Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)

I’ve had my chance to expound on glamour (which, of course, I did from my chaise longue with a Manhattan in hand while my protégé took dictation), but the concept of glamour is intriguing enough to warrant a revisiting—not from me, but from four women who each have their own distinct relationship with glamour. I’m delighted that each of them—author Virginia Postrel, publicist Lauren Cerand, artist Lisa Ferber, and novelist Carolyn Turgeon—took the time and effort to share their thoughts on glamour with me. And now, with you.

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Virginia Postrel, author, columnist, and speaker who is currently writing a book about glamour, to be published by The Free Press in early 2013. She explores "the magic of glamour in its many manifestations" at, a group blog.

Like humor, glamour arises from the interaction of an audience and an object. Someone or something is always glamorous to a specific audience. So there has to be something about the glamorous object that triggers and focuses the audience's desires—that makes them project themselves into the glamorous image and feel themselves somehow transformed. But those qualities are different in different contexts, and they may not even be things that are widely recognized as "glamorous."

A good way to understand glamour is to start not with fashion or people but with the glamour of travel. Think of classic travel posters and contemporary resort ads, with their images of exotic locales, peaceful beaches, or seemingly effortless transportation. What makes an image of the New York skyline, a cruise ship against the blue Mediterranean, or Ankgor Wat at dawn so alluring? Why does the sight of a jet rising against a sunset or full moon seem so glamorous?

The glamour of travel lies first in its promise to lift us out of our everyday existence. We project ourselves into this new and special place, imagining that there we will fulfill our unsatisfied longings—whatever they may be. Just getting away doesn’t make travel glamorous, however. Going every year to your family’s cabin on Lake Michigan may be fun, but it’s too familiar for glamour. A glamorous destination is at least a little bit exotic. It shimmers with the possibilities of the unknown. Its mystery not only stokes imagination. It also heightens the good and hides the bad (or the banal, like all the other tourists congregating to snap Angkor Wat at dawn). As the great studio-era photographer George Hurrell put it: “Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination.”

The glamour of travel illustrates the three elements found in all forms of glamour: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation. These elements explain why certain styles or codes seem to spell “glamour.”

Take fashion. If glamour by definition requires elements of mystery and aspiration—escape from the ordinary—then the clothes you wear or see on the street every day are not going to be glamorous. Hence we often associate glamour with the kinds of extraordinary evening wear that few people can afford and even fewer have any occasion to wear. But, depending on the audience, other forms of fashion can be glamorous. Vintage styles that represent some idealized period in the past are an obvious example. So are sneakers associated with great athletes. Even something as mundane as a business suit can be glamorous if it represents a career you aspire to but have not (yet) achieved.

The "codes of glamour" change with the audience and the times. The iconography of glamour in 1930s Hollywood films—bias-cut satin gowns, "big white sets," lots of glitter and shine—is quite different from Grace Kelly in the New Look, sweater sets, and pearls. Yet we think of both as classically glamorous.

Like humor, glamour sometimes emerges spontaneously and sometimes is actively constructed. Some things tend to stay glamorous, or funny, over time. Others cease to have the right effect. Mink coats used to be a quick way of signaling a kind of glamour. I'd argue that they've been replaced with another cliche: the hot stone massage photos you see everywhere. The massage photos also show indulgent feminine luxury, but they appeal to different longings—not so much for social status as for pampering and relaxation, a private experience rather than a social good. Similarly, I write about how wind turbines have become glamorous symbols of technological optimism, in the same way that rocket ships were in the 1950s and early '60s.

Finally, some things are glamorous without being widely recognized as such. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise is intensely glamorous to a certain audience. It elicits the same kind of projection and longing that other people feel when they think of Paris or haute couture, and it also shares the three essential elements of glamour.

