Nothing, it seems, can destroy the glamour of travel.
No matter how dourly certain you are that airport security will be annoying, your flight delayed, the plane cramped, your luggage lost, and the destination crowded with—ugh—other travelers, certain images almost inevitably create a pang of desire.
A jet rising toward the sunset. Two beach chairs facing the sea. A ski lodge bright in the snowy twilight. A convertible on an open road. A hammock slung between palm trees. A cabin in a mountain clearing. Paris viewed from a balcony. The Angkor Wat at sunrise. The gondoliers of Venice. The lights of the Ginza. The white domes of Santorini, sharp against the blue Mediterranean as a cruise ship passes in the distance. And, of course, all those photos of resort fashions, with their effortlessly stylish models in sunglasses, striped T-shirts, colorful prints, or all-white ensembles.
Such images work even though they’re clichés, and they’re clichés because they work. They make us think, If only I could be there. If only I could get away. They spark and intensify yearning. They promise escape from our everyday lives. They are glamorous.
Which images represent your personal version of travel glamour depends on who you are. What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, varies. But the general idea of a getaway contains the essence of glamour. Glamour promises escape and transformation, inviting us to project ourselves into an ideal life—to imagine a new and better self in a setting known only at a distance. It’s that feeling that makes travel imagery so persuasive.
Not all travel is glamorous, of course. A road warrior’s trek from one anonymous business hotel to another is just work. Holidays at grandma’s house may be a beloved tradition, but they’re no more glamorous than your favorite old sweater. Glamour is about imagining the ideal in the half-known. It requires mystery.
“Everything at a distance turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events,” wrote Novalis, the eighteenth-century German Romantic poet and author. Distance allows the other to become an ideal extension of the self. Mystery encourages projection. It makes glamour work.
“I never went to Africa,” admits Ralph Lauren. “But if I had, I might never have done the clothes that I did.” His safari collections represented “a mysterious world that didn’t exist anymore, or never existed, but inspired a mood about dressing and desire.” His Africa was glamorous. It wasn’t a real place but an image that embodied an ideal.
And here’s where travel glamour gets tricky.
All glamour contains an element of illusion. (The word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see things that weren’t there.) Glamour hides flaws, distractions, costs and difficulties. It presents an edited version of reality. There are no blisters under the elegant shoes, no stray hairs across the cover girl’s face, no cumbersome cords on the stylish lamps, no spots on the windows, no rain or mosquito bites or sunburn or bad meals on the tropical island. Glamour feels effortless.
Reality, even on vacation, is never quite that easy. It’s one thing to imagine an ideal destination, but what happens if you actually go? When we actually travel, we discover the flaws obscured in the idealized images. That can be disillusioning. “Venice is glamorous, until the breeze off the Adriatic brings in the smell of rotting fish and raw sewage, at which point it is like Hoboken with better architecture,” observes Manolo the Shoeblogger. If you go to Paris, seduced by its glamorous image, will you wind up as miserably disappointed as Carrie in Sex and the City?
Here George Hurrell, one of the all-time masters of glamour, offers some useful advice.
Hurrell was the photographer whose Hollywood portraits defined 1930s glamour. With dramatic lighting and a heavy retouching pencil, he turned stars like Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, and Clark Gable into gods and goddesses. When critics derided his craft as unrealistic, he declared his portraits no more selective than the “filth and squalor” of muck-raking documentaries.
“All of us glamorize everything,” he said. The real world is a mixture of ugliness and beauty. “It’s a question of emphasizing…the dirt or the beauty—the viewpoint you assume when you start out.”
Glamour can rightly be only a guide, not a destination. If you expect your vacation to be a series of perfectly composed still photos, with no sandy bathing suits, sore feet, or fellow tourists, you won’t have a good time. But you can, like Hurrell, adopt a viewpoint that downplays the difficulties of your journey and highlights its pleasures. Expect the plane delays and enjoy the view. Focus on the beauty of Venice and ignore the stink. Create happy memory snapshots as you go, preserving the glamour of travel.
Virginia Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Her website is at vpostrel.com. Follow her on Twitter @vpostrel. This article originally appeared in Neiman Marcus’s “the book.”