Women, History, Feminism
By Carol Dyhouse
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2010 Carol Dyhouse
All rights reserved.
The origins of glamour: demi-monde, modernity, 'It'
The word 'glamour' was obscure before 1900. It meant a delusive charm, and was used in association with witchery and the occult. Sir Walter Scott is generally credited with having introduced the word into literary language in the early 1800s. In Victorian times the word was often used in cautionary tales. In a poem called 'A Victim to Glamour' (1874) by a long-forgotten versifier, Annie the mill girl turns her back on the trusty blacksmith who is courting her after she is seduced by the darkly handsome son of her wealthy employer. Shame and ruin follow as the two men fight it out, and an ill-aimed shot nearly kills Annie. After a long and painful convalescence she sees the light and is reconciled with the distinctly "glamorous, humble but reliable Walter. Texts of this kind warned against glamour as dangerously alluring, leading innocents astray from virtue, and emphasised the perils in store for anyone with social aspirations above their lot in life.
The period from 1900 to 1929 saw the beginnings of the modern idea of glamour, in the opulence and display of the theatre and demimonde, in Orientalism and the exotic, and in a conscious espousal of modernity and show of sexual sophistication. During this period, the word's meaning expanded to describe the magic of new technologies: the advent of moving pictures on the silver screen, new forms of transport through air, on vast, luxurious ocean liners and in fast cars; travel to distant and exotic places. Glamour could attach to both people and objects, and its connotations were by no means exclusively feminine. Pilots and rally drivers could be described as glamorous, especially the former. Later, in the 1930s, dashing young officers of the RAF in their grey-blue uniforms stitched with silver wings would become stereotypes of the glamorous male. Even so, the term 'glamour' came to be associated more commonly with women and with a type of feminine allure.
Stars of the stage could be glamorous: actresses, or singers in opera and the music hall. The designer and photographer Cecil Beaton recorded his childhood passion for the music-hall artiste Gaby Deslys, 'the first creature of artificial glamour I ever knew about', whose 'taste ran amok in a jungle of feathers, diamonds and chiffon and furs'. The young fashion designer Norman Hartnell confessed to a similar infatuation, recalling Deslys looking 'like a humming bird aquiver with feathers and aglitter with jewels' setting off 'her custard blonde hair'. Her staggering toilettes were legendary; even her pet chihuahua was observed to sport a pair of pearl-drop earrings. Beaton identified Deslys as a transitional figure, her style and demeanour deriving partly from the demimonde of courtesans and cocottes of the 1890s, but in her theatrical performances the precursor of a whole school of glamour that was to be exemplified later by Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth and the other screen goddesses of Hollywood. Glamour, for Beaton as for many others at the time and since, conveyed sophistication, artifice and sexual allure. Extravagant displays of femininity were common in the Edwardian demi-monde of actresses, courtesans and music-hall artistes. The actress Sarah Bernhardt staged most of her public appearances as major performances, swathed in satins, lace and chinchilla. Beaton's representation of Deslys as standing out from other female performers of her day, and as distinctly glamorous, stemmed not least from an appreciation of the outre, the sexiness, confidence and air of indifference to convention that this particular star exuded throughout her career. Norman Hartnell had similar thoughts: at one point in his autobiography he suggested that the word 'glamour' had become so vulgarised by over-use that it was no more than 'the small-change of advertising currency'. For him, though, glamour remained inextricably connected with naughtiness.
By the 1900s the prolonged proprieties of the Victorian period were giving way to more open, though still highly coded, discussions of feminine sexual allure. Elinor Glyn's sensational novel Three Weeks (1907) was a watershed, thrilling readers with its purple-prose descriptions of a mysterious Slav Lady arrayed in rich materials of the same colour, viewed through silk curtains of 'the palest orchid mauve', squirming seductively on a tiger skin. Here were all the stock props of Edwardian glamour: heady Oriental perfumes pumped through Cupid fountains drugging the senses of her young lover, couches of roses, ropes of pearls and rich jewels twined through luxuriant, unbound hair. Above all, there were the tiger skins themselves, replete with references to carnality, primitive instincts, hunter and prey. Glyn herself owned a number of tiger skins. She bought one with an early royalty cheque, and subsequently acquired another eight, naming each after a man in her life: either fictional or flesh and blood. 'Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger-skin?' asked the doggerel verse of the day, 'Or would you prefer to err with her on some other fur?' Elinor revelled in the sensuousness of animal furs whether dead or alive: she once made a dramatic entrance at a literary lunch party in London with her marmalade-coloured pet cat curled around her shoulders.
