Glamour: A History.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Glamour: A History (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Gundle, Stephen|
Glamour: A History. By Stephen Gundle (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2008. 464 pp. $39.95).
In his pathbreaking study, Stephen Gundle surveys the history of the sprawling subject of glamour from the late eighteenth century to the present and brings it under control. Primarily using secondary sources, published memoirs, and his considerable intuitive skills, Gundle has written the first general history of what has become a central drive of our contemporary consumer culture and its expressions in the popular culture that accompanies it. Everyone responds to the concept of glamour, but who understands its precise meaning?
Gundle traces the origins of the concept of glamour to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the spectacular court of Napoleon Bonaparte, largely based on fanciful precedents, and the romantic movement of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century more generally, with its emphasis on magical realms of existence and belief. He continues his story of glamour as it evolves in the nineteenth-century courtesan culture of England and France, in the popular theater, and then, by the 1920s, in Hollywood films. He brings his narrative to the present, pausing to focus on the glamour of Parisian high fashion in the 1950s, on the its recirculation in the 1970s in disco culture and in the lifestyles of such artists as Andy Warhol, and on its close relationship to the narcissistic and materialistic culture that arose in the 1980s and that has persisted until very recently.
Gundle realizes the connection of glamour to nineteenth-century aristocratic and then middle-class display and to the advent of photography and the growth of commercialism and urbanism. He especially connects its development to the advent of modernity. The nebulous concept of modernity, now in fashion among many historians, has replaced Marxist ideas about material conditions and class as the driving force behind historical change. Gundle understands the tricky relationship between glamour and sexuality, as the protean concept slowly expanded over time to covet the naked subject as well as the covered subject. Rooted in ancient notions of shape-shifting and the ability of the human eye to cast negative spells over others, glamour always had attached to it undertones of perversity as well as of spectacle and glorious display.
Anyone attempting to write about glamour quickly discovers that the subject is elusive. Thus, not surprisingly, Gundle hits hurdles throughout his work. Since the word "glamour" was not used in novels and plays until the late nineteenth century, it is difficult to tell if he is writing about the views of contemporaries on the subject of glamour or creating his own history and taxonomy. Nor is he entirely clear why it took so long for the word "glamour" to enter standard English usage, given the fact that other words from ancient cultures of magic, like "charm" "allure" and "bewitch" can be found in use as early as Shakespeare. Curiously, in light of his attention to Scott, he misses Scott's major introduction of the word "glamour" in his Essays on Demonology and Witchcraft. In that work Scott traces the origins of glamour to the Icelandic sagas.
Although Gundle fixes on "modernity" as a major cause for the spread of glamour, he makes little attempt to connect "glamour" to theories of colonization, transnationalism, or feminist theories of "performativity." He pays no attention to the history of fashion models in the 1900s and 1910s and only limited attention to the history of "beauty" itself, in terms of ideal standards of appearance. Failing to make distinctions between eras leads him into questionable assumptions, such as arguing that the "flapper" model of the 1920s was regarded as "glamorous" by contemporaries rather than exactly the opposite. I disagree with his interpretation of Greta Garbo as created by Hollywood, an interpretation that he bases on one biography. My own research indicates that Mauritz Stiller, the great Swedish director and her primary mentor, changed her appearance long before .she came to Hollywood. Similarly, his comments on Marilyn Monroe are banal and out-of-date. She was much, much more than just a glamorous sex symbol.
Still, my criticisms of Gundle on glamour could be interpreted as quibbles with an analyst who has attempted the near impossible: to make extensive generalizations about a subject that theorists have analyzed but that historians have never precisely written about. Glamour, as Gundle is well aware, is a protean concept, with multiple meanings. Its very complexity has made it appealing. Anything can be described as glamorous, so long as it seems distant, from the regular realms of life and on some level inspires awe, envy, fantasy, or a sexual response. Cultural entrepreneurs and showmen have easily identified it with their products, as Hollywood filmmakers did to refer to their film stars from the 1920s through the 1950s and advertisers to advertise products that were sexualized or identified with upper-class, avant-garde, or celebrity lifestyles. And, as Gundle makes clear, one cannot understand modern commercial culture without understanding the concept of glamour that has accompanied it.
For a complicated, well-written, and interesting introduction to the history of glamour, Gundle's book is highly recommended.
University of California
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