Glamour: Women, History, Feminism by Carol Dyhouse

Glamour is often seen as a very modern thing nowadays, and it carries a negative, perhaps even trashy, connotation; ‘glamour models’ with their assets displayed for all to see on Page Three of the tabloids and in men’s top shelf magazines, young girls getting ‘glammed up’ for a night out in their short skirts, low cut tops and skyscraper heels, out ‘on the pull’, looking for male attention. Glamour seems to have become a dirty word; it describes women who put appearances above all else, who discount the value of intellect and character, and instead choose to use their looks to make their way in a world that depends on the gaze of men.

In this book Carol Dyhouse, a Professor of History at the University of Sussex, explores the history of glamour; of its origins in Hollywood to its present day incarnation in Playboy and the like, and of how women have both been empowered and exploited in the pursuit of its standards. Glamour is not new, as we soon find out. As long as there have been women, they have been aspiring to look good. Even Eve was careful about the arrangement of her fig leaves.😉 With the arrival of mass media and advertising in the 19th century, cosmetic products aimed at the female anxious about her appearance were all over the press. From magic face creams that removed all conceivable blemishes to perfumes guaranteed to make men fall at your feet, women could buy anything and everything to make themselves look and feel gorgeous. As time moved on and Hollywood became more and more famous, the word glamour began to be used to describe its female stars. The original meaning of glamour is bewitching, enchanting; suggesting an element of subterfuge and masking of the real self. These attractive young starlets did just that; swathed in furs, feathers and pearls, these women were sultry sirens that oozed luxuriousness, exoticism and sexuality, often with new names that hid their true identities as ordinary small town girls with big dreams.

The success of Hollywood soon made these women into icons, with their faces appearing in magazines all over the world, leaving legions of women desperate to know how they too could get the glamorous Hollywood look. Much like today, magazines were filled with hints and tips to get a glowing complexion and perfect hair; the right outfits to wear and the best way to get a man. Glamour was all about looking the part; being expensive, being luxurious, being special, despite the humdrum nature of most women’s everyday lives. For most girls in the mid twentieth century, a fur coat was the height of sophistication and was the epitome of ‘glamour’; no self respecting woman could be without a bit of fur and the fur industry at the time was massive, even during the war years, when desperate women, longing for some sparkle in their lives, clamoured to buy war economy standard coats made of squirrel fur.

Moving into the mid century and towards the flower girl image of the 1960s and 70s, glamour became vulgar and an assault on the new feminist movement. Women were encouraged to look childlike, gamine and wide eyed like the popular models, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Fur coats and lipstick were out; empire line dresses with floral prints and natural looking make up were in. Glamorous women had become associated with predatory behaviour; fur coats were gifts to mistresses, not wives, and red nails and lips were the sign of a woman hunting for masculine prey. The image of female sexuality had changed, but the infantilisation of women and the vogue for a childish, leggy, prepubescent appearance was hardly in line with the rising tide of women determined to get out of the kitchen and into the boardroom. The 1980’s glamour puss look of shoulder pads, big hair and strong make up, epitomised in shows such as Dynasty, reflected the way women now wanted to appear; strong, sexual, independent; almost masculine. Glamour was back, with a vengeance; instead of being anti feminist, a symbol of female vanity and objectification, it became a way for women to assert themselves and make the most of their sexuality as they began to make their own way in a man’s world.

Glamour has changed from being about star quality, to being an assertion of female power, to now being about fulfilling male fantasies in trashy magazines. However, there has always been an undercurrent of meeting male desires when it comes to glamour; women have always desired to look good to please not only themselves, but the male gaze. Fur and feathers are tactile, sensual, luxurious; worn mainly to allure and bewitch men. Perfumes and cosmetics, worn to obscure flaws and create an aura of sweet, attractive exoticism cannot help but please and reel in the opposite sex. Adverts for clothes and cosmetics show women being admired by men as they show off their improved appearance; but is this really what glamour is all about? At its heart, what does the pursuit of glamour really say about women and their role in society?  Does it cement the notion that women are the weaker sex, forever hostages to the whims of male preferences? Or does it prove that women just enjoy feeling beautiful and precious and special for their own self esteem, and that whatever constitutes these qualities merely changes with the fashions of the times?

It’s a fascinating issue, and one which Carol Dyhouse explores wonderfully. This is an academic book with enough footnotes to shake a stick at, but that doesn’t make it dry or boring. It comes with plenty of illustrations from old magazines, advertisements and Hollywood films, which I really enjoyed being able to look at and compare with modern day examples. Women’s history is a minefield and it’s hard to come to conclusions and concrete arguments without offending or excluding, and Carol Dyhouse is careful not to tread on any toes.  What stands out most from this book is that women’s priorities and interests haven’t really changed over the last two centuries. Despite our emancipation from the kitchen, we are all still as obsessed with looks as we were 100 years ago.  Extracts from magazines printed in 1910 and 2010 are eerily similar, discussing the latest celebrity gossip and giving hints and tips on the best make up for a night out. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Can it be considered a lack of progress, or simply a manifestation of women’s abiding interest in beauty?

