The Migrations of Glamour

The concept of glamour, of a particular look or style being the source of envy, aspiration and desire, only entered common usage during the twentieth century. A relatively new addition to the English language, its meaning in the eighteenth century was linked with magic, enchantment, necromancy or a sorcerer's spell. One of the earliest recorded uses was in 1721 in a Scottish verse: 'When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour o'er the eyes of the spectator' (Oxford English Dictionary: 1933). The term was linked with the power of the occult, something with such a fascinating and attractive power that it could not be real (Tapert 1998). In Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1962) the word is categorized with beauty, prestige and: '. . . spell, charm, glamour, enchantment, cantrip, hoodoo, curse, evil eye, jinx, influence; bewitchment, fascination' (1962: 395). Linked primarily with feminine allure, narcissism and the rise of mass consumption, it embodies a fascinating contradiction.

A glamorous face or dress can be attractive and alluring when seen from afar, but close up and in detail the inherent magic disappears and something more ordinary is revealed. Glamour of the Classical Hollywood period relied on creating a glowing image for the female star - the convention of three types of lighting, key, fill and back, established by the 1920s, created a virtual aura around the female stars (Dyer 1997: 87). The white glow of the Caucasian, female film star is a central aspect of Hollywood glamour. The backlighting in particular eradicates shadows and separates out the star on screen from the background with a halo effect. This mode of lighting was also employed in the glamour photographs of female stars during the 1930s and 1940s (Heisner 1990: 58). The use of light in the creation of glamour was further enhanced by hair gel, reflective materials for garments and mirrored surfaces used in set design and publicity shots. Indeed, MGM boasted they had more stars than the galaxy. The glimmer and shine of Hollywood is therefore a double-edged attribute. In Britain, Hollywood as a mythical place rather than a geographic location is still referred to in the popular media as 'Tinseltown' (Macaulay 1999: 45). This denotes the allure but also the perceived artificiality and ephemer-ality of Hollywood glamour. Shining stars are most fascinating when seen from afar. Audiences are just as intrigued by the scandals behind the glamour, the tawdry nature of life in Hollywood, the tarnish of the tinsel, the perilous nature of stardom. The opposing forces of the pleasure principle and the death drive, which Sigmund Freud was defining and developing contemporaneously with the growth of popular film, may offer one possible explanation in psychoanalytical terms (Freud 1961; Foster 1993). Subjects are drawn to that which they desire and are, by the same token, repulsed by it and wish to destroy or repress it. In terms of glamour this can only be resolved when the object of the fantasy dies, the more tragically the better, as in the case of Carole Lombard (killed in an aircraft crash 1942), Jean Harlow (died 1937 of kidney failure as a result of childhood illness), Marilyn Monroe (sleeping tablet overdose 1962) and Princess Diana (car crash 1997). The perception is that all the causes of death could be regarded as self-inflicted. Lombard was only on the aeroplane because her husband, Clark Gable, refused President Roosevelt's request to tour the country to sell national bonds. The myth of Jean Harlow's death during the filming of Saratoga (1937) revolves around her Christian Scientist mother, who, it is alleged, refused to allow the necessary blood transfusion, needed because the use of hair dye to achieve the platinum blond colour had caused cancer. She was replaced by a double, who was shot only from behind, to complete the film. Marilyn Monroe was also a victim of her own success: plagued by eating disorders, drug addiction and alcoholism she died alone, celebrated as recently as 1988 by Elton John in his eulogy, Candle in the Wind, which celebrated the frailty of the glamorous star. The song was reworked movingly for Princess Diana's funeral in September 1997 by Elton John as England's Rose in tribute to the most glamorous and tragic woman of the century. As Nicholas Mirzoeff has argued: 'The British Left, from which cultural studies originated, was so badly wrong about the Diana phenomenon precisely because of its profound distrust for images and appearance. By the time of her death, Diana had become a global visual icon . . .' (1999: 233).

An additional reading has been proposed by Gaylyn Studlar. In her 1990 essay, 'Masochism, Masquerade, and the Erotic' she proposes an analysis of glamour during the Classical Hollywood era informed by Deleuze's pre-Oedipal theory of masochism (Gaines and Herzog 1990: 229-49). The masochist subject fantasizes about the punishing mother figure who exhibits pseudo-sadistic behaviour. Studlar uses Marlene Dietrich to illustrate her argument, with the star using fur, white satin and black ostrich feathers to reveal but also conceal the flesh, framing the perfect, flawless white face with arched eyebrows and disdainful expression. Gaylyn explains:

The suggestive power of the partially concealed body manifests the play of anticipation and suspense that structures masochistic temporality. Masochism obsessively recreates the suspended movement between concealment and revelation, disappearance and appearance, seduction and rejection, in emulation of the ambivalent response to the mother who the child fears may either abandon or overwhelm him. The control of desire through theatrical ritualization of fantasy in masochistic masquerade delays the genital consummation of desire, a sexual act that would restore the symbolic merger of mother and child (1990: 237).

