The power of glamour

Glamour is powerful because it’s an illusion — one that tells the truth about who we are and who we want to be

When we hear the word ‘glamour’, we envision beautiful movie stars in designer gowns or sleek sports cars and the dashing men who drive them. For a moment, we project ourselves into the world they represent, a place in which we, too, are beautiful, admired, graceful, accomplished, powerful, wealthy, or at ease. Glamour lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. It creates a distinctive sensation of projection and longing.

What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, varies with personality and culture. But all glamour promises transformation and escape. In the image of a rising jet or a speeding convertible, a runway model or a martial arts hero, we experience the same dream: that we might soar beyond present constraints to become better, more accomplished, admired, respected and desired versions of ourselves. Glamour lets us project ourselves into new identities, imagining the ideal in the half-known.

As a result, glamour can be as powerful as it is pleasurable. By focusing previously inchoate yearnings, it motivates not just momentary fantasies but real-world action, from buying holidays and high heels to moving to new cities and pursuing new careers.

In fact, more than we like to admit, glamour influences our answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Stars of their own show

For young children, to whom the very idea of adulthood is alluring and exotic, the responses are almost always pure glamour: movie star, athlete, fireman, model, pilot, dancer, and, especially for the preschool set, princess or superhero. Children, their answers tell us, long for lives of power, excitement, beauty, fame, and significance.

So do adults. Whether experienced as children or young adults, the idealised professions we glimpse through books, movies, and TV shows often determine grown-up career choices — most of which have nothing to do with the stereotypically ‘glamorous’ trades of fashion or show business.

Longings for beauty or fame aren’t the only desires glamour can serve. “In Michael Herr’sDispatches he says something about each of us starring in our own movie, picking up cues on how we should act in a given situation from every movie on the subject we’ve seen,’ observes aerospace engineer Dan Hollenbaugh, reflecting on the glamour that shaped his own career choices. “Every man wants to be like Cary Grant. I’d guess that a lot of us choose our life’s work based on the images (written and visual) we pick up from our parents and culture as children.”

The appeal of a cool career

In the mid-20th century, when Hollenbaugh was young, aerospace was intensely glamorous, just as aviation had been earlier. (RAF pilots were known as ‘glamour boys’ between the wars, a phrase that was both a tribute to the knights of the air and a jab from their Earth-bound comrades.) In the 1950s and 60s, the power and promise of space exploration and supersonic flight featured prominently in popular culture.

“I’m an aerospace engineer,” says Hollenbaugh, who works on air defense programmes for the US Army, “because of my father’s stories about the US Army Air Force in World War II, because of the war film Twelve O’Clock High, because of the original seven astronauts and the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programmes when I was a boy, because Fred MacMurray looked so cool playing Steve Douglas, the aero engineer father in the sitcom My Three Sons, with his sleeves rolled up, perched over a drawing board.”

Howard Roark, the uncompromising hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, has similarly inspired countless architects and designers. A generation of American reporters went into journalism because of the glamorous portrayal of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men. In a tribute to their ongoing allure, the Danish TV drama Borgen includes a poster from the movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman on the back of its hard-driving young reporter’s apartment door.

Glossing over the flaws

As a teenager, the economist Paul Krugman — now better known for his fiercely partisanNew York Times columns than for the scholarship that won him a Nobel Prize — read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. These science fiction classics feature a planned society that is managed using a perfectly predictive science of human behaviour called psychohistory. The idea of “saving civilization through the mathematics of human behaviour” entranced the young Krugman. “I wanted to be a psychohistorian when I grew up,” he writes, “and economics was as close as I could get.”

In the 1990s American law school applications shot up as the TV show L.A. Law made the lives of litigators seem impossibly glamorous. Writing in the American Bar Association Journal, a critic complained that “in a typical day in La-La Land, beautiful lawyers drive beautiful cars to the beautiful office, discuss sex with twins at a firm meeting, leave for court to win a case that is not only on the ‘right side’ but very lucrative, then go to a beautiful dinner with tonight’s beautiful sexual conquest.” More recently, university forensic science programmes identified the ‘CSI Effect’, as students flocked to a career made suddenly glamorous by crime dramas highlighting the importance of the work and hiding its tedium.