I love buying new clothes and making myself look pretty for special occasions by wearing make up and doing something fancy with my hair. I hardly think I’m turning back the tide of feminism by doing so. The notion that women who like to look good are somehow letting the side down doesn’t get very far with me; the whole point of feminism is to allow women to be who they want to be, surely?  I can be an intelligent, politically and culturally engaged career woman while wearing make up. Yes, some women do choose to use their bodies and looks to objectify themselves in men’s magazines; I am not one of them, and I don’t support the ‘glamour’ industry in that respect, but if these women want to do that, then it is their choice. No one is forcing them to do it. The original icons of glamour were the Hollywood sirens of the 1930s and 40s – strong, independent women who had successful careers, healthy bank balances, and the freedom to do what they wanted with their lives. They were also mostly unmarried, which was quite revolutionary, really.

The way I see it, and what I’ve learnt from the experiences detailed in this book, glamour is about looking good, but it’s also about confidence, self esteem, and aspiration. If looking good gives women the confidence to step out and achieve their dreams, then I’m all for women embracing glamour. Though I draw the line at buying a fur coat.

I’d be so interested to hear what other women think about this issue, and I do encourage you to read this book, as it truly is excellent. Thanks so much to the lovely Ruvani at Zed Books who was so kind and sent me this to review after I begged for it!

36 comments

  1. I love footnotes! I must read this book if it is all footnotey and has pictures from old-time magazines. This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, because I am never sure whether I’m dressing up because I feel like it, or because I want other people (men, I guess) to think I look nice. There is much questioning of motives at casa Jenny, and I’d love to get a look at a historical perspective on the question!😛

    1. If you love footnotes, you’ll love this! Exactly – I have trouble with this too. In dressing up to please myself, really, does pleasing myself mean enjoying being admired by others, mainly men, anyway? I just don’t know why I do anything anymore!

  2. I love the cover on this one! Personally, I’ve always thought beauty was about confidence and self-esteem. No one looks pretty standing huddled and scared in the corner, after all. I’m glad you brought this book to my attention!

    1. I know, isn’t it beautiful?! If I’m honest the cover was the hook that drew me in! You are so right – beauty comes from self posession as much as conventional good looks – I’ve seen plenty of girls with unconventional looks who I have found beautiful just because they believe themselves to be and carry themselves like it. Beauty is more than just good bone structure, after all!

  3. The whole glam thing is lost on me. I’m from the Twiggy-times, and because I was a skinny kid, I was thrilled there was a woman in the limelight who wasn’t, shall we say buxom? I never saw it as making women children. I am troubled by makeup and fashion and creams and hair coloring, and on and on. I like the inside person, not the outside one. I’ll always be in the minority, but that’s okay. I am in many things. :<)

    1. That’s interesting, Nan – though maybe because you were young at the time, you didn’t feel infantilised by it? Not being bothered by fashion and creams and hair is wonderful – I wish I could be like that. I am a slave to my make up, I have to admit – I am one of those women who reaches for her lipstick in a crisis. How I feel does depend a lot on how I look, and I wish it wasn’t so.

  4. This does sound like a fascinating read! As much as I love the looks associated with 1940s glamour, I don’t see the point in making time for make-up, hair curling, etc., in daily life. For me, that’s fun for special occasions or when I’m in a dress-up mood. But really, it all comes down to choice. And if a woman chooses to dress up or down for her own comfort or confidence level, I think it’s great.

    But what I hate is when society tries to tell us what beauty is or tries to require women to hold to unrealistic–or unnecessarily time-consuming or costly–standards. I’ve had men say to me that women have a responsibility to stay thin so their husbands will remain attracted to them. Weight gain after pregnancy was, in their mind, just an excuse. That’s the kind of attitude that annoys me–valuing women according to their looks.

    1. Yes – in everyday life I have neither the time nor good reason to doll myself up – a bit of undereye concealer to hide my colossal bags and a hair brush do the job, but I love dressing up for occasions and I think it’s lovely that women can enjoy that process of making themselves feel lovely by putting on nice clothes and make up and lotions etc.

      Beauty is very much a socially constructed thing – you’re right – but in reality, I think a lot of people don’t find the conventional standard of beauty attractive. Most men I know can’t stand super skinny women, for example. Though I do find it very frustrating when women are valued or treated better because they are more ‘attractive’ – a woman’s character and integrity should be the most important thing, but sadly it’s first appearances that usually count with people.

