Glamour is not Gamine: Thoughts on the Construction of Modern and Historical Glamour
”Adorned with the most modern artifices, beautified according to the newest techniques, she comes down from the remoteness of the ages, from Thebes, from Crete, from Chichén-Itzá; and she is also the totem set up deep in the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and there is this, the greatest wonder of all: under her tinted hair the forest murmur becomes a thought, and words issue from her breasts. Men stretch forth avid hands towards the marvel, but when they grasp it it is gone; the wife, the mistress, speak like everybody else through their mouths: their words are worth just what they are worth; their breasts also. Does such a fugitive miracle – and one so rare – justify us in perpetuating a situation that is baneful for both sexes? One can appreciate the beauty of flowers, the charm of women, and appreciate them at their true value; if these treasures cost blood or misery, they must be sacrificed”
Simone DeBeauvoir, The Second Sex 1949, 71
The Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) currently has an exhibition Burn With Desire: Photography and Glamour. The show consists of a large exhibition of images from the Black Star archive and items on loan from other institutions. Viewing the exhibition brings questions up around the nature of glamour, and the difficulty to define what glamour is exactly…and this is intentional. The images are not just standard pin-ups and studio portraits of Hollywood stars (although these are included in the exhibition), but there is also much on display to contrast these classic visual iconographies. Some basic elements that are used to construct the image of “glamour” can be identified throughout the gallery, namely that it is a performed function, expensive, and it alters the basic appearance of the person who is being photographed. Once these basics are established however, the discourse on glamour tends to go into free fall, and the real interest and engagement with the exhibition begins. Firstly trying to identify what “Glamour” is exactly? For all of its accessibility, it is very difficult to actually define. It conflates with so many other terms that can be equated with glamour, but are themselves mutually exclusive: stylish, sexy, elegant, languid, beautiful, tragic, rich, magnetic, aloof, pure, louche, siren, swan, sex goddess, mystique. Stephen Gundle, in his book Glamour: A History summarizes the challenge of defining glamour:
“Glamour has talismanic qualities. It has a sparkle and glow about it that enhance people, objects, and places to which it is attached. Yet despite the ubiquity of the term, glamour is notoriously difficult to define. Everyone has an idea of what they think it means but few know where it comes from and why it is so tantalizing to so many” (Gundle 2013: 2).
Veteran fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson has written on the topic as well in A Note on Glamour. She covers a wide chronological and philosophical spectrum, in her seventeen page paper she manages to comment on: the Romantic movement and Gothic fiction; Walpole, Keats, Byron; the rise of the dandy; Baudelaire in France; Georg Simmel’s ideas of glamour as a force field; Spells and witchcraft; femme fatales; Dracula as a metaphor for syphillus; Garbo and Dietrich; 50s glamour created by Dior and Balenciaga; the glamour of evil: the moors murderers; Julia Kristeva and the abject; Cindy Sherman; Tracy Emin; Lady Diana and AIDS; Andy Warhol and the glamour of madness, drugs and debutantes; the Lower East Side heroin chic aesthetic of Nan Goldin; Alexander McQueen; and finally the Roland Mouret galaxy dress. The content would be heavy for an entire book, to try to navigate all of this is in a paper leaves the reader a little bewildered, and the (many) themes unresolved and unexplored. Also, Wilson seems to be conflating “glamour” and “beauty” at times which are very different things. Yet somehow in spite of her kaleidoscopic vision, Wilson still manages to narrow her focus enough to try to hammer the nail in the coffin of the notion of contemporary glamour: “Glamour was beginning to be eaten away by vulgarity. For a time it had a symbiotic relationship with the mass media, but eventually the mass media invented celebrity as its democratic alternative (Wilson 2007: 101)”, and sharply contrasts glamour with celebrity: “Celebrity is open, shameless, vulgar, in-your-face, nouveau riche. The feelings elicited by celebrity have more to do with envy, malice, greed, and Schadenfreude than with longing, admiration or aspiration (2007: 101).” But Wilson fails to recognize that glamour has always walked the thin line between elegance and vulgarity, the Belle Epoque courtesans and actresses Wilson mentions used their beauty and glamour tropes to broadcast their sexual allure and power. Old money has never been glamorous, elegant and chic perhaps, but never flashy and certainly not sexy. Although it is a great read, Wilson has cast her net so wide in A Note on Glamour that it fails to be cohesive. Also, Wilson’s dismissal of any manifestations of contemporary glamour feels reductive. In her conclusion she reiterates her claim that celebrity has displaced glamour, but this position seems to mark Wilson as out of touch with contemporary manifestations of glamour. It is certainly true that the nature of glamour has evolved, but it is also the nature of zeitgeist that one needs to be connected to experience it.
