Glamour is the topic of Virginia Postrel's new book, thoughtfully explored and beautifully illustrated, but her thinking about glamour goes back at least a decade, and began unfolding within the framework of conferences and events in which she participated as a speaker or organizer. It all started with her previous book, 2003's The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, which led to an invitation from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to contribute the opening essay to the catalog for an exhibition called “Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture.”
She delivered a talk at TED 2004 on “The Power of Glamour,” tracing the evolution of glamour from previous centuries, when it was regarded as “a literal magic spell associated with witches and gypsies and to some extent Celtic magic,” through to today, when it's more about “transcending this world and getting to an idealized, perfect place.” And in 2006, she led a Liberty Fund conference on “Liberty, Responsibility, and Luxury.”
“I organized the readings,” Postrel said in a recent interview with Convene. “We started in the 18th century and went up to a New Yorker article about high-end stoves. So we're reading Adam Smith and David Hume, all the way up to the present, different ideas about luxury, and one of the quotes that comes out of that that's in my [new] book is where David Hume says luxury is ‘a word of an uncertain signification.’ And the same is true of glamour. Glamour is not the same as luxury, but the two are related in some way.”
In the new book —The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion — Postrel, formerly the editor of Reason magazine, argues that glamour is about more than movie stars wearing sunglasses or fashion models posed in sultry black-and-white photos. And it's not so much a characteristic as it is a dynamic, she writes, “a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images, concepts, and totems.... Glamour is not something you possess but something you perceive, not something you have but something you feel. It is a subjective response to a stimulus. One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver's receptive imagination.”
At the outset of your book you spend some time rescuing glamour from the idea that it's a trick or lie or some kind of deception.
Well, glamour is a deception. It always has an illusion to it. But what I'm rescuing it from is the idea that that's necessarily bad. So, I'm not saying glamour is good or bad, but whether glamour is good or bad depends on two things. First of all, it depends on the use to which the glamour is being put. I wrote a column in Time about the glamour that inspires jihadi terrorists. This was tied to the Boston [Marathon] bombers. Now, obviously, that's a bad use of glamour. On the other hand, the kind of glamour that inspires someone to pursue a career that is ultimately rewarding or to move to a city where they find a better life — that is good.
And then there's a lot of glamour that's kind of in between. The illusion in glamour lies in the things it hides. It hides difficulties, it hides costs, it hides distractions, flaws. I'm sure your readers can relate to this in the sense that they are putting on shows, and anytime you're doing that, there's the behind-the-scenes things and there's what the audience sees, and what you want, if you're creating glamour, is for the audience not to think about the things that they know are there. Glamour is like a stage magician's trick, where there's this suspension of disbelief. It's known to be false but felt to be true. You know that something's being hidden.
And so then, if you're thinking about whether glamour is good or bad, if it's being used in a benign way, the question is, if you actually are acting on it, do you remember to edit back in all those things that [glamour] took out?
You return to that a few different times in the book — this idea of an illusion that is “known to be false but felt to be true.” There are all of these seeming contradictions or paradoxes, such as the idea that glamour can simultaneously fuel dissatisfaction but also make your present difficulties more tolerable.
This is one of the great paradoxes of glamour, which is that glamour runs on dissatisfaction. If you are to have glamour, you have to be able to in some way project yourself into some image or idea of a different, better life and different, better circumstances. Glamour always has this element of escape and transformation. So that requires acknowledging that you're dissatisfied in some way, and this isn't necessarily at a cognitive level. It's all about emotions, acknowledging that you're dissatisfied in some way and being willing to entertain a desire for something else. On the other hand, if you are in difficult circumstances, the ability to do that can be an incredibly valuable respite. Either an imaginative respite where it just takes you out of your difficulties for a moment, or it can actually provide a way that ultimately you do change your life. You change your circumstances.
I start the book with a story about Michaela DePrince. She's a four-year-old kid in an orphanage in Sierra Leone and she's treated very badly and it's very miserable circumstances, and she sees the cover of a dance magazine with this beautiful ballerina on it. She tears that off, keeps that, looks at it every night, and that's her escape from her terrible circumstances. She just wants to be this person, and when it starts that's strictly a matter of helping this little girl to survive in horrible circumstances. It's just an imaginative escape, but then she gets lucky and she gets adopted by an American couple, and at that point the glamour of the ballerina becomes something that she actually brings into her life. So her original idea of wanting to be like the lady in the picture becomes something that directs her toward studying dance, and she becomes who she is today — a professional dancer.
So in that case, [glamour is] sort of both. It's fueling dissatisfaction but also providing that imaginative respite and then ultimately allowing her to shape her life in a way where it's no longer glamour, it's really her life. She obviously had to experience all the difficulties that get hidden in a beautiful picture of a ballerina. All those hours and years of rehearsals and the sore muscles and the damaged feet and all of that kind of thing that create that perfect moment that takes the audience into this glamorous image of the dance.
Another paradox that struck me reading the book is that one of the qualities of glamour is that it seems effortless, but it's also something that you say can be consciously constructed.
I would say you can try to consciously construct it. Glamour is like humor in the sense that you can consciously construct humor. There are lots of people who get paid to write jokes or write sitcoms or write romantic comedies, but whether it works depends on the audience. What I'm trying to do is analyze glamour the way somebody might analyze humor. How does it work?
What you need to consciously construct it are these three elements that I identify. The first is, you have to take whatever your audience has — these sort of inchoate desires — and you have to translate them into some image or idea of escape or transformation. That can be as simple as “this dress will make you feel beautiful” or “this vacation spot will make you feel relaxed or let you escape from the hectic life you have.” Or it can be something more complicated, where we see images or settings in TV shows that show great friendships or great work fellowships, or the people on the red carpet who