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The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion Hardcover – November 5, 2013
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"THE POWER OF GLAMOUR is another reminder why Virginia Postrel is one of our keenest cultural observers and most important social thinkers. Using lively prose, fascinating images, and examples that range from Alexander the Great to Kate Moss, Postrel brings to life an elusive subject. This book is essential reading for people in advertising, marketing, politics, and entertainment -- as well as for anyone interested in seeing our culture with fresh eyes." (Daniel H. Pink, author of TO SELL IS HUMAN and A WHOLE NEW MIND)
"[Postrel] offers a thoroughly researched, analytical, illustrated view on the characteristics, both keen and subtle, that qualify an object, person, event or location as glamorous...Postrel cites innumerable sources, weaving quotations and vignettes into each of her chapters, and the result is exhaustive and wholly entertaining. For those interested in the evolution of glamour over the ages, as well as readers with a stake in marketing, this is a must-read." (Kirkus)
“Postrel’s cleareyed and exhaustive analysis looks not only at the history of glamour, but at how it works…[Postrel] seems to be the kind of public intellectual for whom the TED Talk seems to have been invented." (The New York Times Book Review)
About the Author
Virginia Postrel is a columnist for Bloomberg View and has been a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Forbes. Formerly the editor of Reason magazine, she is the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She teaches a special seminar on glamour in the Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She lives in Los Angeles.
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I was drawn to the book by my long interest in Virginia's work, dating back to the 1990s when she edited Reason magazine and I wrote some articles for it. (My involvement and post-Postrel break with the magazine are recounted here [see my blog for this and other links].) A decade ago, I reviewed her book The Substance of Style, which espoused a growing linkage of aesthetics and economics. (Subsequently, after marrying an architectural lighting designer, I gained some exposure to a field that exemplifies that connection.)
In her new book, Postrel distinguishes glamour from concepts with which it may blur, such as luxury, celebrity or charisma. She defines glamour as "nonverbal rhetoric" (typically conveyed by visual images) that "leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more." Glamour has, in her telling, three essential elements: "a promise of escape and transformation" (letting people project themselves into a desired situation); "grace" (hiding or removing flaws and distractions); and "mystery" (leaving some things to the audience's imagination).
The Power of Glamour ranges widely across examples of its subject. Glamour can attach to a variety of people, places and objects--as diverse as people's desires. Postrel examines various archetypes or "icons" of glamour, including aviators, princesses, superheroes, suntans, smoking, wind turbines, California and Shanghai. As this list suggests, things can become more or less glamorous over time; for instance, smoking and California have both seen more glamorous days (and nights).
Glamour has long been part of human experience, evident in Greek myths and Renaissance paintings (Postrel cites Lippi's Vision of Saint Bernard as glamorous in encouraging the audience to project itself into a scene with the Virgin Mary). Yet glamour grew in importance in the 19th and 20th centuries, she argues persuasively, since it thrives on mass audiences and a sense of social mobility.
This book is to a degree a defense of glamour but it is no whitewashing of its complex subject. Often dismissed as superficial or decried as an advertising snare, glamour can spur positive change. Besides being pleasurable, glamour can inspire people to strive for a better life and world. But there is no guarantee it will be put to good uses, and in an extreme case to the contrary terrorists attract their recruits with an idealized promise of escape and transformation--in short, glamour.
Discussing mystery as an element of glamour, Postrel offers three subcategories of that element (not mutually exclusive), which she labels "shadow," "sparkle" and "complexity." Hats, veils and Paris in the rain have the mystery of things obscured (shadow); glittering jewels and fabrics fascinate and confuse with change and ambiguity (sparkle). The third type of mystery--complexity--Postrel describes thus:
>> This form of mystery hides information not through concealment or confusion but through complexity and depth. We don't know what history or nature will produce; there are too many variables and too much detail to comprehend in a glance. Hence the mystery of rugged coastlines, verdigris patina, and twisting woodland paths. As a design element, such mystery appears in Alexander McQueen's 2009 Plato's Atlantis collection, with its phosphorescent sequins, opalescent beads, and jellyfish and reptile-skin prints. This is the mystery of the layered, the fluid, and the fractal: the mystery of complexity. <<
Me: The above passage is what I particularly had in mind at the start of this review when I wrote "As it turns out, I have a strong interest in glamour (at least certain types of it)...." Reading Virginia's passage above crystallized for me what is a significant aspect of what I like to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy, and where I like to hike. I am an aficionado of the "mystery of complexity" and the glamour that stems from it. Until I read this book, I did not realize that about myself.
Tyler Cowen recently opined that The Power of Glamour is its author's "best and most compelling book" to date. I agree, and highly recommend it.
Glamour is such an intiguing and mysterious force. It's something that fascinates me, and I never really expected to find such an excellent investigation of the subject. I was immediately captured by the title when I stumbled across the book by chance, then even more excited when I discovered the writing to be mature, keen, relevant and very insightful. This is not some cliche riddled and shallow reflection on the topic. I appreciate the way the author clearly defines glamour and then provide a wide spectrum of diverse examples from different historical periods, cultures and all facets of human endeavor. She covered so much ground. It brought glamour to light within contexts that most people would likely never have concieved of or anticipated. It was also great having all the photos included throughout, it allowed me the joy of discovering new photographers, artwork, movies, etc. And the "icon" sections that bookend each chapter were a welcomed addition.
The whole thing was thought provoking, inspiring and satisfying. I feel as though I am now able to articulate and give shape to this seductively magical power that I've long experienced, but have never been able to clearly capture and define for myself. The book has given me a new lens through which I perceive, comprehend and scrutinize the social and psychological dynamics influencing human motivations.
Start to finish, it was a pleasure to read. I didn't want it to end.