Glamour and the Art of Persuasion

What Barack Obama has in common with a cellophane candy wrapper


Although people often equate them, glamour is not the same as beauty, stylishness, luxury, celebrity, or sex appeal. It is not limited to fashion or film; nor is it intrinsically feminine. It is not a collection of aesthetic markers-a style, as fashion and design use the word. Glamour is, rather, a form of nonverbal rhetoric that moves and persuades not through words but through images, concepts, and totems. (Even when conjured as word-pictures, glamorous images are perceived and remembered as emotionally resonant snapshots, not verbal descriptions.) By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.

Although usually a transitory pleasure, this sensation can inspire life-changing action. From the cub reporters imagining themselves as the Woodward and Bernstein of All the President's Men to the forensic science students inspired by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, young people flock to careers made suddenly glamorous by dramas that highlight professions' importance and downplay their tedium. For the novelist Yiyun Li, then a child in 1970s China, the glamour of American life emanated from a Western candy wrapper, the prize of her collection: "It was made of cellophane with transparent gold and silver stripes, and if you looked through it, you would see a gilded world, much fancier than our everyday, dull life." The wrapper, she wrote in 2005, "was the seed of a dream that came true: I left China for an American graduate school in 1996 and have lived here since."

Glamour is powerfully persuasive. Yet because it relies on imagery and channels desire, it is often dismissed as trivial, frivolous, and superficial. Photographers use glamour euphemistically to refer to soft-core erotica; interior design magazines apply the word to anything shiny or luxurious; and many self-styled "glamour addicts" assume glamour refers only to fashion, makeup, or hairstyling. Those who do take the phenomenon seriously tend to be critics, who condemn glamour as a base, manipulative fraud.

But there is much more to glamour than either "addicts" or critics imagine. Even in its most seemingly frivolous forms, glamour shapes our most fundamental choices and illuminates our deepest yearnings. Although often perilous and always selective, it is not intrinsically malign. Glamour is a pervasive, complex, and often life-enhancing force.

We begin not with the phenomenon but with the word, whose history offers valuable clues to the nature of glamour. Popularized in English by Sir Walter Scott at the turn of the 19th century, the old Scots word glamour described a literal magic spell. Glamour (or a glamour) made its subject see things that weren't there. Glamour could, Scott wrote in 1805, "make a ladye seem a knight; / The cobwebs on a dungeon wall / Seem tapestry in lordly hall." That power was believed to stretch into the real world. In his diary, Scott worried that "a kind of glamour about me" was making him overlook errors in his page proofs; he wondered whether the right herbal concoction "would dispel this fascination." (As both magic and metaphor, glamour and fascination are closely related.)

During the 19th century, glamour expanded to include less literal charms, while maintaining the sense of making things look better than they really were. "The glamour of inexperience is over your eyes," Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre when she calls his mansion splendid, "and you see it through a charmed medium: you cannot discern that the gilding is slime and the silk draperies cobwebs; that the marble is sordid slate, and the polished woods mere refuse chips and scaly bark." In his 1898 novella Youth, Joseph Conrad wrote, "Oh, the glamour of youth! Oh, the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky." He wistfully recalled "the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort."

Note that Conrad is not saying that it is glamorous to be young-a judgment from the outside. Rather, his "glamour of youth" is an internal, psychological state. Young people, he suggests, are particularly susceptible to glamour. Like a veil, a distorted lens, or a mind-altering drug, the "charmed medium" of glamour affects not the object perceived but the person perceiving. Reflecting this sense of the word, by 1902 Webster's included two new definitions: "a kind of haze in the air, causing things to appear different from what they really are" and "any artificial interest in, or association with, an object, through which it appears delusively magnified or glorified."

The history of the word glamour highlights two important aspects of the phenomenon. First, glamour is an illusion, a "deceitful feeling" or "magic light" that distorts perceptions. The illusion usually begins with a stylized image-visual or mental-of a person, an object, an event, or a setting. The image is not entirely false, but it is deceptive. Its allure is created by obscuring or ignoring some details while heightening others. That selection may reflect deliberate craft. Or it may happen unconsciously, when an audience notices appealing characteristics and ignores discordant elements. In either case, glamour requires the audience's innocence or, more often, willing suspension of disbelief.

