Glam Up: The Performance Of Style By Colin McDowell
Defining glamour is not easy. Most attempts are vague, even in love songs: ’S Wonderful by Gershwin included the line, “You make my life so glamorous, you can’t blame me for feeling amorous.” It was a great song, but not exactly a definitive last word on what glamour is about. The word itself was first chronicled in Scotland in the early 18th century, when it meant magic, enchantment and a spell – not so far away from how we view it today.
Right from early days it was never considered that glamour was something ordinary, or part of everyday life. And, of course, it still isn’t. Of all the words used to describe appearance or lifestyle, glamour is the least precise. For many people, the late Zsa Zsa Gabor was considered glamorous; for others it might be the cool understatement of Tilda Swinton that says “glamour”. What makes glamour different is the fact that it is very difficult to pin down to a meaning that makes sense for us all. One man’s idea of glamour might mean something to do with sexuality, whereas another might think that anything glamorous is to do with wealth and the pampering that comes with it.
Certainly, for most of us, a limo purring gently for us outside a top restaurant where it is almost impossible to get a table is part of a double-whammy definition of glamour as a giver of power. And anyone who has enjoyed staying in a five-star hotel – even for only one night – knows that the bathroom, usually the most glamorous room in the suite, is what visitors talk about before any of the other luxurious features. Perhaps that’s why bathroom products are top of the list of things stolen by hotel guests. But of course, really glamorous people – and they can be men as well as women, as Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada proves – never steal things from hotels. They are too rich and usually too proud to do anything cheap.
So, it comes as no surprise that to define glamour in dress is no easier than tying it down in other areas of life. But there are certain pointers to traditional attitudes to glamour, in that someone who is glamorous in appearance and lifestyle always seems more alluring and superior to the rest of us. What they have can be something we can also have (on a less elevated level), but what a really glamorous person has is a consistent appearance, largely independent of the ups and downs of fashion change.
True glamour can never be transitory. It is, after all, nothing other than a certain mindset, and it is a permanent, unchanging and usually subconscious one. You either have it in all things or you don’t. When we look at Anna Wintour we know that she will never change her hairstyle, wear different heels or start ordering her sunglasses in frames of the sort so beloved of Iris Apfel, herself a much-loved fashion icon who also qualifies as a glamorous woman because, although the clothes and the colours might be very different from each other, the effect is always coherent.
But let’s go back a little. Magnificence and grandeur in dress has been common since the 14th century, but it was really not until the late 19th century, with over- the-top theatrical divas such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose appearance always involved various big-cat furs and quite a few fine feathers – or Isadora Duncan, dancing in bare feet, without corset or brassiere and happy that she was shocking her fans – that glamour became the new magnificence. By the mid-1920s, Hollywood had taken both the term and the thing itself as its own. For early stars such as Clara Bow or the Dolly Sisters, glamour was part of the act. Publicity agents and stars both knew if the light of reality (and therefore ordinariness) were allowed in, then the illusion was gone, and the star’s moment with it.
That is why in the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood spent millions of dollars every year to stop the light of common day illuminating the fact that most stars were not much different from their admirers. Amazing stories were spun by the publicity departments of the great lm companies. In the Depression, they highlighted the glamour as never before or since. Thousands of film fan magazines were filled with details of the costumes for films featuring the top stars, and readers were told that everything on screen was genuine. If a fur coat was worn in a scene, it was a real mink coat, ocelot, or even tiger. A diamond necklace was just that: a real diamond necklace. Vast amounts were spent on both the screen and public appearance of stars such as Gloria Swanson and Mae West, who very early on in her career decided that white was about her sort of glamour, just as satin was her fabric. She shimmered as much off the screen as she did on it and made high-shine materials sexy, in and out of the bedroom.
That was all showbiz glamour in those Great Gatsby days, but there was a more realistic form of glamour beginning to develop in the design and wardrobe departments of MGM, Columbia and all the other big movie companies. As the horrors of the Depression began to fade, films became more realistic, not as reflections of how America was, but as a projection of how it could be. It took time for the genre of swashbuckling pirates and men of action personified by Douglas Fairbanks to be overshadowed by actors who played the part of real people, in modern dress. Actors of the world profile of Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable (although the latter’s greatest part was in the costume drama Gone with the Wind) – all dressed like the Prince of Wales, their clothes on and off the stage being made on Savile Row and paid for by the studio. It was a wise choice, followed today not only by Hollywood stars but also many US designers who know that perfect tailoring is the bedrock of male glamour. Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs both go to Savile Row for tuxedos, as does style icon Manolo Blahnik. Even today, Jermyn Street shirtmakers have more Americans on their books than even British customers. And as we all know, that square mile in central London is still at the glamour centre of men’s dress, just as Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris is for women’s.