As a writer of best-selling popular fiction in Britain, and later as a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, Elinor Glyn was even more than Gaby Deslys a transitional figure, her colourful life spanning the worlds of Edwardian luxury (country house parties, old aristocracy and new wealth) and the new glamour of cinema. Glyn further bridged the worlds of the kept woman and the celebrity writer and public figure. Her marriage to the financially incompetent and emotionally unreliable Clayton Glyn failed to provide the security and privileged lifestyle she had expected. As her husband's debts mounted she relied on wit, talent and sheer hard work to bail them out of ruin. Like her sister, the dress designer 'Lucile' (Lady Duff Gordon), she combined elements of a romantic, rather elitist social vision with entrepreneurship and a very modern resourcefulness. In spite of her insistence on an exaggerated, conventional version of sexual difference (man the hunter, woman his alluring prey), she was a staunchly independent woman, carefully constructing her public image and very much the author of her own life. Many of her fictional heroines exhibit this same autonomy and independence. They refuse definition by birth, fate or fortune and make what they can of themselves and their lives. The best example is the uncompromising Katherine in The Career of Katherine Bush (1917). Of low birth (she is the grand daughter of a pork butcher and the daughter of a Brixton auctioneer), Katherine sets herself on a mission to rise up the social scale, acquiring classy manners and accumulating what we might now call cultural capital in a process of self-transformation. She is not shy of using her sexual powers to the full to attract an aristocratic husband. There are echoes in this of Glyn's own love life – Katherine's goal is the distinguished Duke of Mordryn, loosely modelled on Glyn's own amour of the 1900s, a former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Curzon eventually deserted Elinor and married someone else. Elinor named one of her tiger skins Curzon.
Glyn's romantic fiction, together with her pronouncements on the nature of love, romance and attraction – famously referred to as the 'It quality' – were eagerly devoured by an attentive public. 'It' was much discussed, especially after Clara Bow was immortalised as the 'It' girl in the 1927 film It, based on Elinor's story and screenplay. According to Glyn, 'It' could attach to both men and women: a quality not merely sexual, but 'a potent romantic magnetism'. In the animal world, she declared, 'It' was most potently demonstrated in tigers and cats, both animals being 'fascinating and mysterious, and quite unbiddable'. The public read 'It' – like 'oomph' – to mean basic sex appeal.
The glamour of early, silent screen cinema drew upon a heavy exoticism. Invited to Hollywood in 1920 to try her hand at script writing, the 56-year-old Glyn was in her element. Vamps, mysterious Slavs, doomed queens and gypsies were her stock in trade. Glyn's first script, for The Great Moment, starring Gloria Swanson, met with considerable success, the producer (Sam Goldwyn) announcing that Elinor Glyn's name was synonymous with the discovery of sex appeal for the cinema. Beyond the Rocks, which paired Swanson with Rudolph Valentino, followed in 1922. The feminine aesthetic of these years combined a touch of the harem with the Cleopatra look: women were kitted out in unlikely slave-girl costumes, wreathed in beads, with serpent-of-the-Nile arm and ankle bracelets and kohl-rimmed eyes. This vampish Arab princess look, associated with Theda Bara, Nita Naldi and Pola Negri, gave way in turn to the image of the flapper, the fun-loving, pleasure-seeking modern girl.
As many historians have emphasised, the new freedoms of work and the vote were seen as having revolutionised the role of women in the years following the First World War, and the state of modern girlhood became a cultural obsession. Probably a more enduring stereotype than that of the 'bright young things' of the 1920s, 'the modern girl' was associated with much more than just hectic partying, jazz and the dance crazes of the decade. Representations of both stereotypes owed something to the literature of Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh, and also to the impact of screen performances by Clara Bow in The Plastic Age (1925), Mantrap (1926) and It (1927), by Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box and The Canary Murder Case, both 1929, Prix de Beauté, 1930) and Joan Crawford, especially in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). What was distinctively modern about these performances becomes clear when they are contrasted with earlier silent-screen heroines of rustic simplicity and doomed innocence such as some of the roles played by 'America's sweetheart' Mary Pickford, or by Lillian Gish (Broken Blossoms, 1919, or Way Down East, 1920). Whereas these earlier heroines embodied the traditional virtues and values perceived as under threat from the city and modernity, the shop girls, beauticians and husband hunters played by Brooks, Bow and Crawford were modern, metropolitan, and in their element; defying convention and revelling in a new freedom. British film-makers similarly featured a new form of intrepid female: cinema historian Jenny Hammerton has shown how the cinemagazines of the 1920s and early 1930s, particularly Eve's Film Review, featured a carnival parade of women aviators, stunt drivers, lion tamers and martial arts experts in a celebration of modernity and of widening opportunities for girls after the war.
