Glamour: A History, By Stephen Gundle

A substantial book about an insubstantial, yet somehow fascinating, topic

Reviewed,Jonathan Sale
Tuesday 29 July 2008 00:00 BST

As Fitzgerald nearly said to Hemingway: "The glamorous are different from you and me." And as Hemingway did say to Fitzgerald: "Yes, they've got more money." Or, as the supermodel Linda Evangelista put it, "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day." You don't want to hold glamorous folk up to the light. The Great Gatsby had glamour in spades, especially when played by Robert Redford, but the funds for his fantastic parties came from bootlegging during Prohibition. And it was bootlegging that gave Joe Kennedy the cash to turn his son Jack into 50 per cent of the world's most glamorous couple.

Glamour is not even skin-deep; it is clothes-deep. Some credited with it are not It Girls at all. Stephen Gundle holds the revisionist view that Marie Antoinette's allure was not strong enough to reach where it really mattered, to the mobs outside Versailles. As a consequence, they gave her the thumbs – and guillotine – down.

Glamour is a substantial book about an insubstantial topic. Professor Gundle takes a stern look at its fripperies but does not destroy the allure felt even by those of us who affect charity-shop chic. The word can mean "beaver", as in "glamour shots". It has been the title of several magazines. "Glamour is a weapon and a protective coating," he writes. "The element of pretend or make-believe is a crucial part of the illusion." He quotes a sociologist's description: "the expensive look of an expensive woman who feels herself to be expensive."

However, Gundle continues persuasively, glamour has been democratised or, to put it another way, commercialised. The fantastic dress on the catwalk – like wearing a price tag, and not always much bigger – will be beyond the credit cards of most women, but the lipstick and perfume from the same fashion house will be just within reach. "Glamour is best seen as an alluring image that is closely related to consumption," writes Gundle, noting that Diana, Princess of Wales's ascent to superstardom coincided with a revamp of ready-to-wear and a public hankering after designer labels.

Some time ago, Debenhams offered "top-to-toe glamour in minutes" – 15 minutes for the girl in the biggest hurry. Presumably it occurred to no customer that, if glamour can be rubbed on in a quarter of an hour, it can't be all that exclusive. Or perhaps they believe, as Andy Warhol might, that everyone can be glamorous for 15 minutes. Either way, it seems to work.

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