But female fashion was not ignored by Hollywood. Having tried out European designers such as Chanel and Schiaparelli with mixed success in the 1920s and 1930s, by the 1940s the major studios had the confidence to create their own glamour fashion. And they were able to do so only because they realised what European designers were creating for their runways and the private clients who bought from them. Hollywood designers were not creating clothes to sell. The job was to sell the lm through the public’s loyalty to its star. But, paradoxically, designers of film wardrobes such as Adrian, Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett and, in the 1950s, Edith Head, all found that the costumes they designed for films were influencing high streets and customers around the world – not surprisingly, when we realise that a successful lm was seen by millions of women across the globe who never picked up a fashion magazine in their lives and certainly did not receive invitations to the runway shows in Paris.
And the look that Hollywood created and kept for almost 40 years? Well, just as in menswear, it was the British aristocratic look that stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford wore for the cameras. It was their perfectly cut tweed skirts, suede jackets, fine woollen suits and silk blouses that Hollywood saw as glamorous – and they were all born in the English shires, as were the accents that American actresses were encouraged to use.
It was probably inevitable that the worlds of European and Hollywood glamour would come together in reality and they did so twice. Mrs Simpson married her Prince Charming wearing a dress that was by the American designer Mainbocher, but it could have been by any couturier working in London. In 1956, for the wedding of screen goddess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of the royal House of Grimaldi and ruler of Monaco, the bride came down the aisle in a dress designed by Helen Rose, who had created a high-fashion wardrobe for Kelly in High Society. The wedding was televised and watched by more than 30 million people across the globe. To enhance the glamour of an event already as glamorous as anything Hollywood could produce, Kelly, from a family of athletes in Philadelphia, was given the title of Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco.
As the age of fashion began to drop, so glamour began to take on a new persona. Globally loved singers and stars such as Olivia Newton-John, Madonna and Amy Winehouse were the opposite of glamorous in the old style. The freedoms that they enjoyed to run their lives as they wished certainly made them glamorous and enviable to millions of young women, but the thing that made them different from the popular heroines of the past was that the fans could, and did, dress in the same way. And it was glamorous – not in the Babe Paley or Mona Bismarck New York high society “mink and couture” way of the past, but in the new glamour way, on the big-city streets. Everything had changed, forever, and not even an editor with such keen fashion antennae as Diana Vreeland at Vogue could turn the tide. She was sacked because she could not see that her idea of glamour meant nothing to any woman under 50 – or even 60. It had been routed by the first wave of female warriors: Dusty Springfield, Roberta Flack and Helen Reddy. They were the early ones, but they were fighting world stars such as Kim Novak, Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren, who still managed to hold on to some of the attitudes of the past and never made a public appearance that wasn’t full-on glamorous.
But away from the recording studio and film set, high fashion, prematurely consigned to the dustbin, fought back and, after a disastrous decade in the 1970s, reintroduced couture for a new market: the Gulf princesses. And they got it right. Couture sells better now than it has for a very long time. It’s still about glamour, but the glamour is different. And it is still needed, as the TV viewing figures for red-carpet events across the world, and especially the Oscars, make clear. The world switches on the television to see beautiful women in beautiful clothes, and there the glamour stops. But the effect of red-carpet dressing is giving modern, wearable fashion a new lease of life for women everywhere. Spearheaded by Tom Ford when he was at Gucci, it is now in the safe hands not only of cutting-edge designers such as Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada, but also the high-society fashion of nouveau riche couture consumers such as the Kardashians, who wield a world influence that is taken very seriously by fashion designers. And, new but potent, the Trump ladies, who believe in dressing up, not down.
Predicting anything in the quicksilver world of fashion is dangerous, but it does not take a crystal ball to see that a useful weapon in the battle for the hearts and minds of America will be the glamour of his family’s ladies and the way they dress. Is it too fanciful to foresee their power rivalling that of Jackie Kennedy as the best-dressed and most glamorous women in the history of American politics?
Taken from Issue 58 of 10 Women, ANGELS PLEASURE FLUID, on newsstands now…
Text Colin McDowell
Illustration Stephen Doherty