Book Review: Glamour (new in paperback)

Katie Netherton earned her Masters degree from New York University in Material Culture: Costume Studies in 2002. Most recently she has worked on the historic documentation project at the Brooklyn Museum, and is currently an independent costume historian working with the Gordon Conway archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

Book: Glamour: Women, History, Feminism

Author: Carol Dyhouse

Book Review by: Katie Netherton

Carol Dyhouse, author of Glamour, is a Professor of History at the University of Sussex, and trained as a social historian and educator. She is not a fashion historian. If the reader is a fashion historian, and knows this before reading, it will be an easier read.

That said, her book ambitiously endeavors to trace the history of the meaning of “glamour,” beginning in 1900 and continuing to the 1990s. She begins by issuing a disclaimer of sorts, that the book is a broad study and is not meant to provide expertise on any one particular subject (p.5). This addition was definitely needed, because as you read, there can be a rather disjointed feeling at times, as if too much ground is trying to be covered in 168 pages of writing. Despite its lofty goal, the book is entertaining, informative and well illustrated. By tracking the use of “glamour” in marketing campaigns by several fashion-related industries, such as fur and perfume, Dyhouse proves how the concept changes according to societal influences and mores. The author also uses actresses and musicians, many of them British, as contemporary examples of the current idea of glamour from each time.

The reader also learns interesting factoids about the industries Dyhouse uses as her examples. For instance, many cosmetics companies used interesting names for their products to communicate to the customer that if they used it, they too would be glamorous. Some of these products, like “Cherries in the Snow”, a lipstick introduced by Revlon in 1953, are still sold today. In fact, I was inspired to buy a tube after reading this book, mainly because I was reminded of the advertising campaign, which touts that if you wear this certain “madly voluptuous” shade, you are as “strange and unexpected as cherries in the snow.” Brilliant!

The book is organized chronologically into chapters that explore how glamour manifested itself in specific time periods. Chapter one begins in 1900 and continues to the late 1920s. In the 19th century, “glamour” carried a negative connotation, and was linked to danger and women who exuded some sort of evil quality, like witches or sirens. With a new century, “glamour” suddenly meant something more positive, although still mysterious and definitely still a description for sexual allure. In chapters 2-3, the idea of “glamour” and how it is expressed through film is tackled. In the era of black and white film, the costume had to translate certain qualities without the benefit of color. Shiny silks and lame cut on the bias, iridescent black coq feathers, luminescent pearls, wispy ostrich feathers, stark red lips against a creamy complexion. Many provocative photographs from film are used to illustrate this point. Glamour as shown on screen by actresses like Marlene Dietrich, was a quality for everyday people to strive to emulate.

Chapter 4 picks up after World War II, as a new surge in femininity arrives with the wasp-waisted New Look and an upsweep in the couture industry. The idea of glamour changed from woman as sultry to princess. As a counter-point, however, pin-ups were popular in men’s magazines, as a by-product of the war. Therefore, women were either seen as perfect and somewhat unattainable, or as sex objects.

In the 1960s, especially in Britain, there was a rise in street style. Young people carved out their own style without leaning on what their parents prescribed. Magazines featured musicians and rock stars alongside actors, especially the newer publications that catered to a younger market. In Britain, models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton exemplified the youth culture, with their wide-eyed expressions and youthful, stick-thin bodies. Glamour at this time was considered too sophisticated, and accessories such as fur were equated with older, less independent, women. Feminism was also on the rise, and with the publication of books such as Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, glamour and fashion were sometimes seen as anathema to the independent woman, a repression of a new found power.

In chapter 6, the reader arrives in the 1970s-‘80s, and the rise of a woman who was more socially, financially and sexually powerful. Women had their own money to spend–one no longer had to depend on a man to buy her an expensive sable or mink. In the 1990s, celebrities, especially what they were wearing, became an obsession. Dyhouse singles out Princess Diana and Madonna as examples of this cult of celebrity phenomenon.

The last chapter, called “Perspectives and Reflections,” wraps up the book by giving Dyhouse’s thoughts and theories on what glamour means today. In summation, she writes that glamour is about “fantasy, desire and longing,” as well as “aspiration.” (p. 162-3).  No matter what time period, the word “maintains its power of suggestion, a connection with the dreams of the past.” (p.168).

The nuts and bolts of the book include an extensive notes section and bibliography, as well as an index, which is helpful to researchers. In essence, I feel that the target audience is mainly other social historians; however, a fashion historian like myself must always look to what else was happening in the world, in other industries, and in other countries to fully understand a trend or even a specific design.

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