Carol Gould in her article Glamour as an Aesthetic Property of Persons makes the necessary split between glamour and charisma when attempting to define the term. And notes they are etymologically opposite: “‘Charisma,’ in Greek, means something like favored by the gods, and it conveys a sense of power to change or lead others, a confidence, a sort of radiance. It conveys the aura of light. ‘Glamour’ is associated with darkness, witches, the occult, that is, the hidden.” (Gould 2005: 237). She also makes the interesting observation that children are not glamorous, and then expands on this by saying glamour is a function of a complex psyche. She explores the ontological and philosophical aspects in depth: “to say that glamour draws from a symbolic field is not to say that it is ontologically dependent on the third party responses of others; rather it is to say that the elements with which one embodies glamour are found in symbolic field of ones own culture”(2005: 245). However Gould gets confusing when she sets out to define “true” and “false” glamour and starts to apply these judgments wholesale. For example when a person does not choose to be glamorous, they are therefore truly glamorous, and conscious efforts to be glamorous are considered false. She also offers problematic statements like: “False glamour has a transparency. True glamour is a fluent mode of self-expression” (245). Gould’s definition of “true glamour” seems closer to a notion of natural grace: “True glamour, being more subtle, flows gracefully from a person’s own interior mode of experience” (243), however the notion of false glamour that Gould describes in her article actually seems to be a better description of the stylized Hollywood glamour on exhibit at the RIC.
To observe Hollywood glamour seems to invite gossipy innuendo, and an irresistible urge to try and peer behind the artifice. The perfect veneer is not possible to maintain, because to be human is to be inherently flawed. The George Hurrel portrait of Loretta Young is a beautifully arranged image and the star is bathed in incandescent light like an angel. Yet at the time the photo was taken, Young had a daughter with Clark Gable yet hid the pregnancy and claimed that she had adopted the child (fig.1). Her daughter Judy Lewis was twenty nine before she confronted her mother and learned the truth, and Young herself refused to publicly acknowledge their biological connection until after her death in 2000 through a posthumous memoir. Lewis revealed the story of her parentage in her 1994 memoir: Uncommon Knowledge. In an interview with The New York Times she described feeling a powerful sense of alienation as a child: “It was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child (Vitello 2011)”. The price of glamour in this case was the primary familial bond between parent and child.
No doubt, these glamorous women were tough, for all of the sensuality and allure of these images, there is very little vulnerability to be seen. Certainly glamour is not gamine, it is interesting to note that neither Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, nor their contemporary counterpart: Gwyneth Paltrow are included in the exhibit. Perhaps it is because they are elegant and chic rather than sexy and dangerous. Of the many things that glamour is, nice is not one of them. Some paparazzi photos of Natalie Wood are included in the RIC show, Wood herself had a very sweet persona, but the truly glamorous figure in those photos is her then-fiancé: Warren Beatty.
One thing that can be observed from looking at all of the photographs in the Burn With Desire exhibition is that this performance costs money: furs, gowns made from beautiful fabrics and jewels, hair and make-up; The creation of glamour includes hair stylists, make-up, and a jet-set lifestyle, none of which comes cheap. Performing celebrity is a function of maintaining celebrity. Modern glamorous women who are famous for simply being famous have had to use these expensive props to propel themselves into the glamoursphere. Nicole Richie had a famous father to bankroll her antics, and Paris Hilton with a family income estimated at almost 100 million dollars before she even started her career; both had the money readily available to maintain the props that the glamorous life requires.
There is a humorous art piece that comments on this type of celebrity qua celebrity included in the exhibition by American artist Barbara Kruger that features Kim Kardashian. The piece consists of a diptych with Kruger’s distinctive bold text spelling out the words “It’s all about you, I mean me, I mean you” covering Kardashians naked body (fig.2). There is a self-referential irreverence about the piece that is very funny, and both the artist and the glamorous reality-show megastar seem to clearly be in on the joke.
