Can Glamour Save Your Soul?

It’s not easy to take glamour seriously. From the supermarket magazine rack glossy promising “5 Easy, Non-Stalkerish Ways to Show a Guy You’re Into Him” to the never-ending, slow motion train wreck of today’s rich and fabulous, “glamour” isn’t as glamorous as it used to be. Coming to glamour’s rescue is Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Postrel not only saves glamour from charges of frivolity and superficiality, but also champions glamour as a powerful nonverbal rhetorical path to a better life. “By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning,” Postrel claims. “It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” Glamour shows us the stuff of dreams so we can dream of better stuff—in our lives and in our world. When this old world starts getting you down, can glamour save your soul?

Unlike U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart back in 1964, who said that his test for obscenity was that “I know it when I see it,” Postrel builds a strong case for specific criteria for glamour. “Although people often equate them, glamour is not the same as beauty, stylishness, luxury, celebrity, or sex appeal,” Postrel states very early on. Instead, “glamour does not exist independently in the glamorous object—it is not a style, personal quality, or aesthetic feature—but emerges through the interaction between object and audience” (her emphasis). Thus, “[g]lamour is not something you possess but something you perceive.” Postrel strips away the materialism heaped onto the concept of glamour and reveals the spiritual element at its heart. Glamour, therefore, becomes accessible to anyone with enough imagination to participate in the glamorous interaction. The glamorous life can be lived by anyone, anywhere, at any price.

Glamour becomes in Postrel’s hands a rhetorical tool using nonverbal imagery to inspire feeling. By “focus[ing] preexisting, largely unarticulated desires on a specific object,” glamour “intensif[ies] longing.” Glamour “thus allows us to imaginatively inhabit the ideal and, as a result, to believe—at least for a moment—that we can achieve it in real life.” If that sounds to you like a form of religion, you’re right. Postrel splits her book into two parts—first, a philosophical analysis of glamour, followed by a quick, detailed history of glamour, which includes the glamour of religious faith in everything from the medieval saints to the modern jihadists seeking the glamour of post-martyrdom. My inner Catholic recalls the request to reject Satan and his evil glamour in the baptismal rite, so glamour and religion are oddly nothing new to me, but Postrel makes a powerful case for possibly seeing glamour as a secular religion with all the wide-open idealism and none of the confining doctrine.

“With its promise of escape and transformation,” Postrel offers, “glamour can inspire life-sustaining hope and sometimes spark real-world change, offering both solace and direction.” Feminism owes much to the glamour of women stars whose on-screen independence and strength inspired other women to find their own power and demand its recognition by society. By “fueling dissatisfaction with the here and now,” Postrel writes, glamour “contains ‘a moral element.’” Unfortunately, just as illusion sustains glamour, it can also bring it crashing down, along with the hopes of the audience. “The trick,” Postrel cautions, “is not to forswear glamour but to preserve the inspiration and insight it offers while remembering what might be left out.” Just because our heroes might have feet of clay, there’s no reason for us to bog down in the less glamorous details.

For the Judge Stewart-minded, however, Postrel provides plentiful examples of glamour in action, including side-bar “case studies” of how Star Trek, superheroes, sunglasses, smoking, and other icons express glamour. Postrel’s tidy socio-political chart of glamour (Barack Obama) versus charisma (Bill Clinton) will spark many a spirited debate. Within the flow of her philosophy,  Postrel specifically refers to figures such as art critic John Berger (whose Ways of Seeing helps Postrel see glamour more clearly), Baldassare Castiglione (whose 16th century The Book of the Courtier first defined sprezzatura, or “effortless glamour”), and Botticelli (whose wild-haired painted beauties’ “effective glamorization balances control with lively possibility”). But no study of glamour could leave out the dynamic duo of silver screen glamour—Grace Kelly and Cary Grant (shown above in a still from the “fireworks” scene from 1955’s To Catch a Thief). Grace Kelly shed her nasal Philadelphia accent to become a screen goddess and a real-life princess, making her the aptly named embodiment of graceful, effortless glamour belying the real effort underneath. Cary Grant’s cosmopolitan cool came from youth training as an acrobat and meticulous attention to his appearance. “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression,” Grant once said, in a quote that could serve as Postrel’s glamour mantra. If I came away yearning for anything more from The Power of Glamour, it was more insight into this Hollywood magic, especially from the silent era, when stars such as Gloria Swanson first set the glamour bar. But that may be a residual effect of recently reading (and reviewing) David S. ShieldsStill: American Silent Motion Picture Photography. Together, Postrel’s and Shields’ books could comprise a graduate class on glamour.

But what can glamour offer us today, separated so far from Grace and Cary on the couch smooching beneath the starbursts? Although Postrel picks out visions of the future such as the utopias of Star Trek as an example of glamour, prospects for glamour in the near and far future can seem dim. She cites Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercials as contemporary “[w]ised-up glamour” that aims “not to eliminate glamour but, by acknowledging its deceptions, to save it.” The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion tries to claw back glamour from the Paris Hiltons of our world and restore it to its proper, non-materialistic, spiritual role. The atomization of our culture, where almost infinite Paris Hiltons reign rather than a singular Grace Kelly, poses a significant problem. “In a culture marked by so much diversity,” Postrel sees, “simply recognizing glamour can require a leap of empathetic imagination.” Ultimately, that glamour-inspired empathy with the glamorous object may be what saves us from the isolation of the internet existence. Glamour may not seem like a religion to you now, but after reading Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, it may seem like the only religion we have left.

[Image: Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the “fireworks” scene from To Catch a Thief (1955, directed by Alfred Hitchcock).]

[Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a review copy of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion.]

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