|Oxford University Press|
the guardian Fri 01 August 2008
The word glamour had been lounging around in lowland Scots for about a century before Sir Walter Scott borrowed it for his 1805 Lay of the Last Minstrel. He used it in its vernacular sense, a charm or spell that made things seem other, and better, than they really were. Stephen Gundle chases its possible sources to "glimbr" (squint-eyed), but ignores the standard OED etymology, which goes straight for glamour's kinship to "grammar", since only the book-learned could cast an occult spell. But then, Gundle is bewitched chiefly by eye: his two-century history of glamour depends on images, and he's obsessed with those cliché words "icon" and "iconic". The theology behind the icon, or the art of creating it, don't seem to be his line of work.
Gundle dates the invention of glamour - by his definition, an enviable public lifestyle connected with sexually charged appearances, although the word wasn't aligned like that until the 1840s - to the period of Scott's book, and to the self-invented personas of Napoleon and Byron, stars of the Romantic cult of individuality.
Napoleon's theatricality certainly is important to the history of glamour, but Gundle begins as he means to go on by mentioning a few superficial imperial aspects without much detail or background, missing even Chateaubriand's perceptive remark about Bonaparte's 1804 coronation: "He would not have believed himself a hero if he had not dressed himself up in a hero's costume; it was necessary to lie to the eyes." Gundle ignores the fact that Napoleon stole most of his special effects from revolutionary Paris of the early 1790s, after regal and Christian religious spectacles had been banned, when political leaders needed to stage displays for the masses and coopted painters and opera decor specialists as scenarists.
The source of so much modern entertainment and media is the pop theatre and mass publications of the 1820-30s, most of which originated in revolutionary Paris. And surely Byron's personal appropriation of the sexual clout of his dark protagonists was borrowed from Gothic fiction? Gundle will not allow that glamour existed before circa 1799, but the novelist Ann Radcliffe was selling exotic elsewheres, an alluring past and dangerous hotties to circulating library subscribers well before Napoleon set boot in Egypt's sands.
So, once past the era of origin, how does the rest of Gundle's history proceed? Repetitively. He keeps to Paris, New York, London, Los Angeles, Rome, and their sub-circuit of watering and leisure places. He pursues a succession of females, located at the junction of wealth and what Gundle calls "sleaze" - usually sex for gain, and those gains ill-got - whose high expenditures and media-visible presences make them the pattern of envy and fantasy for lesser members of their own sex, and of desirability for the opposite. (Chaps keep a lower profile, but he does include Noël Coward, Cary Grant, Bryan Ferry and the glam rockers, and Andy Warhol.)
The women are the usual suspects. In France, second empire grandes horizontales and actresses, with diamonds; belle epoque ditto, with pearls; cabaret performers, with feathers; Bardot, with pout; the cast of post-1976 catwalks, with scowls. In Britain, Gaiety Girls, debs, and pages and pages of Princess Di. In the US, Hollywood studio stars, chorines, beauty queens, air hostesses, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The locations are familiar, too: the Riviera and Venetian Lido, El Morocco and Studio 54, and other transitional semi-public spaces through which the ever transient glamorous must pass for just long enough to be pap-snapped en route.
All the biographical entries carry equal, light weight, and Heat celebrity language is applied alike to Liane de Pougy, Marilyn Monroe, Naomi Campbell and many others. It's true most are linked by what Quentin Bell called conspicuous outrage, sexual or social, but there's a substantial difference, even in the basic adipose sense, between a 19th-century maîtresse en titre, as monumental as a mahogany wardrobe and not so much kept as upkept, and seven stone of self-supporting supermodel. What makes glamour more than flossy anecdotes is what it represents within an economic, political, even philosophical, system: who is being told/telling themselves which lies, and why? Gundle isn't that interested.
More important, he doesn't care a lot about the mechanics of envy; glamour technicians, especially fashion designers and photographers, are included only at that point in the timeline at which their "lifestyles of the rich and famous" can be narrated in a salivating manner. A pity, because Gundle is persuasive on why and how new inanimate objects projected glamour - for example, plastic housewares of the 1950s-60s, with their bright colours and moulded shapes; or the Vespa scooter, with the promise of youthful mobility styled into its pastel panels. Yet he can't, or doesn't want to, analyse the techniques that create visible physical human perfection, or the illusion of it, on which the industry of glamour relies.
The artifice is the fascinating part: exactly what did Diana spend those tens of thousands of pounds a year on, besides blondeness, tanned-ness, toned-ness and the occasional pair of shoes? Were they what gave her the glow we understand as glamour? It is surprising that Gundle only once mentions lighting, in a throwaway reference to the initial electrification of theatres in the 1880s. Nothing on the developments in artificial illumination that are crucial to the development of glamour, from the new gas lighting of 1800 in romantic theatres, through the 1820s invention of the limelight, to the 1911 creation of the carbon-arc klieg light that made studio-shot movies possible. Not much about rotogravure presses, oil-based coloured printing inks, Technicolor, or other essential means of glamour dissemination.
And, disappointingly, there is only a little pictorial teaser and a couple of paragraphs on the first photographic experiments, in Paris under the second empire, with poses of sexual allure that register on the lens. Since we can't now begin to imagine what non-photographic glamour might be like, it would have been revelatory to understand how perceptions were first shifted. Gundle is brilliant at the old razzle-dazzle, but what we need is a grammar of glamour. The spell has to be broken.