  5. This sounds like an intriguing read Rachel. I agree with dressing up to give one confidence and make one feel good – I was very depressed a couple of years back and spent my life in jeans and fleeces; since then I make a conscious effort to try to dress nicely and it makes a definite difference to how I feel. Like Teresa I hate the way that society tries to dictate what we should and shouldn’t wear; it’s so different for different people and different people will feel good in different things.

    1. Yes – how I look on the outside definitely affects how I feel inside. If I have bad hair or I don’t like my outfit or I have a spot, I definitely feel less confident, which I know is ridiculous, but I can’t help myself. When I feel down I probably do the opposite to you – try and make myself feel better by putting on nice clothes – but there is that feeling of wanting to hide and blend into the background a bit too. I’m glad you enjoy wearing pretty clothes now Verity! And you are so right – I never follow fashion. I wear what looks nice and what suits me and that usually means ignoring what’s in the magazines!

  6. I shop and I try to look good every time and act as ladylike as possible. It makes me feel happy, it allows me to move freely and with ease. Society may criticize differently but that will not stop me from wearing knee socks with my casual dresses in school!

  7. Hear, Hear! While high fashion and being coiffed within an inch of your life is not practical on a day to day basis, I am dismayed by the lack of attention to dress these days. Remember when people would choose a smart outfit to wear on the plane? Women were standing in ration queues dressed in hats and heels during wartime, I have no idea why some appear at the library today looking as though they’ve just rolled out of bed! My uniform of choice is a fresh t-shirt, nice jeans and a cardie with polished shoes, understated but tidy. And the forties may be long gone but a man in an overcoat and a fedora always makes me smile, sigh.

    This book would be a fascinating read as was your review, Rachel!

    1. I always like to look smart too, Darlene! I don’t understand women who wear tracksuits and trainers – I own neither and never intend on doing so. I like to go for the understated, classic look – I don’t do high fashion but rather choose pieces that suit me and are timeless. I do wish sometimes that men and women still wore hats as a matter of course – it would add a certain glamour to every day life! Glad you liked the review, Darlene!

  8. Like you, I see nothing wrong in combining an interest in fashion and make-up with intellectual pursuits. It’s healthy. And most of my extremely intelligent and culturally-aware friends are all readers of gossip mags. And why not? This books sounds great. Thanks for an insightful review.

  9. Such a complex topic and I can see why some older feminists have a problem with younger feminists getting glamed up because fashion has for so long been about what men define as attractive. I think that rejecting fashion and attractiveness is a stage a lot of feminists go through, because it all seems so tied up in crazy male standards, but hopefully a lot of us go through it and come out with our own personal styles rather than turning against the idea of dressing up for good. I want to drop a link to my new favourite fashion blog threadbared because I think you might find it really interesting: http://threadbared.blogspot.com/ It’s run by two women who love fashion and are really clued up on the political implications of style and the industry. They run these fab pieces about things like what kind of cultural values returning to vintage style perpetuates…and sometimes they post rocking new high fashion things (things we would probably never wear, but would happily oggle).

    1. Yes – it is a thorny issue. But I do wonder whether it’s as big an issue as we make it out to be – does it matter if fashion is dictated by what the opposite sex find attractive? Do men have a problem with wearing clothes that women find attractive? I’m not sure they do. I don’t see it as subordination or anything like that. Women dress to feel good about themselves, they also dress to make the most of themselves because they want to be seen as attractive…by men. That’s not subordination. That’s natural. I find men attractive, ergo I want them to find me attractive. However, the fashion industry is now so dominated by women that I’m not even sure we can argue whether men dictate what clothes women wear anymore. Though, I suppose if those women’s motives are to design and promote clothes that make women attractive to men then I suppose you could argue the other way…see, thorny!

      Thanks so much for that link, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through some of their posts.

  10. What an interesting idea for a book! I wish I had thought of it – I can imagine it would have been really interesting to research and write. I love the idea of glamour – although I don’t think it is a state that I achieve all that often unfortunately! I see my choices in dress and hair and make up (and especially shoes!) as a creative pursuit – they are ways in which I can express my personality.

    1. I know – I was a bit jealous too when I read it! I think it’s really exciting that these days such a topic is considered intellectual enough to be academically studied – it’s so interesting to me to read about social history from these sorts of perspectives. It is creative indeed – I like that we can express our personalities through our outward appearances, though what are our motives behind what we choose to wear? Therein lies the issue.

  11. Great review, I like the sound of this.

    I actually put lipstick on before going into the operating theatre for my cesarian section and the midwife said to me ‘You won’t be needing that, love!!’

    1. That’s so funny Nicola! It just goes to show – looking good = feeling good. Lipstick brings confidence during life’s trials, including operations!

