When Kim Kardashian posts Instagram photos of her nearly bare backside and Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie to meet with investors, it’s no wonder people assume glamour is dead.
In a world that prizes transparency, honesty, and full disclosure, the very idea seems out of place. Glamour is an illusion that conceals flaws and distractions. It requires mystery and distance, lest too much information breaks the spell. How can its magic possibly survive in a world of tweeting slobs?
But glamour does in fact endure. It is far more persistent, pervasive, and powerful than we realize. We just have trouble recognizing it, because it has so many different incarnations, many of which have nothing to do with Hollywood or fashion.
Glamour isn’t just a style of dress or a synonym for celebrity. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that triggers a distinctive emotional response: a sensation of projection and longing. What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, depends on who we are.
One person who yearns to feel special finds glamour in the image of U.S. Marines as “the few, the proud,” while another dreams of getting into the city’s hottest club and yet another imagines matriculating at Harvard. For some people, a glamorous vacation means visiting a cosmopolitan capital with lots to do and see. For others, it means a tranquil beach or mountain cabin. The first group yearns for excitement, the second for rest. All of these things are glamorous—but to different people.
Although glamour often provides no more than a moment of imaginative escape, it can also motivate real-world action. It shapes our decisions about what to buy, where to live, which careers to pursue, where to invest, even how to vote.
It may be hard to remember now, but in 2008 Barack Obama was more glamorous than any movie star. Like John Kennedy in 1960, he combined youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. He was charming yet self-contained, an alluring contrast to the too-familiar Hillary Clinton, and his international upbringing and biracial ethnicity added to his appeal. He was glamorous because he was different, and his differences mirrored his audience’s aspirations for the country. The young senator also had little national record, allowing supporters to project diverse political yearnings onto him. “Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test,” his friend Cassandra Butts told Rolling Stone. “People see in him what they want to see.”
Glamorous politicians are relatively rare, since it’s hard to maintain the requisite mystery. But glamorous political ideas are common. They include grand utopian visions, from a perfectly planned economy to a libertarian paradise, as well as narrow policies, such as a high-speed rail system or a national sales tax. In all such cases, difficulties and details are hidden, creating a graceful ideal. Magical databases are common on TV dramas but, as the administration is learning to its chagrin, they’re hard to create in real life. Glamour can rightly be only a guide, not a destination.
As a guide, however, it can be positive and life-changing. Take careers. You don’t have to be an aspiring actor or model to be influenced by glamour. A generation of American reporters went into journalism because of the glamorous portrayal of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men. The CSI shows similarly sent young people flocking to forensic-science programs. Howard Roark, the uncompromising hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, has inspired countless architects and designers. (“I ended up reading it eight times before my junior year of college,” confessed the prominent graphic designer Michael Bierut in a 2004 essay.)
“I’m an aerospace engineer,” says Dan Hollenbaugh, who works on air defense programs for the U.S. Army, “because of my father’s stories about the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, because of 12 O’clock High, because of the original seven astronauts and the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs when I was a boy, because Fred MacMurray looked so cool playing Steve Douglas, the aero engineer father in My Three Sons, with his sleeves rolled up perched over a drawing board.” During Hollenbaugh’s formative years, space was intensely glamorous.
We still see the effects of that midcentury glamour in the money today’s billionaires are pouring into private space programs. But the era’s ubiquitous rocket ship images, which added futuristic allure to everyday products, have been replaced by new icons. Popping up on ads for everything from Volkswagen cars to Aveda shampoo, Skyy vodka to Goldman Sachs, wind turbine images are the new evocative symbols of technological hope. Glamour doesn’t disappear. It merely changes form.
Virginia Postrel (vpostrel.com) is the author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion.