“A pervasive, complex, and often life-enhancing force” — Q&A with Virginia Postrel

The writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel first tackled the topic of glamour in 2004, the year after her book, “The Substance of Style” came out. A curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art asked her to write an introductory essay for the catalogue accompanying an exhibit on glamour in fashion, industrial design, and architecture. She knew “next to nothing about glamour,” as she put it.

That sure didn’t last. Several years, multiple articles, a TED talk and a book (The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion) later, Postrel had created something of a unified theory of glamour. She argues that glamour, far from being some frivolous passion of the wealthy, has a near-universal pull, one that touches all of us, sometimes for worse, but more often, Postrel says, for better. You just have to recognize glamour for what it actually is, which is something much broader than that suggested in fashion-industry ads in magazines like, well, Glamour (although those are indisputably glamorous, too).

Meet Virginia Postrel and learn about the life-enhancing force, glamour at Brain Bar Budapest.

Postrel describes glamour as a “nonverbal rhetoric,” one that persuades “not through words but through images, concepts and totems.” They are remembered as “emotionally resonant snapshots, not verbal descriptions.” Glamour is, in her view, “a pervasive, complex, and often life-enhancing force.”

She offers a wealth of examples. There’s travel-related glamour: “A hammock slung between palm trees. A cabin in a mountain clearing. Paris viewed from a balcony.” There’s the glamour of the aviator, of the astronaut, of the journalists who take down a presidency — call it professional glamour. There’s martial glamour, idealizing the life of the soldier or sailor, still central to “the iconography of recruiting ads, with their depictions of swift, decisive action, enduring camaraderie, perfect coordination, and meaningful exertion.” There’s political glamour, which Barack Obama harnessed in 2008 by using messages about hope and change as a vessel the voting public could fill with their own hopes and idealized changes.

Glamour works precisely because its images, concepts and totems are incomplete, Postel explains. “Glamour is about imagining the ideal in the half-known. It requires mystery,” she says. “Glamour promises escape and transformation, inviting us to project ourselves into an ideal life.”

At Brain Bar Budapest, Postrel will be focusing on the interplay of glamour and business. In the meantime, she took the time to field a few questions.

Q: You open the book with a story about a little girl named Mabinty Bangura in Sierra Leone coming across a magazine that had blown against the orphanage fence. She became entranced with the picture of a ballerina on the cover. That little girl is now Michaele DePrince. Can you describe how glamour shaped her transformation?

She was living in truly miserable circumstances. Not only was she in an orphanage in a refugee camp, but she was ostracized within the orphanage and called a “devil child” because of the skin condition vitiligo, which gave her white spots instead of smooth brown skin. Seeing the photograph of the ballerina lifted her out of her terrible surroundings into a happier, more beautiful world. She would gaze at it every night and dream of being like the lady in the picture — an example of how glamour can be an imaginative refugee. Then when an American couple decided to adopt her along with another little girl, she showed her new mother the picture and began taking ballet lessons when she moved to New Jersey. The glamorous image became a spur to real-world action. Today Michaele DePrince is a professional ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet and she recently appeared in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” visual album.

Q: How has glamour shaped your own life?

In my case, when I was in college I read a book that was meant to be anything but glamorous: the memoir Making It, by Norman Podhoretz, the long-time editor of the intellectual magazine Commentary. The book was actually something of an exposé, revealing the ruthless ambition and careerist jockeying of people who presumed they were above all such petty concerns. It was supposed to deglamorize intellectual life.

But I had nothing against ambition and I found the book’s picture of people arguing about politics and literature at dinner parties — and making a decent living writing and editing journals of ideas — entrancing. I decided that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I forgot that New York, which was then crime-ridden, filthy, and expensive, was the last place I wanted to live or that I had absolutely no competence at throwing dinner parties. Glamour always depends on hiding, or in my case ignoring, the flaws.

Virginia Postrel

But the inspiration pointed me in a valuable direction. I’ve never lived in New York and I’m still no good at dinner parties. But I spent the 1990s doing the exact job I aspired to in college: editing Commentary’s classical-liberal equivalent, Reason, a magazine congenially based in Los Angeles, not New York. The job wasn’t exactly what I imagined, but it was close enough and in some ways better. And now I get to write books on weighty topics like glamour.

Q: You’ve talked about glamour as a catalyst of career choice — of L.A. Law inspiring young people to become attorneys, of CSI stoking interest in forensics. In what areas of business do you see as being positioned as glamorous today?