  12. Hello Rachel. I love these posts you do that reflect on questions of how we live life, women’s roles, reading and race etc. You have great honesty and courage!

    I never quite recovered from the single paper I did at uni on Women’s Studies. It was so eye opening to understand the subtle and not so subtle social constructions of the ideal woman and all the multi-million dollar industries that profit from the objectification of women and in a sense there is an ugly side to ‘glamour’. And yet….and yet I feel there is more to the female beauty story. I would argue that the human body can also be seen purely and simply as an aesthetic delight. The human form is truly beautiful. Maybe I am niave to ignore all the other issues that my Women’s Studies taught me, but I think, like you, that making the most of your appearance, being beautifully groomed, taking pride in your clothing, using make up, having glossy hair etc can be seen as a celebration of the wonderously lovely bodies women (and men) are given and need not be sinister!

    1. Thank you so much Merenia! You are too kind to me.

      Yes…women’s studies is a minefield and once you scratch the surface you find yourself at the tip of an iceberg. I agree wholeheartedly with you – we are made to appreciate beauty and I think in celebrating our bodies and making the most of them we are fulfilling a basic human desire to create beauty and to look upon beauty. Everyone’s standards are different, of course, but we are all essentially striving to achieve aesthetic pleasure through our appearances. I think there is a danger with women’s studies of over analysing and politicising and sometimes with issues like appearance I do wonder whether men have as much influence as they are deemed to. I don’t consciously buy clothes because I think men will find me pretty if I wear them – I buy them because I like them and they will suit me. Though of course it could then be argued that I have subconsciously had my standards of what is nice influenced by the preferences of a patriarchal society…sigh…sometimes it’s best not to analyse too deeply, isn’t it?!
      Thank you for your well reasoned and intelligent comments…you have made me think, Merenia!

  13. This does sound really interesting and I agree with your take on what it means to be a feminist, although I think that we can still be confused about who we’re being glamourous for at times🙂 Great post!

    1. Thank you! I don’t think there will ever be a clear cut answer on women’s motives behind what they wear but as long as they feel good about themselves then I don’t suppose it really matters!

  14. ‘Women dress to feel good about themselves, they also dress to make the most of themselves because they want to be seen as attractive…by men.’ What I wonder is why men don’t seem to find attractive the same things many women find attractive about themselves…

    Now this does not apply to all women – I see a lot of nicely dressed women out with their men, women who have taken note of what flatters their body and dressed with an eye to personal style. But I also see a lot of women whose style changes to accomodate men’s interests and no longer so much flatters their body as exposes their body. Of course you can do both, but in many cases exposing takes over from enhancing and flattering, because it’s perceived that that’s what men like.

    I think there’s a divide between some of the styles women think are flattering and look hot on them and the styles men prefer, although there’s also overlap in some areas. I remember reading an opinion piece by a guy who wanted to outlaw ballet flats because they made womens feet unattractive and I just wanted to show him the streets I walk down every day and be like if you can make it past all the cracks in heels I will hang up my flats.

    1. Yes I was going to raise that point but wasn’t sure how.

      I think a certain type of men do prefer maximum exposure when it comes to women’s outfits and that’s why girls whose main preoccupation is snagging themselves a man wear tiny skirts and have their boobs spilling out of too tight-too low tops.

      However in my experience men who aren’t after one thing tend to prefer simple, understated clothes – I know my male friends don’t like girls who are overdressed or wear ‘weird’ overly individual vintage type clothes. However I couldn’t care less – if I want to wear something floral or vintage style then I’ll wear it – my life and my taste doesn’t revolve around them. Same with your ballet flats example – I couldn’t care less if men think they make my feet look ugly – I like them and most importantly they are comfortable and I’m not about to switch to heels to please men who slouch around with their pants hanging out of their jeans in the name of ‘fashion’ – who told them that was a good look?!

      So I suppose what I find attractive doesn’t always tally with what men do, and I don’t care – though when I say ‘men’ I am being rather broad – all men are different and what some find attractive others won’t!

  15. Omg tonight I was in a pub and a guy had his jeans hanging low to show off his super cool, illustrated underwear?!? (kind of comics illustrated) and his mate apparently really wanted to see the whole design so he pulled off his belt and pretty much took of his jeans in my face (I did not know them they were at the next table). They were just starting their first drink. If I wasn’t before I am so over the British male fashion of pants on show now.

    I feel like we should be having a bitch about the state of single men in the UK now😉 What is up with their hair?

  16. Wow, this book sounds totally fascinating! I think I’d like to read it as one of my selections for the Women Unbound challenge. Thanks for bringing it to my attention — I’m definitely going to keep an eye on your blog for future recommendations!🙂

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