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Lauren Cerand, independent public relations consultant. She shares notes on living at

Glamour is the word, pertaining to me, that I hear most often from other people, and, in truth, the word I think of least on my own (conceptually, I gravitate toward things that are elegant, or correct, or comfortingly archaic, and, most importantly, eschew embellishment of any kind. I'm a minimalist with opulent taste). That makes sense, though, if, to quote Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, whom I heard read her poem "Glamourie" in Edinburgh years ago, "glamour is a Gaelic word," intended to mean a sort of enchanting trickery, "fairy magic" cast down over the eyes of the unsuspecting (sophistication also had similar implications, of a gloss for the purposes of deceptive artifice, in its early usage, according to Faye Hammill's wonderful cultural study, Sophistication, on University of Liverpool Press). Glamour certainly seems to play out that way, as a quality of perception more than direct experience. I don't think then, that I could regard myself as glamorous. I simply make a living from having a semi-public life and the fact that people admire my personal taste enough to emulate it. While I never stretch the truth, as lying takes too much time and I am always short of it, I am a private person at heart and so I can see the tantalizingly faint trail of breadcrumbs that I leave behind, twinkling in starlight, inspiring one to imagine the cake from which they must have fallen. Perhaps now and then it really was that grand. It could be our secret, but I'd never tell.

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Lisa Ferber, artist, playwright, performer, and bonne vivante. Peruse her works at, and keep an eye out for her upcoming web series, The Sisters Plotz.

The funny thing about glamour is that an exact definition of the word is as elusive as the quality itself. The quality is like a special fairy dust that makes a person sparkle; you can’t put your finger on precisely what it is. I think it has to start from within. When I see today’s teenage starlets trying to pull off 1940s Old Movie Star Glamour, I just think, Um, no, you can’t just do a deep side-part and red lipstick and think now you’re Ava Gardner. But there’s this woman who works the bread counter at Zabar’s who I admire because there she is in her white bread-counter smock, but she’s probably in her 60s and always has a full face of makeup on, and sparkly barrettes in her nicely done hair, and she’s gorgeous and all dressed up to work the bread counter. Whenever I see her I have to repress blurting out, “You are my hero! You look like a movie star!”

It absolutely cannot be purchased, but I do think there is an aspect of formality involved. Glamour always involves looking pulled together. Even if the look is over-the-top, it has to come across as though there was care taken. That's part of the mystique. Glamour implies that everything you meant to do is coming across just as you want it to. It’s hard to be glamorous in a track suit, but if you really want to do it that way, you can go over the top with heels and baubles and make it eccentric, because eccentricity done right can exude glamour. I think the best glamour will teeter on eccentricity, because it’s about going just a little bit too far. All the photos I love from early 20th century photographers like Horst and Irving Penn are about going too far…giant hats, luxurious gowns...clothes that serve no practical purpose, and therein lies their glamour. Because glamour is about transcending the everyday.

When people have called me glamorous, it thrills me, because I have always felt a kinship with those old-school 1930s and 1940s women. People have always told me that I seem like I’m from another time, which I think is funny because it’s not really something I’m trying to do; it’s just how I am. I’ve painted from photos of Carole Lombard, Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow…all of them have that Something, where it would be impossible to imagine them ever looking disheveled or weighed down by life’s woes, though of course we know they were real women with all the problems people have.

Recently I shot the first episode of my new web series, The Sisters Plotz. I wrote it, and it stars TV icons Eve Plumb, Lisa Hammer, and me (Hammer also directs). Eve, Lisa, and I were shooting a street scene in which we are dressed like glamour girls from the 1930s, and everyone we passed on the street would smile at us and tell us how great we looked. And it wasn't just because we looked "good" or were dressed up; it's because glamour, particularly the old-school, dedicated, womanly glamour of the 1930s, has an effect on people. It says just check your troubles at the door and be your glorious self. Glamour is transportive in that sense. I think glamour means a person has a quality of being slightly outside—dare I say above?—the normal realm of boring problems. A few years ago, I was going through a tough time, and my wonderful friend Chris Etcheverry gave me this gorgeous green-tiled art-deco mirror, and he said, “I know things are hard for you right now, and you might not feel your best, so whenever you aren’t feeling so good, I want you to look in this mirror and remind yourself that you are glamorous.” And I knew what he meant is that I have something inside, that glamour is a strength from the inside that allows you to transcend life’s unpleasantries.