Such an interpretation also offers a more active role for women as spectators beyond the constructed female role outlined by Laura Mulvey (1975). If glamorous actresses like Marlene Dietrich are playing out a masquerade and are in control of the situation, then a more powerful and self-aware role is possible for women on and off the screen. Hence glamour is a rich and subtle area for exploration, one that offers various roles and possibilities for men and women as spectators and actors. An advertisement in Picturegoer for the magazine Woman's Fair: The Journal of Beauty, which appeared on 16 April 1938, is informative at this point. The question is posed: 'What is this thing called glamour?' and the answer provided is: 'What makes some women so sparkling and alluring that they rival, in everyday life, the much-admired "glamour girls" of stage and screen? It isn't a matter of money. But it certainly is a matter of "knowing how" in all that concerns make-up and dress. Knowing one's type and knowing what therefore can and cannot be done when using cosmetics or choosing costumes' (p. 31). Therefore glamour offers the choice of expressing one's individuality, but in a knowing, sophisticated manner.

Glamour is normally regarded as suspect in academic discourse. This was aptly summed up by the music journalist Julie Birchill in the 1980s:

'. .. the left has been populated by drabbies who seem to equate glamour with conservatism; as though having a suntan and a good suit makes you an honorary member of the South African police force' (as quoted in Elms 1986: 12). As in the general academic debate around consumption, there are those who adamantly oppose the notion of glamour as an instrument of capitalism and those who celebrate it as oppositional subversion. Florence Jacobowitz and Richard Lippe argue (1992: 3):

Glamour . . . has become a problematic site for feminist discussion. Too often theorists contend that it speaks of the fetishized objectifications of the woman within representation, epitomizing the appropriation of the woman's body for the gratification of male pleasure. Marxist interpretations of glamour, like the one offered by John Berger in Ways of Seeing (pp. 146-8) suggest that glamour is a capitalist invention used to feed the spectator's envy for a manufactured desire (which is always one step away from fulfilment). We wish to redress this intellectual embarrassment at the notion of glamour, but without recourse to camp. Glamour was important to many of the women's films, to the viewing audience and for a complex of reasons. Glamour perfectly addressed the characteristics for which these stars were greatly admired: it speaks of confidence, empowerment, and, depending on its use, articulates all that is not domestic, confined, suppressed. Glamour, above all, is not mundane.

The more general concept of fashionability as a an aspect of popular, material culture dates back at least to the turn of the century, when the dress and mores of the British Royal family were the source of ideas about what was fashionable and desirable in Britain. In Edwardian society, the Prince of Wales and his entourage set the style, mediated through new illustrated magazines and newsreels. The Illustrated London News and The Sketch carried images of race meetings and court events that displayed the aristocracy and the court circle at play. Narratives of gossip and luxury were also constructed in America through popular magazines and newspapers centring on the lives, the parties and marriages of East Coast high society. It was of course French style that led fashion and interior decoration at this point, through the purchase of Louis XV revivals and the hand-made finery of turn-of-the-century fashions, exemplified in Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr's The Decoration of Houses (New York 1987 [1902]). Taste was led and the style set by the Vanderbilts and the Fricks on Park Avenue in New York. This turn-of-the-century taste was for the sophisticated, European ideal exemplified in the Italian Renaissance and eighteenth-century France.

Taste was also linked with social class, as Wharton and Codman confidently declared in their popular book: 'Vulgarity is always noisier than good breeding, and it is instructive to note how a modern commercial bronze will "talk down" a delicate Renaissance statuette or bust, and a piece of Deck or Minton china efface the color-values of blue-and-white or the soft tints of old Sevres' (1987 [1902]: 190). It is important to bear in mind that Edith Wharton, better known for her published novels, was born in New York into a distinguished and wealthy family, and privately educated at home and in Europe. She lived in France after her marriage in 1907 and mingled with a cosmopolitan elite, including Henry James. Similar beliefs about European style and good breeding informed other self-help books and articles during the early twentieth century in America. Other advice manuals and American magazines like House and Garden or The Woman's Home Companion emphasized the importance of grand historical styles and the furnishing of palatial interiors with French or English antiques.

