Glam Against The Machine

What does glamour mean today, and how might we dig into its magical roots to resist the dehumanising effects of this era’s technological advances?


There’s some dispute over where the word ‘glamour’ comes from. It’s similar to the Ancient Greek ‘grammárion’, meaning the weight of ingredients used to make magic potions, and the old English ‘grammar’ meaning scholarship, particularly regarding occult learning. There’s the Scots word ‘glamer’ (and earlier ‘gramarye’) which means enchantment or spell. And there’s an Old Norse connection to ‘glámr’ (moon, or ghost) and ‘gl.msýni’, which means illusion – literally, ‘glam-sight’. Fittingly, it would appear to be some sort of alchemical concoction of all of these.

Today, we take glamour to mean beauty, allure and sex appeal; we might riff on the industrialised elegance of the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood star system or the all-out glam assaults of the ’80s. It is by definition that hard-to-define quality that makes people and things more appealing. But we’ve moved away from the magic at its heart: the study of the occult, creation of illusion – the ‘glam-sight’ itself. Because what is it to use materials in combination to produce a feeling of enchantment within someone else, if not a form of witchcraft?

“Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration,” wrote author Virginia Postrel. “It evokes an audience’s hopes and dreams and makes them seem attainable, all the while maintaining enough distance to sustain the fantasy.” In her 2013 book, The Power of Glamour, Postrel examines the “pleasurable pang of desire” glamour creates within us. She argues it is a seductive and insidious cultural force, reaching far beyond fashion and film, affecting us in terms of what we buy, where we live, even the jobs we do.

Today, we take glamour to mean beauty, allure and sex appeal; we might riff on the industrialised elegance of the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood star system or the all-out glam assaults of the ’80s.

How else might we explain the intense competition for impoverishing positions in the creative industries, or absurd price tags for shoebox apartments in our cities’ fashionable neighbourhoods, let alone the billions of dollars spent on clothes and make-up every day? Glamour, as weaponised by modern marketing, taps into our innermost dreams and turns them against us. Helpless, we are in thrall to its spell.

Can it even affect how we choose our leaders? “Barack Obama has brought glamour back to American politics,” Postrel wrote, back in a more innocent time. “Not the faux glamour-by-association of campaigning with movie stars or sailing with the Kennedys, but the real thing. The candidate himself is glamorous. Audiences project onto him the personal qualities and political positions they want in a president.”

And today, what is Donald Trump but a grotesque parody of glamour? Like the cigar-chomping bully-president Biff of the future-dystopia in the Back to the Future sequel, Trump is a “poor man’s idea of a rich person”, as Vanity Fair’s Fran Lebowitz commented – a reality TV simulacrum of power and luxury. His world is one of private planes loaded with KFC buckets, gaudy penthouses with gilded bathrooms, Cold War-era fantasies of space warriors, a basilisk-faced glamour-model wife, almost comic levels of corruption and nepotism, and the power to hire and fire at will. If there’s one thing Trump is good at, it’s projecting an image of conspicuous consumption to create the illusion (now real) of power, desirability and prestige.

Of course, all glamour is artifice, designed to play on our unconscious fantasies. Golden Age Hollywood studios knew what their audiences wanted, especially during the Great Depression.

Stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were presented in controlled environments, draped in designer gowns and unimaginably exquisite jewellery, while male stars like Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Clark Gable appeared chiselled, stoic – lit to recreate the screen’s shimmering fantasies. Even electrolysis, plastic surgery and dental work were not uncommon; all that effortless style was hard-gained. We never saw them have a bad-hair day or splashed on the cover of a tabloid, make-up-free, on their way to pick up an almond-milk latte. In this era of all-access stardom, it can seem somewhat amusing, but it’s why the allure of that epoch still casts such a powerful spell. It’s this always-on glamour that modern stars like Lady Gaga have sought to emulate, a difficult assignment in this era of smartphones and social media.

“Glamour is the result of chiaroscuro, the play of light on the landscape of the face, the use of the surroundings through the composition, through the shaft of the hair and creating mysterious shadows in the eyes,” said filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, best known for his work with Dietrich on 1930’s The Blue Angel. “In Hollywood, stars as far apart as Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth and Dolores del Rio, own and acquire glamour, technology and willingness to refine the beauty of its own… indecipherable magic of the cinema.”

“Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration,” wrote author Virginia Postrel.

Glamour, then, is a peculiarly human artefact from the pre-digital era – a synthesis of light and material to create magic. Might it even be a way to resist the dehumanising encroaches of digital technology? In his new book Team Human, Douglas Rushkoff explains how technologies created as means of connection and expression now work to isolate and repress. As digital capabilities evolve, so does the progress towards creating more perfectly seamless simulations of real life – though, as Rushkoff says,

“The better digital simulations get, the better we humans get at distinguishing between them and the real world.”

 This is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, the point at which simulations or robots get so close to the real thing they induce feelings of discomfort. While what we consciously perceive appears real, our finely tuned nervous systems signal that we are interacting with the unreal, causing an evolutionary freakout.

As our society moves towards simulation, with Augmented Reality’s imminent ability to overlay a ghost ‘mirrorworld’ on top of our physical environment, so increases the importance of recognising and celebrating our humanity in the face of governments, corporations and algorithms that seek to define and constrain us for their benefit. As Rushkoff writes, “AIs [artificial intelligences] and other enforcers of social control can’t follow what they can’t categorise… We can assert our uniquely human sides through things like humour and pranks, music and magic… Weirdness crashes boundaries, forcing us to see our complicity in reality creation: we break free of the imposed program and experiment with alternatives… It’s a way of calling out to the others who have unplugged from their programming and are seeking to reclaim their humanity.”

Glamour is a uniquely human gift, a magic all of our own that cannot be fully comprehended or emulated by technology. Paradoxically, what can be exploited to sell to us can also be part of asserting who we are – a wilful expression of unconscious desire in an increasingly logical and limited world. In the rise of the machines, the resistance will be glamorous.

Published in Beauty Papers Issue Seven