The most obvious example is the high-tech startup, where in the glamorous version you get rich while creating something that changes the world and becomes part of everyday life. Another example is “big data,” as both a tool and a career. We’ve come to treat it as almost magical, but anyone who actually works in the field can tell you it’s very hard and that a lot of data — think supermarket scanners — goes largely unanalyzed. “Social entrepreneurship” is another glamorous area: the idea of doing well while doing good. The idea of blending business and philanthropy or social change has allure not only as a career choice but in consumer marketing. Look at the success of companies like Toms shoes or Warby Parker.

Q: Glamour can be a dark force, too — how is, for example, ISIS harnessing it? Are there “counterglamour” measures that might be effective?

ISIS has harnessed several powerful forms of glamour. Like other jihadi groups, it draws on martial glamour, with its promise of camaraderie, glory, adventure, and significance, and religious glamour, with its appeal to otherworldly ideals. ISIS recruiting imagery and its Internet fan posts appeal to more contemporary forms of glamour: action movies, shooter video games, gangsta rap. They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant. They promise to make the jihadist feel manly and important.

The anthropologist Scott Aran, who studies what moves people to join jihadi organizations, puts it this way: “What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool.”

There are three basic strategies for countering glamour. One is to try to show that what seems glamorous is actually horrible — that the mystery is hiding something awful. Because we find the actions of ISIS so horrible, we often try to use this strategy, but it backfires because what horrifies us thrills likely recruits. Making Islamic State look fearsome and successful, as the U.S. State Department tried to do in some much-criticized media efforts, only serves to heighten the movement’s allure. A second is to use humor to puncture the illusion and make it seem ridiculous. This might work in some cases, but humor, like glamour, depends on the audience so unless you really understand your audience it’s tricky. The third is to reveal the grubby details that the beautiful image obscures. What glamorous visions of jihadi glory obscure isn’t violence. It’s drudgery, subordination, infighting, hypocrisy, and general messiness. People who join the cause complain about boredom and guard duty. To puncture ISIS’s glamour requires more stories about menial chores and less publicity that turns terrorists into celebrities. Most essentially, it needs battlefield evidence that effortless victory is an illusion — Islamic State is for losers.

Q: Are there ways that businesses in industries that are not perceived as terribly glamorous that could do a better job creating a glamorous mystique?

Glamour begins with the audience’s inchoate desires: Whom are you trying to reach and what do they long for? I’m talking about big emotional needs — belonging, respect, love, friendship, a sense of significance — not something specific like a sports car. Then the question is whether some aspect of your business can translate that desire into an idea of escape and transformation. So The Container Store chain, which I call the “most glamorous store in America,” sells boxes, closet organizers, kitchen canisters, and other fairly dull products (although some of them are colorful and pretty) that hold stuff. But it becomes glamorous because it promises to transform your busy, chaotic life by helping you get everything organized: “I could be in control of everything. All I need are these boxes!” (Never mind that you still have to sort through stuff and put it in those boxes.) It combines that glamorous promise with a well-trained and enthusiastic staff — it’s regularly named one of the best companies to work for — and a store whose own orderliness mirrors what you wish you had in your house. Of course, The Container Store has an advantage because any business related to the home can usually be made glamorous by playing up our longing for the ideal life as represented in the ideal home.

The trickier challenge is for companies trying to attract employees in industries that seem boring. Sometimes that means playing up the problem-solving challenges of the job. Sometimes it means emphasizing the camaraderie of the work environment. Sometimes it means making the company mean something important to the community or the world. And sometimes it just means saying, you can work here, make a living, and have a great life outside work. Not every business can be glamorous, but fortunately glamour isn’t the only way something can be appealing. It’s just one tool in the toolbox.

Q: What can a place like Budapest, already a place whose parliament building graces the ads of Danube cruises, do to boost its glamour quotient?

Budapest is in the enviable position of already being glamorous to travelers. When I told my husband I was going to speak at Budapest Brain Bar, he was incredulous: “You’re going all the way to Budapest to give a 15-minute talk?” he said. (It will take more than 13 hours of flying to get there, not including time in airports.) My response was, “I want to see Budapest.”

But the city’s glamour is more about its illustrious past than it is about the present. That’s great for attracting travelers, but the city could do more to play up its contemporary appeal. What makes Budapest a special place today? People who move there emphasize the low cost of living, which offers a kind of freedom many people in more expensive cities are craving. The trick is to show what that freedom means in a positive sense — what great things it makes it possible for people to do — rather than simply say it’s cheaper to live in Budapest than in other European capitals.

Meet Virginia Postrel at Brain Bar Budapest. Get your ticket today.