Futurism and glamour are inextricably linked in American history. The sleek techno-utopian futures of yesteryear—the ones filled with flying cars, jetpacks, and automatic highways—couldn't exist without the support of this concept that's equal parts intrigue and attraction.
Virginia Postrel's new book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, looks at glamour as a powerful force in our culture. I talked with Postrel, who writes a regular column for Bloomberg, about the role that glamour has played in shaping our expectations for the future—from the Futurama exhibit of the 1939 World's Fair to the Jet Age dreams of the 1960s.
I also asked Postrel about glamour in the futurism of today, and why the two concepts might feel less connected than ever. Can we embrace a glamorous future when the headlines are filled with techno-centric fears? And is there perhaps a dash of glamour mixed in with our modern concerns about tomorrow?
Gizmodo: How do you define glamour?
Postrel: I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object—something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car—and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.
Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”
And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.
Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.
Gizmodo: Why do you think Americans remember the 1920s and '30s as the Golden Age of Glamour, and what role did futurism play during this era?
Postrel: Glamour was incredibly important in the 1920s and ‘30s—in the interwar period. We remember it as a Golden Age of Glamour partly because of the association with glamour and the movies. But glamour occurred in many different forms during that period—everything from the first superhero comic books to streamlined design.
There were all different forms of glamour in that period and one thing they had in common was that they were in fact common—that people were sharing the same forms of glamour for the first time and in a different way. In the previous era there was a lot of glamour in big commercial cities, but if you lived in the rural areas you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to those forms. In the interwar period you have mass communication that brings people into contact with many different possible forms of glamour. Whether it’s stories about Charles Lindbergh and aviation, which is very glamorous in that period; or whether it’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies; or whether it’s ads for automobiles. You might be driving a Model-T but you could see these ads of even more glamorous, transformative kinds of cars. Or trips to exotic locations that you might never go to, but were in the publications that you would see.