Glamour is a quality that makes someone look and seem Famous; it’s intriguing, it is the quality that makes people wonder who you are, and what your secret is. A person finds their own glamour—it’s not about being an 8-year-old wearing expensive clothes, rather it’s about developing yourself so that you’re a person with a Something. I was watching a biography on the fantastic Gertrude Berg, the entertainment pioneer who created The Goldbergs, and her son was saying that she always dressed a certain way and had a quality about her, where people would see her and even if they didn’t know who she was, they could tell she was somebody. That’s glamour.

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Carolyn Turgeon, author of Rain VillageGodmotherMermaid, and The Next Full Moon, coming out in March. She blogs at about all things mermaid.

With glamour, I see images. I see red lipstick, I see arched brows. I see Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo. I see sitting in a satin bed with bonbons. I see glittery, shiny things, I see everything in black-and-white, old-timey, leopard print. Glamour takes what’s beautiful and chic and makes it over-the-top. The first time I went to Dollywood—I love Dolly Parton—I went to the museum, and it’s full of all her crazy rhinestone-crusted paraphernalia. There’s this quote there where she says that she knows people might think she’s ridiculous and laugh at her, but she was this girl from the mountains who grew up running around barefoot, so to her, this is beautiful. The rhinestones and the glitter. She doesn’t care if some people think it’s ridiculous. She’s like a little girl playing dress-up, reveling in the artifice of it. Glamour can be a little like that, a way to add fabulousness and fantasy and a little over-the-top shimmer to your regular life.

Glamorous doesn’t have to be beautiful. In terms of female beauty, you can take a natural-looking girl without makeup on the beach and she might be really beautiful, but not glamorous. Glamour is, by definition, unnatural; it's about adornment and style; it’s about knowingly adorning yourself in a way that hearkens back to certain images that are cool and dreamy, otherworldly. Not everyone can be beautiful, but anyone can be glamorous, because it's something you can actually do. I like that any woman can put on really red lips, get an old travel valise and a little muff, and wear sunglasses on top of her head. (Of course men can do all these things, too, and become, among other things, that most glamorous of creatures, the drag queen.) It doesn’t matter how old she is, what color she is, whether she's rich or poor, big or small. It's the woman standing in shadow in the doorway, Marilyn standing over the subway grate, Garbo emerging from the smoke in Anna Karenina.


  1. I love this post! This piece is so spot on:

    Glamour always involves looking pulled together. Even if the look is over-the-top, it has to come across as though there was care taken. That's part of the mystique. Glamour implies that everything you meant to do is coming across just as you want it to.

    I think that glamour comes from something that's been created, a thought, an idea. Glamour isn't something you're born with, but something you choose to create and surround yourself with. And it comes from confidence. Without a doubt.

    1. Sascha, I love that idea of glamour as a creation. And I agree it comes from confident; to that I'd add that glamour is one manner of artifice that can actually create that confidence as well. I can't always summon beauty, but I can summon glamour, because by nature it's a trick. Glad you liked the post!

  2. I have much to think about now as I go about my day. Thank you for two excellent and interesting posts.

    1. But of course! I'm so honored that these women shared their insights here.

  3. I like to think of glamour in the sense that it is a trick of the light. Marlene Dietrich is the ultimate glamour artist - even into her 60s and 70s she was able to create glamour using light, makeup, clothing - every trick at her disposal.

    1. Danielle, that makes total sense to me, and it seems to channel the original meaning of glamour as well--lighting is one way of tricking the eye, so certainly employing lighting a la Dietrich falls into the category of glamour. (And is it possible to sit in front of a mirror framed by round incandescent bulbs and NOT feel glamorous?)

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