Another contemporary glamour icon who plays with notions of her own celebrity persona, but is not included in the show is Daphne Guinness the brewery heiress and eccentric fashionista. Guinness performed an interesting example of guerilla glamour when she changed into her McQueen gown in the window of Barney’s Madison Ave location, en route to the 2011 Met Ball (New York’s biggest fashion gala). The incident is Ironic because it is an original couture gown that you cannot buy. It may have been performed in the window of a store, but there is no amount of money that could buy that experience, you would have to be Daphne Guinness with all of her eccentricities and sizeable personal wealth to experience that intersection of spectacle, oddity and glamour (fig.3).
Another oversight in the show is that there are almost no glamour images of women of colour in the show. The representations of women of colour on display are by artists, and are used in a didactic way to communicate that the notion of glamour can be larger than the narrow parameters of traditional Hollywood glamour. There is a polyptych by Lorna Simpson, a contemporary artist who re-enacts photo sessions reminiscent of the 1950’s pin up girl. She is seductive in her interaction with camera, but is doing so as a middle-aged woman with obvious ironic overtones. The works of Mickalene Thomas are large-scale portraits referencing African studio portraiture. The Thomas works are excellent pieces, but they appear to have been included as a counterpoint to the traditional glamour. These would have been more effective had they been juxtaposed with glamorous images of women of colour, the effect in this context seems to exclude women of colour from the traditional glamour historical narrative. This is inaccurate, since there have been many highly visible, glamorous women of colour ranging from Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong, or the many Bollywood goddesses: Aishwarya Rai, Madhurai Dixit, or Rekha (fig.4).
To be fair, the curator commented on the fact that the Black Star photography archive from which most of the images are drawn from had one solitary image of a woman of colour in their celebrity photos section (Diahann Carrol, which is included in the show). However, it is significant to note that even within the very narrow parameters of traditional glamour there have been women like Diana Ross (fig. 5)
who were certainly more iconic than Mamie Van Doren who is featured in the show. An instagram image of the uber-glamorous Beyonce on her private jet going to the Brit Music Awards, would help with inclusivity and also dispute Wilson’s argument that modern glamour has been killed by the ubiquity and accessibility of contemporary celebrities (fig. 6).
There appears to be a dichotomy between coded artifice and unique individuality in the appeal of glamour on display. The adoring public of these glamorous figures also have a rapacious appetite for scandal, and are constantly looking for cracks in the façade. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir talks about the how quickly the glamorous construction can fall apart:
“She is a victim of accidents: a drop of wine falls on her dress, a cigarette burns it; and so the creature of luxury and parties who smilingly struts around the living room disappears: she turns into the serious and hard housewife; suddenly one discovers that her toilette was not a bouquet of flowers, fireworks, a gratuitous and perishable splendour destined to generously light up an instant: it is an asset, capital, an investment, it demands sacrifices; it’s loss is an irreparable disaster” (DeBeauvoir 1949: 579).
The glamour photograph is a staged moment of perfection; there can be no translation into reality for these goddesses. We know what is behind the glamour mask, it is a woman, flesh and blood, worried about revealing herself, her true self.
The sadness and isolating nature of creating and maintaining a glamorous persona is evoked by Wilson: “The emotions associated with glamour include desire, fear, loss, and an acknowledgment of death. Glamour is tragic; many of the most glamorous figures achieved glamour through suffering” (Wilson 2007:100). One such celebrity who paid the high price of glamour who was not mentioned in the glamour writings or in the show, is the sad case of L’Wren Scott, the model turned designer who was the girlfriend of Mick Jagger at the time when she hung herself. Faced with the reality of the huge debt she had generated to finance her business and jet-set lifestyle she felt the only way out was to end her life. Here the dichotomy between image and reality and the high financial and emotional costs of maintaining a glamorous facade are far too clear (fig.7).
Another glaring omission in the exhibition and all of the literature around glamour is Whitney Houston, few were more beautiful and glamorous than Houston in her heydey, and her tragic downfall matches criteria of the doomed beauty as well (fig.8).
