Cover of People magazine from 1974
One of the best descriptions of glamour isn’t a description of glamour at all. In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s dark and stormy novel, Catherine Earnshaw explains to her maid Nelly the intense hold her dreams have over her: “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”
Like Earnshaw’s dreams, glamour colors the way we see the world and changes how we want to experience it. The promise it offers—an escape from the ordinary business of life, communion with beauty, and transcendence—is intoxicating. But it is also dangerous and deceitful. Glamour glosses over reality and presents a picture of how life ought to be. When we try to collect on its false promise, we get in trouble.
Helen of Troy is perhaps the first recognizably glamorous figure in all of Western civilization. “Here is a narrative not just of beauty, sex and death,” writes Bettany Hughes in her biography of Helen, “but of eternal longing, a story born out of the first civilization on the Greek mainland. Civilization is restless, greedy—it always wants more, what it does not have.” Helen’s face launched a thousand ships because she ignited desire and longing in men. Her story reveals the hold that glamour has over us all and the consequences of our pursuit of it. The powerful snare of her beauty led the elders of Troy to lament, “Ah, no wonder/ the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered/ years of agony all for her, for such a woman./ Beauty, terrible beauty!”
Glamour has sent men to war in the pursuit of glory; it has inspired great artists to create beauty in service of an aesthetic ideal; it has led women, from Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe, to destroy themselves for the sake of passion; and thanks to clever marketing, it sells God knows how many purses, high heels, and martinis each year.
What is it we want when we chase glamour? A certain lifestyle. When women buy magazines like Vogue, it’s not to read the articles, but to commune with the alternate reality offered in each ad and fashion photo-spread. When men drink Dos Equis, they find themselves one step closer to “The Most Interesting Man in the World” and the mysterious ideal he represents. When couples book the $15,000 “Great Gatsby Package” at the Trump Hotel—which includes chauffeured car service, a magnum of fine champagne, Art Deco cufflinks, and much more—they want to live the extravagant life F. Scott Fitzgerald brilliantly captured in his stories about the Jazz Age. Glamour offers the possibility of living a more wonderful, richer life, something that many of us aspire to.
The golden age of glamour, as Virginia Postrel points out in her new book The Power of Glamour, was the 1930s. To this day, the world glamour evokes the memory of old Hollywood, a time when films were still in black and white, women wore long and draping ball gowns, and men were elegant and charming. The Hollywood films and icons of that era—including Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo—epitomized cool sophistication and they knew it. “Anyone can look glamorous. You just have to sit there and look stupid,” said the exotic actress Hedy Lamarr, who was also a gifted mathematician and inventor. But you wouldn’t know that from the extremely shadowy black-and-white portraits that we remember her by—images that obscure what lies beneath.
Lamarr’s description of glamour, though memorable, doesn’t explain the enchanting effect glamour has over people. In 1945, one young woman noted the power of film in a 1945 survey when she said that films like The Mark of Zorro “have made me discontented with my monotonous suburban life, and have led to periods of unhappiness and depression. But I am glad. For they have given me ambition, ideals, something to work hard for, something to set my head above the boredom of routine.”
Glamour casts a magic spell on people like this young woman. “When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight,” an eighteenth-century predecessor of the Oxford English Dictionary noted, “they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator.” During that time, glamour was associated with gypsies, witches, and warlocks. A 1913 definition of glamour focused on the false reality that it conjures up. Glamour is “a charm affecting the eye, making objects appear different from what they really are” and “any artificial interest in, or association with, an object, through which it appears delusively magnified or glorified.”
Glamour is an illusion. We may remember the period from the 1920s to the 1940s as glamorous, but that just reveals glamour’s deceit, its empty promise. Beneath the beautiful veneer of the magazines and films was the stark reality of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the onset of World War II. The Nazis had a vision of glamour too, one in which they edited out Jews and other “impure” human beings. Many of these insights and more can be found in Postrel’s very interesting and meticulously-researched book on glamour.
Glamour has and has always had a major problem: Reality. Champagne at night is glamorous but the hangover the next morning is not. High-heels at the gala are glamorous but the bleeding and blistered feet are not. The skyline of New York City is glamorous but the Port Authority is not.
If life is less glamorous today than it was in the past, it is because reality no longer seems as escapable as it once did. Reality television, obviously, lifts the veil. So do those magazines—like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and People—that once epitomized the ideal. Glamour was founded in 1939 as Glamour of Hollywood. Cosmopolitan, one of the most popular magazine on the newsstands today, was first a family magazines in 1886 and later became more literary, featuring contributions from Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, and Sinclair Lewis. The 1974 inaugural issue of People magazine featured articles about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Gloria Vanderbilt. On the cover was an icon of glamour dressed up as another icon of glamour: Mia Farrow, starring as Daisy in that year’s The Great Gatsby opposite Robert Redford.