To glamorize is to fantasize. It is also, in some sense, to lie. "The best photographers are the best liars," said the 20th-century fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, who was known for the glamour of his work. Even when it arises unintentionally, glamour presents an edited version of reality. There are no bills on the new granite countertops, no blisters rubbed by the elegant shoes, no cumbersome cords on the stylish lamps, no bruises on the action hero, no traffic on the open road, no sacrifices in the path of progress.

Second, glamour does not exist independently in the glamorous object-it is not a style, personal quality, or aesthetic feature-but emerges through the interaction between object and audience. Glamour is not something you possess but something you perceive, not something you have but something you feel. It is a subjective response to a stimulus. One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver's receptive imagination. Young men must imagine seafaring as a series of adventures and triumphs. Jane Eyre must want to see the mansion as splendid, not to look for cobwebs and slime, or for the moral rot of a madwoman in the attic. A "glamorous" person, setting, or style will not produce glamour unless that object resonates with the audience's aspirations, and unless the audience is willing to entertain the illusion. Conversely, one audience may find glamorous something another audience deems ordinary or even repulsive.

We see these two characteristics-illusion and subjective response-playing out in one of the phenomenon's oldest forms: martial glamour. From Achilles, David, and Alexander through knights, samurai, admirals, and airmen, warriors have been icons of masculine glamour, exemplifying courage, prowess, and patriotic significance. Warfare was one of the first contexts in which English speakers used the term glamour in its modern metaphorical sense. "Military heroes who give up their lives in the flush and excitement and glamour of battle," opined a U.S. congressman in 1885, "are sustained in the discharge of duty by the rush and conflict of physical forces, the hope of earthly glory and renown." A 1917 handbook on army paperwork was "dedicated to the man behind the desk, the man who, being away from the din and glamor of battle, is usually denied popular favor, yet who clothes, feeds, pays, shelters, transports, and otherwise looks after the man behind the gun." (Whether in warfare or business, logistics is the quintessential "unglamorous" but critical support activity.)

European nations began World War I with a glamorous vision of war, only to be psychologically shattered by the realities of the trenches. The experience changed the way people referred to the glamour of battle; they treated it no longer as a positive quality but as a dangerous illusion. In 1919 the British painter Paul Nash wrote that the purpose of The Menin Road, his bleak portrait of a desolate and blasted landscape, was "to rob war of the last shred of glory[,] the last shine of glamour." Briefly conscripted in 1916, D. H. Lawrence lamented "this terrible glamour of camaraderie, which is the glamour of Homer and of all militarism." An American writing in 1921 asked fellow veterans of the Great War, "Are you going to tell your children the truth about what you endured, or gild your reminiscences with glamour that will make them want to have a merry war experience of their own?" In the 1920s, pacifism, not battle, became glamorous.

For some audiences martial glamour endures. Today's military recruitment videos are full of imagery uniting the contemporary glamour of technology with the ancient glamour of battle: a paratrooper leaping from a confined plane into the open sky; a commander issuing silent hand signals as troops move stealthily through a forest; a jet rising gracefully from a carrier deck or swiftly crossing bare terrain; silhouetted soldiers rappelling from a helicopter or down a mountainside; screens glowing in a darkened command center. Like classic Hollywood glamour photographs, these images often use sharp contrasts between light and darkness to heighten drama and veil individuals in mystery, encouraging viewers to project themselves into the picture. These scenes bespeak a world of swift, decisive action, enduring camaraderie, perfect coordination, and meaningful exertion. They glamorize military life.

The most striking recent exemplar of glamour was not a movie star or fashion plate but a political candidate: Barack Obama in 2008. With its stylized portraits of the candidate gazing upward and its logo featuring a road stretching toward the horizon, the iconography of Obama's first presidential campaign was classically glamorous. (The Onion satirized the candidate's many glamorous photographs in a story headlined "Obama Practices Looking-Off-into-Future Pose.")