Theatres built during the early twentieth century drew on such lavish French Second Empire styling. The Strand Theatre, New York, designed by Thomas Lamb, opened in 1914 and served to: '. . . inaugurate the new era in American picture house design with gilt and marble, deep pile rugs, crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and original art works on the walls, with luxurious lounges and comfortable chairs, a thirty piece orchestra . . . and a mighty Wurlitzer' (Sharp 1969: 73). Although programmes at US theatres mingled variety acts with films, the public display of moving pictures had come a long way from their projection in temporary structures at fairgrounds or at the equally suspect nickelodeons. By the time of the First World War it had become acceptable to show films in city-centre theatres, designed in the ornate, beaux arts style: in other words, in glamorous surroundings. Indeed, the surroundings were deliberately so constructed in order to broaden the audience by attracting the more respectable working-class as well as middle-class viewers. The gorgeous decoration also related to the décor of the respectable and familiar department stores. As Jeanne Thomas Allen observed: 'In the 1920s the motion picture palace's aristocratic decor matched the proximity of film viewing to shopping areas as invitations to merge on-screen and off-screen surroundings' (in Gaines and Herzog 1990: 125).

By contrast, the avant-garde movements, which dominate design histories, were relatively little know at the time. The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Adolf Loos or Peter Behrens was unfamiliar to most Europeans or Americans. What was familiar was the latest in Paris fashion as worn by the Royal Family in Britain or American dollar princesses. The sociologist Thorstein Veblen observed this monied class in America in The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, and coined the terms 'conspicuous leisure' and 'conspicuous consumption' to describe the pursuit of what he regarded as useless activities like breeding pedigree dogs or fashion. As Richard Godden (1998) has argued, these activities served to preserve the status quo, to deny change and to prolong a lifetime of obvious leisure in the traditionally decorated drawing-room of turn-of-the-century New York. Whilst the mass of the population could witness such displays of wealth and glamour in the department stores and in the pages of magazines or newspapers or in early film footage, they could not easily emulate the look. It relied on hand-made, expensive materials and highly skilled makers for its production and inherited social mores for its consumption. The likelihood is that even if members of the lower classes did manage to emulate their social superiors by means of home dressmaking or secondhand purchases, then, as the leading German sociologist, Georg Simmel commented in 1905: '. . . fashions are always class fashion, by the fact that the fashions of the higher strata of society distinguish themselves from those of the lower strata, and are abandoned by the former at the moment when the latter begin to appropriate them' (Frisby and Featherstone 1997).

However, by the time that Hollywood came to dominate the cinema screens and popular leisure culture of America and Britain in the 1920s glamour and fashionability converged, and a glamorous appearance was comparatively more attainable and democratic. Godden argues that economics and consumption had, by the 1920s, entered the 'sphere of reproduction' (1998: xxiii), with a high turnover of style typified by Hollywood film. Glamour had been modernized through mass production methods, synthetic materials and the commercialization of home craft skills such as dressmaking. While during the early twentieth century home craft skills were used to replicate some form of Arts and Crafts authentic, pre-industrial object, decoration or clothing, by the late 1920s they were used to replicate the dress of film stars or decorate homes to emulate the sets of Hollywood films. As Jeanne Allen has argued when discussing the film Roberta (1935): 'The film's presentation of the chief fashion designer as an American woman in Paris bears an intriguing relation to the history of French-American relations in film fashion design: In the teens, American film companies had hired Parisian designers, but the 1930s Nation's Business announced that the importation strategy had failed, that Parisian designers had returned to Paris, but that because of Hollywood's "1200-mile style parade" in film, it had become the world's fashion center' (Allen 1980: 493).

The trade journal's report of what this shift meant in ideological terms is closely matched in the film's inherent argument for social democratization through universal consumption. The 1937 article explains that 'la couture used to consist of some 200 firms which employ over 300,000 people and which design clothes available at private showings to audiences which include the "Famous Forty", a group of social leaders, stage favourites, or members of royal families celebrated for their chic. The clothes they select become the clothes imitated and worn all over the world.' But 'by 1937, Hollywood actresses had come to influence world-wide tastes and choices far more than social leaders and members of the aristocracy' (Allen 1980: 493-4).3

A dominant theme of many classic Hollywood films is movement up the social ladder, signalled by the placement or passage of characters into settings like the luxury hotel, apartment, night club or ocean liner. But while the locus of this look, which apparently fed such aspirations and offered social mobility, came to be fixed in an American signification, the look itself was imported from the traditional home of the glamorous image, Paris.

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