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.
Finally, there was this sense that this thing called "the future," or "tomorrow," or "modernity" was something that would be achieved and would be like these glamorous images in some way.
Part of this was that there was a new form of luxury, which is very familiar to us today, but was new in that period. Luxuries weren’t just diamonds and furs and things that only rich people could have. There were also things like refrigerators or airplane travel that might be only for rich people at the moment, but that you in the future you could anticipate that it could be for you, the working stiff, because that was happening with technology.
For Americans, refrigerators weren’t so exotic, but I actually have a quote in the book from a British moviegoer (it was an interview done with her many decades later, but talking about when she was a teenager watching movies in the ‘30s and ‘40s) who talks about people in the movie Hoovering, or Americans would say vacuuming, or having refrigerators. Having refrigerators and vacuums were exotic forms of futurism to her. They were luxuries to her and they were very glamorous. There was this notion of, whatever this thing called the future is, whatever it means to be modern, we’re sort of discovering this together through these glamorous images.
Gizmodo: You write about how the glamour of modernity in the 1930s countered this routine of boredom. Do you think most futurists are simply bored with life? Is that the engine that drives glamour sometimes?
Postrel: Well, I think there are different forms. Glamour is always driven by some form of dissatisfaction. In order to imagine your life as different and better you have to be willing to acknowledge that it’s not perfect. You have to have some sense of discontent. And you also have to have the imaginative space — the permission to feel that actually could be different. Now, that may be kind of a true fantasy, something that couldn’t really happen. But a lot of times it’s just something that’s improbable or distant.
One form of dissatisfaction is boredom. Another form is hardship, and those things can go together because people who have difficult lives often have an element of that as a kind of drudgery at work. But boredom and hardship are different. In the Jet Age after World War II, in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, jets represented a kind of escape from a boring existence or a sort of routine existence, which was itself in many ways the actualization of fantasies of people who were having hardship during the Depression.
As a matter of fact, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in the famous Futurama exhibit, the world that was depicted there was very much like the world of the 1960s. And so to people in the ’30s it was amazing—it was an escape from the crowding of the city, the difficulties of the Depression. But particularly from a more crowded, urban existence which may have been stimulating in some ways, but had other drawbacks. People imagined that if they could just spread out and have everybody have a quarter acre lot with a little house that would be heaven. And then you get to the 1960s and people have that and they’re not necessarily miserable, but they think, “Oh this is kind of boring. We want something else”.
So then you have the glamour around things like the jet set, international travel, James Bond—the notion of going to a lot of different places and experiencing a stimulating world. There are a few overlaps because I do quote somebody who had a boring suburban existence in the ‘40s who talks about watching movies in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and having that desire to travel. So it’s not as though everybody in the period is exactly the same. But there’s always that notion of a different life. You find glamour in things that have this promise of escape and transformation. So therefore there has to be something that’s dissatisfying about your current life. And one you may imagine is an escape into the future. That the future is a place where your dreams can come true and your dissatisfactions will be relieved.
Gizmodo: Do you think glamour and futurism aren’t as closely connected today? How do you see that evolution in the latter half of the 20th century and into today?
Postrel: I think they’re not as connected in the dominant culture. First of all, the culture is more generally fragmented. So different people are more likely to find glamour in different things. But from the ‘20s through the mid-60s, in the general popular culture the idea of the future was glamorous. There are still parts of the popular culture where you will find futurism being glamorous today. But they tend to be niches and subcultures. You have the the extropian radical life extension kind of people, and they have a sort of glamorous notion of the future. But I think even in mainstream science fiction, what interests people about the future is less that it’s glamorous and ideal and more that it’s different. So they're exploring different settings, but not necessarily ones that have an element of utopianism or idealism to them.
That said, we do have a lot of glamour still around technology. We don’t have as much glamour of the universal setting of "the future" as being glamorous. But there’s a glamour around self-driving cars, there’s a glamour around high-speed rail, if you consider that futuristic — some people consider that a 19th century technology. Even cloud computing has a certain kind of glamour.
But glamour and horror are also related. Horror is often sort of the flip side of glamour. Glamour is always hiding something. What is it hiding? The truth is, it’s probably hiding something kind of mundane, and the complications of life. But especially to people who are suspicious or have different values, there’s often a sense that it’s hiding something terrible. I talk about Frankenstein having a vision of himself and waking up to realize he’d created a monster. One of the things we have now is a glamour-horror around surveillance and big data and what people can do with databases. It leads us to exaggerate how easy these things are but also we’re afraid of them. And that’s an example where it can be seductive but we’re also afraid of it at the same time. Afraid in a way that we weren’t afraid of flying cars.
Bottom image: 1939 Vanity Fair fashion shoot, as scanned from the book Exit to Tomorrow: World's Fair Architecture, Design, Fashion 1933-2005