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On Style: Glamour

2011 March 29

Carol Dyhouse, a professor at the University of Sussex, examines the concept of glamour in her new book, Glamour: Women, History, Feminism. My interest was piqued at the idea of an academic book about fashion and glamour, and I wasn’t disappointed. Dyhouse takes a look at the evolution of glamour, beginning in the 1800s, when it was associated with witchcraft and the occult. It gradually evolved to mean something a little mysterious, a little edgy, a little dangerous. Today, we associate glamour with the screen sirens of Old Hollywood: red lips, high heels, and glinting jewels. However, in the early 20th century, glamour was something that could be damaging to a woman’s reputation–working women were discouraged from wearing makeup or perfume so as not to seem vain or too “sexy.”

The book focuses on the fur business, the rise of fragrance, and the cosmetics industry, and also discusses Hollywood costume design in the decades that have come to epitomize glamour. In those days, feathers, fur, and sparkle were piled on–the more, the better. Women began wearing makeup as a way to define themselves as individuals with lives and interests outside the home. Illustrated with vintage ads and photos, the book is easy to follow, despite the many citations and notes and clear academic bent. It’s an intriguing read, especially for anyone interested in history and style.

I asked Carol a few questions about what glamour means to her:

  • What inspired you to write an academic book about the concept of glamour?

I’ve always been fascinated by what academics might call ‘the material culture of femininity’. In other words, girlie junk. The stuff you find at vintage fairs and car boot sales. Everything from old clothes and furs to costume jewellery, powder compacts and empty perfume bottles.

  • How did your conception of glamour evolve as you wrote this book?

Glamour is a weasel-word: its meaning shifts through time. But it has usually suggested something a bit sexy, a bit dangerous.

  • How has reading and/or writing influenced your personal style?

Ha! I like the look of 1950s cupcake dresses, but for me, they have too much association with downtrodden housewives. I wore Laura Ashley as a young woman but wouldn’t now. Too milk-maidy.

  • What was the last book you loved?

I’ve just finished reading Georgette Heyer’s ‘Regency Buck’. I’d never read any Heyer before. I assumed that she was a vulgar version of Jane Austen. But Regency Buck was great. Loads of fashion detail (’twilled sarcenet and scolloped lace’, cravats and snuff boxes). And some hilarious double-entendres about cock-fighting.

  • How do you define literary style?

A great style should be a bit seductive. Make you want to read on and discover new things, whilst feeling pleasure in the precision, rhythm and cadence of the words.

  • Who is your literary glamour icon, fictional or otherwise?

Maybe Angela Carter’s Fevvers, in in her magical novel ‘Nights at the Circus’. Fevvers is a Cockney Venus, a trapeze artist with wings. She sits at her dressing table surrounded by cosmetics and tinselly adornment, drinking champagne and eating violet creams. Fevvers knows all about glamour, and bends the rules as she pleases. Just like Angela Carter herself, who writes brilliantly about glamour in a number of her novels.

Thanks Carol! You can buy Glamour at Amazon and read another review here.

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