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Who’s glamorous? The Queen or Victoria Beckham?


Glamour is one of the most tantalizing and bewitching aspects of contemporary culture. But what exactly is it? Where does it come from? How old is it? And can anyone quite capture its magic? Stephen Gundle has just written a book – Glamour: A History – that looks at the phenomenon and answers these questions along the way, looking at everything from Paris in the late 18th century through to Paris Hilton today. In a specially written essay for OUPblog, Professor Gundle looks at who truly is glamorous or not.

In December 2007, UK Vogue published a list of over seventy people it deemed to be glamorous. Virtually everyone mentioned was British or British-based, the vast majority were women and, while there were some actors, many of those listed were aristocrats or socialites. Even Queen Elizabeth II was included. The press picked up on the list and commented on the presence of significant numbers of women of a certain age (from Helen Mirren to the elderly Dowager Duchess of Devonshire). No-one seemed to find the list to be in any way strange. Yet I thought it very odd for a number of reasons. There were no Hollywood stars, no pop musicians of any sort, no sports stars and no footballers’ wives. There was no Paris Hilton and no Victoria Beckham, no Joan Collins or Sophia Loren, no Catherine Deneuve, and no Beyoncé or P. Diddy. In other words, a host of people commonly thought of as glamorous were missing. Why was this? Was it because Vogue considered itself to be above popular culture? Was it because, being the British version of an international magazine, it felt obliged to focus mainly on British subjects?

Vogue’s idea of glamour seemed to be largely one of taste and style rather than razzamatazz and entertainment. This matched the glossy magazine’s traditional role of tastemaker and style leader closely linked to the social elite. Its editor evidently sees glamour as a positive quality to be defended from the hoi polloi. It is not for appropriation by upstarts and publicity-seekers, whether they be new-fangled or old hands at the game. Victoria Beckham, for example, while clearly being linked directly or indirectly to the alluring milieux of girl-band pop, fashion and big-money sport, was probably excluded because she was not regarded as having taste or any individual style.

Glamour depends to a certain extent on point of view. If you belong to the sophisticated metropolitan elite, you are unlikely to be dazzled by the brash label-mania and super-grooming of Victoria Beckham. But if you are a teenage girl your attitude may be different. The same teenage girl would almost certainly not find the Queen or the Duchess of Devonshire to be exciting or seductive. This does not mean though that glamour is an entirely subjective phenomenon without any specific meaning.

It was probably Princess Diana who first muddied the waters. When she married Prince Charles in 1981, she was a blushing English rose. By the time of her death, and following her separation from her husband, she had turned into a woman of glamour: she was a toned, tanned, semi-magical figure who had embraced international fashion and who knowingly deployed her beauty and sex appeal. Supremely photogenic, she was a compelling presence in person and in the media. Although Diana first came to prominence as a fairytale princess, it was only when she stepped outside the frame of royalty to develop a personal allure based on beauty and style that she became glamorous. Her personal narrative was part of her glamour but this became increasingly unconventional.

Historically, glamour belongs more to the bustling visible world of publicity and ostentation than to the rituals of the established wealthy. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, it has little to do with royalty. The splendour of the courts of Elizabeth I or Louis XIV served to establish internal and external prestige. Magnificence bolstered dynastic prerogatives and was certainly not intended to arouse the wonder and envy of the common people. Even the coronation of Elizabeth II, a splendid event that secured the success of television in the UK, was designed to assert tradition and win the loyal deference of the new queen’s subjects.

The point about glamour is that it captures our dreams and enchants us because it is enviable and imitable. Its exclusivity, paradoxically, it combined with accessibility. Glamorous figures therefore are not royals, aristocrats, and the established rich precisely because they are different from everyone else. Rather bearers of glamour are typically self-made outsiders and ambitious self-promoters. They are people who depend on publicity and who are the projections of mass dreams. The most glamorous role in the twentieth century was the Hollywood film star: the girl or boy from nowhere who was turned by the corporate magic of the major studios into glistening, golden icons whose lives were presented as opulent, perfect, and enviable. In fact, the magazine Glamour, which was founded by Condé Nast in 1939 as a mass market sister to the more elite-oriented Vogue, always featured a star on the cover.

Glamour is not timeless but nor is it a recent phenomenon. It came into being in the era that saw the old landed order dominated by the aristocracy displaced by a rising entrepreneurial class. Whereas Marie Antoinette’s notorious extravagance at Versailles aroused feelings of hatred, Napoleon’s parvenu opulence was centred on Paris and harnessed to the public good. His court was not a closed affair but a relatively open social milieu that prized female beauty and brash materialism. It was Walter Scott, writing in 1805, who first brought the Scottish word glamour into mainstream English and used it to mean a magical power capable of transforming the ugly into the beautiful, and the simple into the magnificent. It was a concept that fitted the modern age of democracy and mobility. In the bourgeois era, the city took over from the court and opulent display became public and commercial. The values of beauty, sex appeal, wealth, theatricality, movement and leisure that form the core of glamour were first joined at that time to create dazzling and seductive visions that were geared to consumption. Glamour took shape as a blending of high and low inputs that unleashed dreams and harnessed aspirations. It was a powerful commercial tool that drew on the buzz of fashionable people and places, theatres and also on prostitution. It was classy but also fast and a touch sleazy. It came to be thought of mainly – although not exclusively – as female precisely because the world of appearances, beauty and fashion was associated in the nineteenth century mainly with women.

For much of the twentieth century, glamour was rare and remote from everyday life. Hollywood captured the dreams of all but it was only with the postwar consumer boom that most people could start to make their homes and lifestyles reflect something of the fabulousness of the stars. Today, many of the things that once seemed intensely desirable – air travel, beauty salons, grand hotels, designer clothes, and even celebrity – are far more accessible. So maybe, by reserving the glamour label for a few hand-picked names, Vogue was trying to restore some of its mystery and rarity. But it is a characteristic of our age that the mass media and mass consumption have shattered many old privileges and hierarchies. By hitching glamour to a local elite, the magazine not only denied the concept’s origins, but was also out of step with the contemporary mood. In the glamour contest between the Queen and Victoria Beckham, I vote for Victoria Beckham.

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  1. […] You can read Professor Gundle’s previous OUPblog post here. […]

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