“What is fashionable is not always glamorous, and glamour has not always been fashionable” says Carol Dyhouse (p.3), in her entertaining and thought-provoking Glamour: Women, History, Feminism. Glamour, and a taste for it, have morphed in the wake of social and cultural trends, economic swings, and increasing financial independence for women. Though frequently dismissed as yet another manifestation of women’s conformity and subjugation to men, glamour can be, according to Dyhouse, a form of assertive femininity, an expression of power, defiance, transgression and aspiration.
Across this richly illustrated, seven-chapter book, images and embodiments of glamour unfold chronologically from the late nineteenth century to the present. Along with the usual suspects (feathers and furs, “Cleopatra” eyes, bias-cut gowns, red lipstick), Dyhouse presents the less obvious glamour of second-wave feminism (Germaine Greer, Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem) and high-end grunge. Analyzing the content of popular fiction, cinema, women’s magazines and several published surveys, Dyhouse tells the story of how English women have embraced — or eschewed — glamour in their daily lives. With the widespread allure of Hollywood films in the 1930s (imagine the screen as a canvas of black and white, where texture and light, glittering fabrics and jewels take precedence over color), and the trans-Atlantic “youthquake” of the 60s, American cultural influences often play a key part in this scenario. As the decades pass, from the 70s’ “natural look” to the showy, conspicuous consumption of the 1980s, glamour gradually loses its edge.
With evolving fashion came new fragrances, and while the book focuses primarily on visual seduction, Dyhouse devotes a portion of each chapter to shifting trends in the formulation, marketing and the naming of perfumes. She points out that the dressing table itself, sparkling with perfume flacons, became a sign of Hollywood glamour. A pharmacist’s daughter, the author fondly recalls playing with the discarded sample bottles her father brought home from work. This personal connection to perfume complements well documented erudition. Dyhouse discusses with insight both cheaper, popular scents and luxury bottles. She also distinguishes “tarty” glamour (e.g., British bombshell Diana Dors) from its more reserved version (e.g., eventual princess Grace Kelly). The latter is echoed in modest and elegant perfume names: “Femme” by Rochas (1944); “Jolie Madame” (Balmain, 1953); and Desprez "Bal à Versailles" (1962). Like Patou’s “Joy” (1930), advertised as the word’s costliest scent, these names represent self-possession and high-society luxury, not glitz.
Dyhouse manages to synthesize a great deal of information in this relatively slim volume, thanks in part to her clear, entertaining style. Never moralizing or condescending, the author embraces her subject with an open mind, and invites the reader to do the same. Her exploration of glamour’s multiple personae reveals connections in seemingly conflicting yet concurrent phenomena: the revolutionary nature of both the Cosmo girl and the bra-burner; the self-reinvention of both Madonna and Princess Diana.
I love books as objects, and there is something especially appealing about this one: its dimensions, its design, its weight. I think of it as lithe. At a desk, reading while taking notes on the computer, it stays open to any page, the captions in the inner margins unobstructed. Chapter numbers are bordered in an art deco motif. But wait, there’s more — 37 illustrations of screen sirens, perfume cards, and adverts from women’s magazines, all of them in black and white, many of them full-page size. One flaw (or feature?): the paper is thin, so the pictures leave shadows behind the print on the reverse side, as they would on the pages of some of the inexpensive, illustrated magazines that Dyhouse cites. Glamour’s eye-catching cover design is taken from the March 1935 issue of the women’s magazine, Miss Modern. It reminds me that I was drawn especially to the first few chapters on early glamour through the 1930s, where discussion of pre-Hays Code movies and long forgotten popular novels had me compiling a long list of to-be-acquired books and films.
Like Dana Thomas’s Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Glamour raises questions about the very meaning of a word we think we already know. Not as vulgar as bling, lacking the restraint of elegance, and less status-conscious than luxury, too much glamour becomes camp. Too little is simply fashion. Above all, the book offers a contemplation on women, how they see themselves, and how they see themselves through images of other women. I keep turning back to a 1951 photo on page 86. It depicts a sixteen-year-old hairdresser, seated at her dressing table in a sparsely decorated room, chipped plaster on the walls. We see her applying lipstick, from two angles. Her profile could be mistaken for a movie still: a young woman puts on her makeup for a for a night out. But the vanity mirror frames a second image of her face, this time in three-quarter view. In this portrait within a portrait, she appears apprehensive, weary: a young woman just out of bed, taking on the workday, using lipstick as her body armor. The scene captures the double nature of glamour, the tangible and intangible, the good and the bad of it, a blend of hope, confidence, desire, desperation, independence and imagination. It is more an aspiration than an acquisition, more a performance than a product. Fragrant readers, choose your props: tuxedo jackets, diamond tiaras, or drugstore perfume. Glamour is not so much what you wear, as how and why you wear it.
Glamour: Women, History, Feminism
London and New York: Zed Books (2010)
Hardcover: 238 pages
Note: review copy provided by Palgrave Press.