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A Power to Persuade

The deeper meaning of glamour.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By VIRGINIA POSTREL
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captured the imagination in an age when deference was giving way to democracy. Glamour contained the promise of a mobile and commercial society that anyone could be transformed into a better, more attractive, and wealthier version of themselves.

It’s the same essentially Marxist history, given a more positive spin. Gundle’s basic insight is correct. As an imaginative process, glamour implies a kind of equality between object and audience. Admirers project themselves into the lives of glamorous people. They imagine inhabiting glamorous places. They identify with glamorous public figures: politicians, athletes, movie stars. A glamorous object—person, place, or thing—is a kind of alter ego, a magic mirror in which we can see our desires realized. Gundle, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick, thus distinguishes glamour, which he identifies with the bourgeoisie, from the magnificence associated with aristocratic courts. Glamour, he argues, was not a quality found at Louis XIV’s Versailles. “Unlike glamour which was about image,” he writes, “magnificence involved the massive accumulation of treasures and luxuries as a right.” 

Gundle has done impressive research, and his history is full of interesting personalities and details. He traces the development of society gossip columns and explains the early 19th-century rage for “silver fork novels,” with their
supposed insider look at aristocratic life, complete with the details of dinner party place settings. He digs up such delightful tidbits as the fact that, in the 1920s, a revue called Glamorous Night “was sold to the directors of the Drury Lane theater purely on the basis of the combination of the two words that made up the title.” He contrasts the allure of mid-century cars in the United States, where they were part of everyday life and drew their glamour from the associations created by styling and advertising, with the meaning of their European counterparts: exotic machines too expensive for the general public and known through movies and motor racing.

But ultimately, Glamour: A History fails to adequately define its subject. Like the fashion magazines that promise “instant glamour” and deliver only photos of crystal hair ornaments and silver lamé tops, Gundle sees glamour as a “visual effect.” Glamour, he writes, “is best seen as an alluring image that is closely related to consumption .  .  . an enticing and seductive vision that is designed to draw the eye of an audience.” Its purpose is “to dazzle and seduce.” But dazzling and seducing are two different things. 

Take that distinction between glamour and magnificence. Gundle’s point about Versailles is well taken. An absolute monarch cannot be glamorous because no subject would dare to identify with him. But the mere fact that Napoleon, the subject of one of Gundle’s chapters, was not an aristocrat does not make his court “the first in history that can accurately be described as glamorous.” Like the self-consciously magnificent Medici, Napoleon may not have ruled by inherited right, but he employed visual spectacle less to seduce and persuade than to overwhelm and intimidate. Magnificence, not glamour, is a signal of power. Magnificence, like spectacle, produces awe; glamour, by contrast, stokes desire. If Napoleon possessed glamour, it was the ancient martial form shared by figures like David, Alexander, and Alcibiades, a product of triumphs theoretically possible for any man of military talent. It did not arise from the emperor’s glittering court. A real consideration of modern political glamour would pay less attention to stylish salon hostesses and more to portraiture, posters, and propaganda—the tools of persuasion.

Despite his diligent research, Gundle is too blinded by flash and cash, and too obsessed with luxury and class privilege, to distinguish glamour from celebrity glitz. You can tell his analysis has gone terribly wrong when, on page 385, he declares Paris Hilton “indisputably glamorous.”

Paris Hilton is many things: rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, well dressed, and savvy about her career. But only a select few, mostly young girls, find her glamorous. In the countless social conversations I’ve had about glamour over the past few years, her name has come up, unsolicited, again and again. She is the anti-Grace Kelly, the touchstone people cite when trying to explain what is not glamorous. When I polled DeepGlamour readers, more than half deemed Paris “not at all glamorous” and nearly a third called her glamorous “to some people, but not to me”—an unscientific result, to be sure, but enough to puncture Gundle’s claim of indisputability.

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