The focal point where all of the visual tropes and thematic elements of glamour converge is Marilyn Monroe, and the RIC exhibition nails this as the show opens and ends with her images; with the entire first room devoted to her iconic persona. There is an entire wall of Andy Warhol silkscreen prints. An Avedon portrait snapped between glamour shots, when the camera catches an exhausted off moment. There is also a series of photos from the 1962 Golden Globes taken a few months before she died, during which Monroe was followed around by a photographer; Some of the photos are flattering, some not, in some she is ethereal bathed in limelight, others she is definitely a normal woman, drink in hand and having a laugh. There are also images from the day of her funeral: crowded, sad, just another ordinary early 1960’s Los Angeles afternoon. There are also the staged ”candid” publicity photos from early in her career on exhibition (fig.9).
Marilyn is the intersection of all of the conflicting elements of glamour: stellar yet earthy, the siren, the aspiring intellectual who read and studied with Strasberg, the woman-child from underprivileged circumstances who climbed the heights of stardom, yet also battled mental illness and was ultimately so unhappy that she took her own life. Marilyn embodies the many conflicting elements of glamour, uniting them into one iconoclastic icon.
In conclusion, when addressing the the elusive concept of glamour, everyone has strong opinions and examples, but they seem to be arguing them against completely different viewpoints. The fatal flaw of all of these arguments is the highly permeable boundaries of what “glamour” signifies, and without a clear definition of the term to begin with, the issue becomes one of semantics rather than debate. However, there is one visual theme that runs through the show, and it is the consistency of representation. There is a polytpych of Vanity Fair magazine covers that illustrate this effectively. Viewed individually, the actresses pictured on the covers in various groupings, are recognizable and beautifully put together, but as the viewer backs up and views the entirety of images, the homogeneity of presentation becomes apparent. Glamour codes are readily identifiable: highly stylized lighting, burnished skin, heavy makeup with a defined dark lip, jewels, revealing gowns made from lustrous fabrics, and an overall implied sexual availability. A reductive shell is applied unilaterally, everyone playing the game so the images will sell, and their celebrity status can be maintained.
Fig. 1. Loretta Young, and daughter Judy Lewis. Undated, Photographer unknown. Everett Collection, available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068727/Judy-Lewis-dies-Clark-Gable-Loretta-Youngs-love-child-dies-cancer-76.html (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig. 2. Barbara Kruger, Untitled. 2010. Digital image. Available from:
http://hypebeast.com/2010/10/untitled-2010-by-barbara-kruger-for-w-magazine-feat-kim-kardashian (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig. 3. Vogue.com, Daphne Guinness in the Window of Barneys. 2011. Digital Image. Available from:
Fig.4. Rekha in Umro Jaan. 1981. Screenshot from film. Available from: http://post.jagran.com/birthday-special-on-rekhas-60th-birthday-her-top-10-songs-1412942495 (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig. 5. Richard Avedon, Diana Ross. 1975, Digital Image. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/05/oprah-diana-ross-o-magazine_n_5651457.html (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig.6. Instagram image of Beyonce en route to the Brit Awards, Feb 2014. Instagram@beyonce (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig. 7. L’Wren Scott and Mick Jagger. Undated, available from:
Fig.8. Whitney Houston at the 1994 Grammys. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://galleryhip.com/whitney-houston-grammys-2012.html. (accessed, March 6, 2015).
Fig. 9. Marilyn Monroe Reading. Undated, Photographer unknown. Black Star Collection. Available from: http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/rare-photos-of-marilyn-monroe-on-display-752294 (accessed, March 6, 2015).
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Middlesex: Penguin ( 1975):
Gould, Carol. “Glamour as an Aesthetic Property of Persons.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63, no. 3 (2005): 237.
Gundle, Stephen. Glamour: a History. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Kaiser, Susan B. Fashion and Cultural Studies. Berg, 2014.
Vitello, Paul. “Judy Lewis, Secret Daughter of Hollywood, Dies at 76.” New York Times, Dec 01, 2011, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/906904226?accountid=13631.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “A Note on Glamour.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 11, no. 1 (2007): 95.
Glamour is Not Gamine @Mark O’Connell 2015, no reproduction without permission