The truth in the illusion

The word ‘glamour’ originally meant a literal magic spell, and it always contains an element of illusion. Societies aren’t as easily reduced to equations as Isaac Asimov or the young Paul Krugman imagined. Real-life criminalists wait for days or weeks, not hours, for lab results. Aerospace engineers live with endless bureaucratic frustration. Designers and architects can’t simply ignore what clients want. Most reporters never get near the White House.

But glamour is an illusion that tells the truth about who we are and who we want to be. When LinkedIn surveyed 8,000 members around the world, around a third said they now have either their childhood dream job or a career related to it. Those dreams weren’t just fantasies — they were inspirations.

Writing in Elle, essayist Emma Rosenblum recalls her college days watching Sex and the City: “Here was a thrilling glimpse of grown-up New York, a place where you could have guiltless sex, wear crazy-stylish clothes, and sip Cosmos with your BFFs without flashing a fake ID.” That glamorous vision was largely an illusion, but it wasn’t entirely false. “Like young Carrie,” Rosenblum writes, “I once dreamed of a life awash in glamour, romance, and pink Martinis. And now I’m a writer in New York. To some extent, you could say I got it.”

Eyes on the (fictional) prize

Taken as a guide rather than the literal truth, even improbable forms of glamour can channel desire into personal fulfilment. As an impoverished and abused teenager, Oprah Winfrey found her version of career glamour in the TV newsroom of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a hit sitcom in the 1970s featuring the eponymous actress as a smart and stylish, if sometimes awkward, reporter.

“I wanted to be Mary,” says Winfrey. “I wanted to live where Mary lived. I wanted Mr Grant [Mary’s newsroom boss] in my life. I wanted my boss to be like that.” A series whose comedy was largely based on embarrassing situations, the show wasn’t intended to be glamorous. But the right audience can always edit away the flaws.

For Winfrey, the show provided an alluring portrait of friendship, collegiality, meaningful work, personal safety and economic independence. Despite their quirks and sometimes ridiculous failings, the characters lived interesting, fun-filled lives without significant hardship. The setting — the idea and ideal of the characters’ lives — was far more important than the details of any particular plot.

Following Mary’s example, Winfrey pursued a career in television news. Although she struggled as a news anchor, she soon found her calling as a talk show host. One of the highlights of her triumph as a TV star in her own right was re-creating The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening credit sequence, with herself in the leading role. It ends with her tossing her hat joyfully in the air, just like Mary does. “Whenever I’m having a down day,” she told her audience in 1997, “I just pop that recording in. I love that!” She had projected herself into a glamorous fiction and, with a few adjustments, made it come true.

It’s not all ideas and dinner parties

I also found life-changing glamour in something meant to be anything but glamorous: the portrayal of New York intellectual life in a memoir by Norman Podhoretz, the long-time editor of the magazine Commentary. Published in 1967, Making It was actually something of an exposé, revealing the ruthless ambition and careerist jockeying of people who presumed they were above all such petty concerns. Ambition, Podhoretz argued, was “the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” The book was supposed to deglamourise intellectual life.

But reading it in around 1980 as a college student with nothing against ambition, I found the book’s picture of people arguing about politics and literature over dinner — and making a decent living editing journals of ideas — entrancing. I decided that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I forgot that New York, 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.

Nonetheless, like Oprah, I managed anyway. I’ve never lived in New York and I’m still no good at the dinner thing. 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.

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (Simon & Schuster). She is also a columnist for Bloomberg View and a member of the Libertine100.

Join us at The Trouble Club, London, on June 30th for some enchanting ideas with one of the US’s foremost literary and cultural critics. Virginia will take us through the aesthetics of persuasion, from the golden age of Hollywood to Revlon’s striding woman. More information here.