What is Glamour? (part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of “What is Glamour?” I said glamour is characterized by aloofness and distance in performance.  Yet there is more to glamour than being removed from one’s audience.  Generating a measure of mystery and inspiring interest also characterize glamour.  Further, all of this must be balanced with the appropriate appearance.  There is no fixed visual lexicon for what constitutes the right appearance yet one can expect heightened theatricality, originality, attention to details, and polish.

Drag remains a useful lens for thinking about what constitutes glamour.  Drag as I define it is: “the presentation of self through dress and performance to satisfy recipient or audience expectations associated with a social category” (Hall-Araujo 2013: 214).  Glamour itself constitutes a kind of drag though certainly not all drag is glamorous.  Drag queens frequently strive for a glamorous appearance—often tinged with parody—though they may just as easily aim for mock glamour as in the case of Divine (1945-1988).

Divine in Pink Flamingos
Divine parodies glamour in Pink Flamingos (1972)

Glamour is by no means reserved only for drag queens.  Actual royalty often exemplifies glamour.  A bust of the ancient Egyptian royal, Nefertiti (1371 BCE-1331 BCE), suggests a glamorous public figure.  Her sociopolitical position automatically distances her from her subjects.  What is more, wealth, slaves, and other resources allow her to adorn herself in an exceptional and distinctive fashion. 

Nefertiti bust from the German Neues Museum

Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) provides another historic example of someone who deftly negotiates her public image to generate drama.  Her highly decorated appearance, power, and social remove from her subjects contribute to her glamour.  In addition to the proliferation of artists’ portraits, the poet Edmund Spenser furthers her glamorous appeal with the publication of his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), in which the Faerie Queene serves as an allegory for the actual queen.

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I portrait (ca. 1575) from the National Portrait Gallery, London

Skipping ahead a few centuries we find glamour among Hollywood film stars.  Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) is one of the Golden Age’s most glamorous stars.  Part of her glamour appeal has to do with gender play in performance and appearance.  In Morocco (1930), she famously wears a top hat and tails for a nightclub performance, flirting with both men and women.  Dietrich’s performance is a gender parody that suggests sexual agency and—key for making it glamorous—sexual ambiguity (Hall-Araujo 2013: 107).  Queen Elizabeth I before her had already played with gender categories for the public presentation of self.  In her famous “Golden Speech” to Parliament delivered on November 30, 1601, she refers to herself as king, queen, and prince.

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich in a promotional photograph for Morocco (1930)

Men who are not drag queens can be glamorous too though one finds it less frequently.  Normative masculinity in the West tends not be sexually ambiguous, which is why it is more difficult to locate among non-drag queen men.  Among those popularly glamorous men in our culture, I am hard pressed to find an example of one who is not sexually ambiguous.  Seventies musicians Mick Jagger and David Bowie, for example, are glamorous.  Film icons James Dean and Carey Grant are also glamorous.  All of these men in both their performances and documented private lives played or have played with normative notions of masculinity in terms of dress and sexuality. 

David Bowie
David Bowie in Egyptian drag

David Bowie (b. 1947) is an excellent example of someone who has used highly theatrical drag to create a glamorous stage persona.  Makeup, physique, costume, and performance are brought together in ways that comment on normative gender categories.  In the enormous exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum (March 23-August 11, 2013), David Bowie is, the galleries are filled with hundreds of the performer’s notes, sketches, personal artwork, inspiration samples, costumes, and video clips.  When I visited the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (September 23, 2014-January 4, 2015), I was surprised to see his Berlin coke spoon on display.  The object would seem to be deeply personal—it is brought close to the mucous membranes of a bodily orifice for the express purpose of altering one’s lived experience—and yet somehow the spoon does little to eliminate his mystique.  Rather, the spoon further heightens interest in the “Thin White Duke” without marring his glamour.  The fine, delicate coke spoon becomes a kind of avatar for the performer in the exhibition context—beautiful, penetrating, and impenetrable.  Wall text indicates he used cocaine during a time when he was experiencing difficulty with success, creativity, and his relationships.  Despite this privileged information, David Bowie is ultimately unknowable and therein lies much of his glamorous appeal.

David Bowie's coke spoon
David Bowie’s coke spoon on exhibition

To remain public and yet unknown takes effort and charisma.  Among those who study religion, charisma constitutes exceptional leadership powers, which are supernaturally bestowed.  German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) expands the concept to include the secular as well as the religious.  Bowie possesses such secular charisma as demonstrated in an anecdote shared with me by a friend who is a Bowie acquaintance.  Says J., “Bowie and I were walking down the street in New York and I asked him why nobody recognized him or was bothering him.  He told me that he can turn it on and turn it off.  He said, ‘Watch this.’  Something changed—I don’t know what—and then all of a sudden people started running up to him.”

No one is glamorous by accident and the most glamorous people possess such charisma.  They are highly reflexive about their appearance and performance.  These qualities together with an air of mystery, ambiguity, and beautiful artistry in appearance combine to create glamour.


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