When Star Trek comes to mind, most people don’t think of it as glamorous. But it’s exactly that, according to Virginia Postrel, author of The Power of Glamour.
Postrel, during her talk, Glamour: The Art of Visual Persuasion, at the 2014 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Ky., said that glamour makes us feel longing. While researching her book, she asked Star Trek fans what they found most glamorous about Star Trek.
“Some of the things were sort of obvious: adventure, science and technology,” she said. “One thing I discovered I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t done the research is that for many people, Star Trek was the ideal workplace, where everybody had a place. You could imagine yourself as yourself being part of this team doing interesting work with people who were good at their jobs. If there was someone really obnoxious they’d probably get killed by the end of the show or, alternatively, stay behind. The bad bosses, dysfunctional bureaucracy, it’s not present on Star Trek. It’s this ideal workplace that exists in the future, far away, that has mystery.”
Postrel focused her talk on the concept of glamour and how it taps into our innermost needs and desires. It influences our decisions and our behaviors in ways that some don’t realize. Glamour is a form of persuasion. It’s not a style or specifically about fashion or celebrities or women. It’s bigger than that. It has power as a form of nonverbal persuasion, Postrel said.
“Glamour is something that creates a sense of projection and longing. The longing is by channeling our desires,” she said.
People use glamour to persuade others whether in advertising or movies or something else. “Longing is the key word,” she said. “Glamour makes us feel a kind of promise.”
She talked about the space program of the 1960s and showed a slide of a young boy looking wistfully at a model rocket. The glamour of the space program resonated with those who grew up in that era. She said it’s not a coincidence that three billionaires alive today have their own space programs.
What we see as glamorous has changed over the years. In the 1950s, an advertisement showing a beautiful woman wearing an expensive silver fox fur coat was the epitome of glamour. It represented a woman whose husband made a lot of money and probably gave it to her. “He’s moving up in the world. That’s part of the glamour. He must really love her because he gave her this expensive gift,” Postrel said. “Either that or he feels guilty, but we won’t go there,” she added, as the audience laughed.
It answers that desire, she explained, because, “Glamour is always about the underlying desires for love, for prosperity, for comfort, and it’s also beautiful, which isn’t about glamour but has a sensory element.”
Images in advertisements are now different, in that the contemporary definition of glamour is being able to relax and escape to a tranquil setting. Instead of fur coats, we see hot stone massages, she said.
Glamour gives us imaginative refuge and it can also direct our lives, she said. The example she gave is ballerina Michaela DePrince, who was four years old and living in a Sierra Leone orphanage when she saw a glamorous photo of a ballerina. The photo inspired her so much that she saved it, tucking it into her underwear and staring at it every night when she was in bed. It impacted her so strongly that when she was adopted soon afterward by a New Jersey couple, she began taking dance lessons. DePrince is now a professional ballerina as a result of her life-changing experience at age four. “She said, ‘that picture saved me,'” Postrel said.
“That is the other power of glamour, which is the power to actually shape our actions. Most of the time we just enjoy it but sometimes we act on it,” Postrel said.
“Glamour is tremendously important and rarely acknowledged in shaping people’s careers,” she said. Many now middle-aged people originally became reporters because they were inspired by the glamour of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and not even the real reporters behind the discovery of the Watergate scandal, but the actors who played them in All The President’s Men. In a similar vein, there is an increase in college students wanting degrees in forensic science because of the glamorous people they’ve seen in that role on TV on CSI, she said.
Even social media has a strong element of glamour, Postrel said, answering a question from the audience. Since Facebook and other social media outlets often act as a highlight reel, it only shows the most interesting facets of our day-to-day lives, she said
“We’re all creating these glamorous images of ourselves in social media because we only share the things we want the world to know. What interests me is we forget a lot about our lives. In ten years when you look back at your social media from today, will that be your memory. Will you think, ‘Oh I was so much happier 10 years ago.’ It’s an interesting social experiment,” she said.
Glamour can also affect political choices, such as which president is elected, she said.
“In 2008 I used to say that Barack Obama was God’s gift to my glamour project. Obama in 2008 was so incredibly glamorous. It’s not just that he was young and handsome and a little mysterious because he was new to politics, but people projected on him all their hopes and dreams. Different people saw different things in him,” Postrel said.
Glamour is also tied into fashion, but not the kind of clothes you buy at Gap or Macy’s. Instead, it’s the runway images of fashion that are seen as glamorous. The clothes that are only suitable for the very rich or the very thin.
Another element of glamour is grace. The art that conceals art. A glamorous image makes it look easy to attain. “People often ask me where does the word glamour come from. It is a Scottish word that described a literal magic spell. Cast a glamour and you see something that wasn’t there. This is where the illusion is. Not the escape and transformation. What’s left out is the effort, the flaws, the costs, the difficulties, this is where the illusion is. In the grace,” she said.
It’s important to remember that glamour changes with time. “Glamour is very fragile. It’s a magic spell that only lasts a little while,” she said.
“All glamour gives us some kind of picture of a different better life in different better circumstances. Life could be perfect if I lived in that house, if I go on that vacation I’ll have the perfect family life. It can be any number of things. There’s always this element of escape and transformation.”