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!