Elevate Difference

Glamour: Women, History, Feminism

The word glamour has lost a lot of its allure and power these days, bandied about by fashion writers who use glamour interchangeably with polished, chic, elegant, and sophisticated. (Hey, I've been guilty of this occasionally!) That was the conclusion I came to after reading Glamour: Women, History, Feminism by Carol Dyhouse, a scholarly and well-researched book by a social historian.

Society's attitude towards glamour has changed depending on the fashions of the time, Dyhouse argues. Although it might be easy to peg glamour as a male-manufactured concept that traps women with rigid concepts of female attractiveness and breeds a vicious consumer cycle, she sees glamour differently. Instead, glamour is a force associated with "women on the make": women who use the trappings of glamour—clothes, cosmetics, furs, feathers, and lavish jewelry—to transcend class and gender barriers and prescribed societal norms, and to escape the drudgery and burdens of everyday life.

To support her arguments, Dyhouse looks at the evolution and vilification of glamour throughout the twentieth century. Screen sirens and Hollywood films popularized it in the 1930s and '40s and inspired working class girls to emulate the styles of their favourite actresses. However, even when glamour was at its peak, conservative societal elements objected to it. Older generations deemed wearing cosmetics immodest. The editor of British Vogue encouraged young girls to sport a "natural English look" instead of the crass painted-on look of American actresses. The upper classes disapproved of working class girls dressing "above their station" in the hopes of attracting suitors who were better off.

Glamour fell out of fashion in later decades. The 1950s saw the rise of Dior's New Look and domestic femininity, which stressed demure, elegant beauty over artifice and excess—more Grace Kelly than Gloria Swanson. The '60s marked the rise of the gamine girl (e.g., Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Audrey Hepburn), whose mod clothes and doe-eyed innocence stood in marked contrast to the womanly aura of glamour girls. The emphasis on natural looks in the '70s meant an even more radical departure from glamour. But there were some signs of a resurgence: musicians, Motown acts, and the founding of Cosmopolitan magazine paved the way for the glamazons of the 1980s and the resurgence of full-blown glamour.

I realize I'm being glib in my summary of Glamour, but a short blog post can't do justice to the wealth of detail and research that Dyhouse presents here (with lots of illustrated examples, no less!). A scholarly book can easily slip into joyless perfunctory prose full of -isms and jargon, but she writes with a genuine enthusiasm for her subject. I really enjoyed this glamorous romp through the twentieth century, and hey, if anything, I will never take the word glamour for granted again.

Cross-posted at Solo Lisa

Written by: Lisa Wong, August 20th 2010