Glamour: A History

July 17, 2008

This book is a companion piece and very accessible follow-up to the academic scrutiny of The Glamour System, Gundle's 2006 work co-written with Clino Castelli. Here, too, the author examines - in far more detail - the origins, development and function of glamour. The word was first used in the early 19th century, and Gundle argues that the phenomenon of "glamour" was, in fact, a constituent feature of early modernity. It emerged with the transfer of power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, the role of the modern city as a site of social display, and the new culture of spectacle and consumption that followed the Industrial Revolution and political upheavals of the 18th century.

This book is a thoroughly comprehensive and meticulously researched history of glamour, that "performance or parade which has no meaning unless it is widely viewed". Gundle explains the function of glamour across two centuries of unprecedented social and technological change and analyses the part it has played in creating the particular cast of late capitalism.

In tracing glamour's history, Gundle uses an impressively interdisciplinary approach, combining primary and secondary source material with historical, political, sociocultural and economic analysis, examining architecture, painting, literature, fashion and every form of print journalism.

He moves through the arcades, the new department stores of the modern cityscape and the "birth of sex appeal" with the grandes horizontales of Paris to the emergence of Thorstein Veblen's "leisure class" and the cafe society of the 1920s and 1930s. A closely argued chapter defines the power of Hollywood's star system - still for many the epitome of glamour. Gundle looks at the postwar relationship between Europe and America - indeed, he stresses throughout "the dialectic between European and American ideas of glamour" - and chronicles the subsequent changes in consumer culture and the mass media. Finally, the closing chapters cover the "style, pastiche and excess" that characterise modern celebrity culture and the recent triumphing of the "luxury brand".

I have some mild criticisms. The chapter on 19th-century Paris taking us from the July Monarchy through the rampant hedonism of Napoleon III's "carnival empire", shows how entertainment and consumption were used "to divert attention from dictatorship and widespread poverty". Nevertheless, any reader whose knowledge of French history is imperfect might assume that his reign ended quite painlessly - there's no discussion of the war, the privations of the siege, the birth of the Commune and the subsequent butchery. Yes, the demi-mondaines reappeared as the grandes cocottes of the new regime - but "glamour" did not pass seamlessly from one regime into another.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in or working within popular culture, cinema and fashion, and recommended for anyone seeking a scholarly yet readable account of this potent phenomenon.

Glamour: A History

By Stephen Gundle
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199210985
Published 26 June 2008

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