Friday, November 1, 2013

Review: The Power of Glamour

I did not think I had a particular interest in glamour until I read The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. As it turns out, I have a strong interest in glamour (at least certain types of it) and this book offers a fascinating and cogent analysis of what glamour is and why it is important.

I was drawn to the book by my long interest in Virginia’s work, dating back to the 1990s when she edited Reason magazine and I wrote some articles for it. (My involvement and post-Postrel break with the magazine are recounted here.) A decade ago, I reviewed her book The Substance of Style, which espoused a growing linkage of aesthetics and economics. (Subsequently, after marrying an architectural lighting designer, I gained some exposure to a field that exemplifies that connection.)

In her new book, Postrel distinguishes glamour from concepts with which it may blur, such as luxury, celebrity or charisma. She defines glamour as “nonverbal rhetoric” (typically conveyed by visual images) that “leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” Glamour has, in her telling, three essential elements: “a promise of escape and transformation” (letting people project themselves into a desired situation); “grace” (hiding or removing flaws and distractions); and “mystery” (leaving some things to the audience’s imagination).

The Power of Glamour ranges widely across examples of its subject. Glamour can attach to a variety of people, places and objects—as diverse as people’s desires. Postrel examines various archetypes or “icons” of glamour, including aviators, princesses, superheroes, suntans, smoking, wind turbines, California and Shanghai. As this list suggests, things can become more or less glamorous over time; for instance, smoking and California have both seen more glamorous days (and nights).

Glamour has long been part of human experience, evident in Greek myths and Renaissance paintings (Postrel cites Lippi’s Vision of Saint Bernard as glamorous in encouraging the audience to project itself into a scene with the Virgin Mary). Yet glamour grew in importance in the 19th and 20th centuries, she argues persuasively, since it thrives on mass audiences and a sense of social mobility.

This book is to a degree a defense of glamour but it is no whitewashing of its complex subject. Often dismissed as superficial or decried as an advertising snare, glamour can spur positive change. Besides being pleasurable, glamour can inspire people to strive for a better life and world. But there is no guarantee it will be put to good uses, and in an extreme case to the contrary terrorists attract their recruits with an idealized promise of escape and transformation—in short, glamour.

Discussing mystery as an element of glamour, Postrel offers three subcategories of that element (not mutually exclusive), which she labels “shadow,” “sparkle” and “complexity.” Hats, veils and Paris in the rain have the mystery of things obscured (shadow); glittering jewels and fabrics fascinate and confuse with change and ambiguity (sparkle). The third type of mystery—complexity—Postrel describes thus:

This form of mystery hides information not through concealment or confusion but through complexity and depth. We don’t know what history or nature will produce; there are too many variables and too much detail to comprehend in a glance. Hence the mystery of rugged coastlines, verdigris patina, and twisting woodland paths. As a design element, such mystery appears in Alexander McQueen’s 2009 Plato’s Atlantis collection, with its phosphorescent sequins, opalescent beads, and jellyfish and reptile-skin prints. This is the mystery of the layered, the fluid, and the fractal: the mystery of complexity. [Italics in the original.]

Me: The above passage is what I particularly had in mind at the start of this review when I wrote “As it turns out, I have a strong interest in glamour (at least certain types of it)….” Reading Virginia’s passage above crystallized for me what is a significant aspect of what I like to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy, and where I like to hike. I am an aficionado of the “mystery of complexity” and the glamour that stems from it. Until I read this book, I did not realize that about myself.

Tyler Cowen recently opined that The Power of Glamour is its author’s “best and most compelling book” to date. I agree, and highly recommend it.