Today, these magazines are the antitheses of glamour, which must not only leave something to the imagination, but also be “the art that conceals art,” as Postrel points out. Mystery is the essence of glamour. But Glamour and its peers on the newsstand are too committed to selling reality in all its starkness and grimness. The typical articles that appear in these popular magazines often reveal, in shockingly technical detail, the ins-and-outs of certain forms of sex, the inner lives—in all their anodyne detail—of movie stars, and how celebrities, far from being icons of glamour, are “Just Like Us,” as one magazine puts it. They tie their shoes and sweat and change their babies’ diapers.
The story goes, as Postrel points out, that in 1940, when Jane Wilkie, a young fan of Ginger Rogers, saw the dancer “chewing gum . . . with considerable gusto. . . . Wrigley struck down an idol.” The fan added, “It hadn’t occurred to me that movie stars chewed gum, wheezed with head colds, or used the john.” I suspect that our fascination with the British royals, particularly Kate Middleton, the characters of the television show “Downton Abbey,” and the heroines of Jane Austen novels is due precisely to the fact that they are not like us at all. They are what we hope to be—their lives are what we want our lives to be like.
One of the reasons why the supermodel Kate Moss remains an icon of glamour today is that she rarely speaks, which imparts an aura of mystery upon her, however false it may be. When it comes to glamour, less is more. The young actress Emma Watson, of “Harry Potter” fame, captured this point beautifully: “I have no plans to do anything for the sake of it, or to shock people,” Watson said. “I know everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt. Personally, I don’t actually think it’s even that sexy. What’s sexy about saying, ‘I’m here with my boobs out and a short skirt?’ . . . My idea of sexy is that less is more. The less you reveal the more people can wonder.” If you strip away the mystery, you strip away the glamour.
Unadulterated reality is the least glamorous thing in the world. The Great Gatsby is a novel about glamour—the possibilities it contains, the longing it creates, the way it absorbs you into its world, and, more dangerously, its artificial, evanescent, and illusory nature. Everyone in The Great Gatsby has glamour, but that glamour—what Mencken called their “glittering swinishness”—is a thin veneer that ultimately covers up an ugly reality. Jordan, the star golfer and Nick’s passing love interest, is a cheat. Tom, as well-heeled and sophisticated as he may be, is a racist adulterous brute. Daisy, for all of her beauty and charm, is irresponsible and superficial, “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor,” as Fitzgerald writes. And Gatsby himself, the only sympathetic character in the novel aside from Nick, builds a castle of glamour around him which ultimately covers up his mysterious past.
No amount of glamour, however well orchestrated, can bring him closer to the object of his desire. “There must have been moments,” Nick remarks, “when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” In the end, Gatsby is undone by the illusion. He comes crashing down on the shore of reality, as we all eventually do.
Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris plays with a similar theme, but in a more innocent way. In it, Owen Wilson plays a successful Hollywood screenwriter planning a wedding with his beautiful fiancée in Paris. That sounds glamorous enough, except to Wilson’s character Gil Pender it isn’t. Rather than writing mass-market screenplays, he dreams of living the life of Hemingway and Fitzgerald during the Paris of the 1920s. Magically, he is transported back to that era and meets all of his literary heroes. He also falls in love with a woman named Adriana, who thinks 1920s Paris is drab. She thinks la belle époque, the Paris of the 1890s, was the city’s most glamorous era.
When Gil and Adriana are magically transported back to 1890s Paris, Adriana decides to stay. Gil is dumbstruck. “What about the Twenties?” To Adriana, the Twenties are the present—and the present is boring. But for Gil, as Postrel notes in The Power of Glamour, the Twenties are full of romance and mystery. The reality we have is never as alluring as the one we want to have.
Those literary types living during la belle époque era probably fantasized about the Renaissance, while the artists of the Renaissance idealized the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. So it goes.
To glamorize the past is to deceive yourself. We may be guilty of that deception today more than ever. In our era of fast-breaking technological change, innovation, 24/7 news cycles, and social media, we look back in time, like Gil, for a simpler, more chic, and meaningful alternative to the chaotic reality we face day to day. The irony is, in fifty years, we may look back at the early 2000s and, struggling with a new reality, remember this time as a high-point of glamour in our lives. We’ll remember the elegance of the iPad, the glory of instant communication, and the grace of Princess Kate. As we create our idealized version of the past, as we surely will, it will be interesting to see what parts of today’s reality we will edit out for the sake of glamour.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include additional references to Ms. Postrel’s new book The Power of Glamour, which served as the inspiration and basis for this essay.