lacking in real life and who we want to be. It stokes discontent.’
The break between them comes in their underlying positions. Berger is a Marxist thinker who relates social and cultural formations to power and authority structures. Advertising and glamour do not use the discontent they stoke to suggest other social possibilities, on the contrary they use it to sell both the product and to use the desire for it and the life they propose in order to maintain the status quo. They offer snippets of the glamorous life (a scent, a handbag) to those who will never in their lifetime have the means to buy the couture dress the model is wearing to sell them the real money-making product. Maybe if you save up, you could buy the Louis Vuitton bag that the whole life of the astronomically rich Angelina Jolie is being paid to sell. Commerce offers to make you happier in the world as it is, rather than proposing another world in which desires might be different and less constituted by envy. Postrel appears to be quite content with the world as it is:
To understand glamour as no more than deception is to miss the psychological truths – and the real-world possibilities – it reveals…Every unironic evocation of the American Dream is an exercise in glamour and, however illusory the dream may sometimes be, the country is better off for the inspiration.
What are those psychological truths? Apparently the virtue of glamour is that it can ‘point its audience towards a better, more satisfying way of life…’ Such as sitting alone beside a Cambodian river (not a Cambodian in sight) with a Vuitton bag? But the key here is her word ‘unironic’. An unironic evocation of the American Dream is one that would need to deny almost all discussion over the past half century of the nature of the American Dream and how it has actually worked out for individuals, America and the rest of the world. So much passionate and serious discussion around the idea of the American Dream, in the form of written debates and the literary, dramatic and visual arts of the 20th and 21st century, would have to be disregarded in order to speak unironically of the American Dream that it is impossible to imagine how America or anyone trying to think seriously about the world could be better off for it, or how such a deluded, partial, narrow view might inspire a nation. As it stands, her statement says no more than that an unexamined sentimentality is what keeps America dreaming. Actually, it’s worse than that, according to Postrel the nature of the dream offered by glamour, then and now, seems to depend not only on dusty, pinhole-visions, but on the most spirit-draining, life-crushing clichés. She says that although ‘We may appreciate the longings stirred by the New York skyline, a red carpet moment, or a sports car on an open road,’ her ‘fuller theory of glamour allows us to expand beyond the obvious’. It ‘lets us understand what a little girl sees in a princess or a young man imagines in the Marines…’ We really don’t need a theory of glamour to understand that. The mystery that Postrel seeks to comprehend requires (and has received) the attention of social historians, cultural analysts, political theorists, philosophers and feminists. Looking at the nature of the gloss which is glamour’s form does little to explain anything except its superficial effect. Postrel’s book never gets beneath the skin of her subject, and this must be because she has not really seen what her subject is. She is content to accept the world that the glamorizers portray, even when they themselves have started to move on from notions of little girls and princesses, and young men and the Marines. She looks backwards and likes what she sees, but that world has for a long time been the object of struggle by little girls who have grown up to examine their desires and to whom or what those desires really belong.