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Grasping Glamour

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 3, 2013
pp. 41-51 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0056

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“Never underestimate the power of glamour,” wrote journalist and style authority Lucia van der Post in Lessons in Grace and Elegance, her 2007 guide to chic living. “Even the plainest woman can be glamorous,” she assures her readers. “It’s quite different from beauty.”1 Although writers seeking to vary their verbiage often use “glamour” interchangeably with “beauty,” glamour is different from beauty and, as cultural historian Stephen Gundle suggests, is “notoriously difficult to define” (2). Whereas excellent scholarly treatments of beauty culture abound, very little scholarship treating glamour as a cultural phenomenon existed when I started researching the significance of African American singer, actress, and activist Lena Horne—a woman whose name is synonymous with glamour—in 2004. Thankfully, within the past decade, scholars have published a handful of articles and the first, much-needed, book-length studies of glamour.2 These include Stephen Gundle’s The Glamour System (2006) and Glamour: A History (2008), Judith Brown’s Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form (2009), and Carol Dyhouse’s Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (2010).

The author of several essays on the subject of glamour, Stephen Gundle offers two volumes, The Glamour System, co-authored with professional designer Clino T. Castelli, and Glamour: A History, which address the theory and history of this ever-present, yet elusive, phenomenon. In The Glamour System, Gundle is concerned with outlining the historical roots of glamour as “a structure of enticement” (16). In the first part of the book, Gundle traces the origins of glamour to early nineteenth-century Europe, when the bourgeoisie supplanted the aristocracy, and traces its production through the first half of the twentieth century. He explores the interconnection between glamour and modern nineteenth-century cities as sites of “social display” that promoted a culture of spectacle and consumerism, theatre and theatricality (22). Analyzing glamour as a gendered system, constructed as feminine, Gundle discusses four types of women—the high society woman, the courtesan, the actress, and the showgirl—produced as “bearers of glamour” by this “culture of display” (44). Following his analysis of glamour’s “lengthy formative phase” in Europe, Gundle contends that Hollywood refashioned glamour as a “cinematic phenomenon” during the interwar years (62). In the second half of the book, Gundle defines the glamour system as “a system of visual enchantment” that uses seduction to obscure its role in maintaining “the capitalist system” and bourgeois hegemony (86, 21, 14). He explores this structural phenomenon through eight “scenarios,” primarily imagined by Castelli, which emphasize the association between glamour and material culture (16).

In an effort to further challenge notions of glamour as “a timeless phenomenon” with “the consistency and significance of candy-floss,” Gundle’s second book-length treatment of this topic, Glamour: A History, extends his earlier analysis of the changing implications of glamour for British and American women and men to the present (19, 6). He outlines the development of glamour, from its emergence in the literary works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron to the flashy magnificence of European royalty, the spectacle of the modern city, the emergence of the nouveau riche, and the courtesans—“the glamour queens”—of nineteenth-century Britain and France (78). As with his discussion of the phenomenon’s evolution in The Glamour System, Gundle emphasizes the significance of stage actresses and showgirls as arbiters of early twentieth-century glamour and the importance of interwar Hollywood’s expertly fashioned film stars as “the most complete embodiment of glamour” ever constructed (172). In Glamour, Gundle broadens his study, moving beyond the Hollywood studio system of the twenties, thirties, and forties, to highlight the role of Parisian couture—especially Christian Dior’s “New Look”—in shaping fifties glamour. Likewise, he argues, Hollywood films set in Rome and the Riviera featuring the dream factory’s most alluring male and female stars—such as Roman Holiday (1953) starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant—“merged Old World tradition with New World glamour,” offering audiences “irresistible” fantasies of “imagined royalty” (216, 212). He continues his history with an exploration of Andy Warhol’s fascination with glamour and its...



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