The source of the candidate's glamour was not merely his campaign's graphic design, however, but the persona those images signified. Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combined youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. Like Kennedy (and Ronald Reagan, another glamorous president), the candidate was both charming and self-contained. While Kennedy's wealth set him apart, Obama's mystery stemmed from his exotic background: an international upbringing and biracial ethnicity that defied conventional categories and distanced him from humdrum American life. He was glamorous because he was different, and his differences mirrored his audience's aspirations for the country.

The candidate also had little national record, allowing supporters to project diverse political yearnings onto him. Even well-informed observers couldn't agree on whether Obama was a full-blown leftist or a market-oriented centrist. "Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test," said his friend Cassandra Butts during the 2008 race. "People see in him what they want to see." The press corps, wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz early in the campaign, "sees the man as an empty vessel into which its fondest hopes can be projected." Obama's appeal to "a broad majority of Americans-Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill-who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal" invited the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like. Obama's promise of hope and change meant different things to different people.

An asset in a campaign, glamour can make it difficult to govern. A president must make decisions, and any specific action will disappoint-and potentially alienate-supporters who disagree. Nor is governing ever as easy and conflict-free as the campaign dream. Disillusionment is inevitable. In his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama rallied his base more with fear of his opponents than with hope for his second term. "The 2004 version of Barack Obama, who captured the nation with a dazzling speech about unity and went on to win the presidency on a message of hope, died on Monday," wrote ABC News reporter Matt Negrin in May 2012. "He was 8 years old." As his mystery and grace dissipated, so did Obama's glamour.

Glamour is like humor: Examine its object too closely, and you're likely to spoil the effect. Just as humor relies on surprise, glamour requires distance. A glamorous image appeals to our desires without becoming explicit, lest too much information break the spell. In its blend of accessibility and distance, glamour is neither transparent nor opaque. It is translucent. It invites just enough familiarity to engage the imagination, allowing scope for the viewer's own fantasies.

But "inquiring minds want to know," as the old tabloid slogan put it, so the audience itself often destroys the very glamour it loves. The more we're drawn to a glamorous person, place, or thing, the more we seek to fill in the details or to experience the thing itself. We discover the sports hero's temper and steroid use, the politician's spin machine and unsavory allies, the "fairy-tale" princess's bulimia and troubled marriage, the movie star's plastic surgeries and brainless enthusiasms.

Glamour creates a "reality distortion field"-Silicon Valley's capsule description of Steve Jobs' persuasive magic-and because of its artifice, it is always suspect. Its mystery and grace violate our self-proclaimed commitment to honesty, transparency, comfort, realism, practicality, even overt sexuality. Reviewers praise filmmakers and authors for not glamorizing their subjects. Social critics denounce movies that glamorize violence or cigarette smoking. Whether selling refrigerators or revolution, glamour is an alluring form of propaganda and not entirely to be trusted. We may have lost our faith in literal enchantments, but we still know glamour can be perilous.

When Catholic liturgy asks the faithful to reject the "glamour of evil," worshippers are vowing to see evil for what it is and not, like Eve contemplating the forbidden fruit, to let themselves fall for an attractive appearance and the promise of desire fulfilled. But we can abjure the glamour of evil without declaring the evil of glamour. Simply to condemn glamour as a lie is to damn imagination. Every innovation requires perceiving a world different from the one that exists, and all art demands selection. "All of us glamorize everything, including the documentaries [sic] who glamorize filth and squalor," said the Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, defending the glamour of his studio-era portraits. "It's a question of emphasizing…the dirt or the beauty-the viewpoint you assume when you start out." Emphasizing the squalor and hiding the beauty may be regarded as more "serious" than creating a glamorous image, but it is equally deceptive.

There is something civilized, and distinctly human, about glamour. It is, like any form of rhetoric, a humane art of persuasion. "If glamour is magic, if it's really about casting a spell, one should happily confront the manipulation of it all," advises the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. "It's adult to manipulate and only human."

Even in our wised-up age, we do not want a world bereft of glamour's magic. For all its dangers, glamour is a special art. We value not only its transient pleasures but the inspiration and insight it provides. Glamour may be an illusion, but it reveals the truth about what we desire and, sometimes, what we can become.

This article was adapted fom The Power of Glamour (Simon & Schuster). Copyright (c) 2013 by Virginia Postrel. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.