Emancipation was sometimes more apparent than real. Women over the age of thirty gained the vote in 1918, but fears of the consequences of 'a flapper vote' (and of women voters outnumbering men) delayed full female suffrage until ten years later. There was much unease around the new freedoms. Both in literature and in film the heroines depicted as enjoying them were often made to suffer for their self-assertion. Today, A. S. M. Hutchinson's 1922 novel This Freedom reads as a maudlin antifeminist tract, but it was a best-seller in the USA and Britain when first published. It depicts a woman involved in career ambitions as bringing death and destruction to her children. The original, silent version of the film, which became Prix de Beauté or elsewhere Miss Europe, was made in 1922, starring Louise Brooks. It was later dubbed and appeared in France in 1930. Brooks plays Lucienne, a typist bored by her conventional boyfriend's aspirations for her and his possessiveness. In search of adventure, she enters a beauty contest; her success, together with the attention she gets from other men, drives the boyfriend wild. In the end, she leaves him, but he seeks her out in a murderous passion of jealousy, killing her as she sits with a new lover, watching her own performance on a cinema screen. Iris Storm, the undeniably glamorous heroine of Michael Arlen's cult best-seller of 1926, The Green Hat, flaunts all the signs of modernity: she has attitude, sexy clothes, red lipstick and a fast car. The car is a yellow Hispano-Suiza: driving it is a metaphor for agency and sexual self-possession. But Iris is doomed, for precisely these qualities. The somewhat complicated narrative ends with a confusing mix of self-sacrifice and social vengeance: Iris engineers her own suicide by hurtling her car into an ancient ash tree, which stands for tradition, in all its obduracy. There was a stage version of The Green Hat, and in 1928 a film based on the novel, entitled A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo.
The glamorous woman of the 1920s might still wear clothes inspired by Orientalism, which had become fashionable under the influence of set and costume designer Leon Bakst, the Ballets Russes and couturier Paul Poiret before the war. Rich, embroidered fabrics, encrusted with beads and glitter, were part of this look. A new, boyish figure increasingly replaced the Edwardian pouter-pigeon shape and, alongside bobbed or shingled hair, came to epitomise the modern girl. Bias-cut gowns, introduced by Madeleine Vionnet in the 1920s, emphasised slender curves unrestrained by corsets, with crêpe and satin flowing down the body. An advertisement in The Times, in 1922, for an exhibition of Japanese kimonos in Harrods aptly illustrates the connotations of exoticism carried by the word 'glamour' at this time: a graceful line drawing of a woman in a silk kimono is set against a stylised oriental background, and the text invokes 'the witchery of the Far East' and 'the glamour of blue-skyed Nippon'.
These fashions involved a reworking of traditional ideas of femininity. In the eyes of many observers the modern girl embodied a kind of androgyny: her boyish look went along with boyish habits, she was not afraid to drink or smoke or drive a car. Nor was she slow to exploit new and highly controversial opportunities for mixed bathing, sporting increasingly revealing bathing suits. The rising popularity of sunbathing and swimming as leisure pursuits after the 1914–18 war both represented and reflected new freedoms for women. Bathing beauty contests may have offended some, but proved enduringly popular: they were often filmed, and the archives of British Pathe and the British Film Institute preserve much footage of 'aquatic frolics' and beauty line-ups from the 1920s. Cinemagazines such as the already mentioned Eve's Film Review and Topical Budget are a particularly rich source of images of the fashions and styles of the 1920s. Wearing pyjamas – in bed, if not on the beach as well – was considered daring but almost de rigueur for stylish young women. In her autobiography, This Great Journey (1942), the politician Jennie Lee recalls how her mother scrimped and saved in order to equip her daughter to go off to university in Edinburgh in the 1920s. Collecting a suitable set of clothes was akin to, if not a substitute for, assembling a trousseau. Alongside more serviceable items her mother proudly produced a voluminous white nightgown, elaborately embroidered and adorned with frills and pale blue ribbons. Jennie was aghast:
The stuff must have cost a fortune. And this was 1922, the very height of the pyjama age. I would rather have died than be caught by my fellow-students floating around in an outfit of that kind. I was staggered, and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. My mother's face was the last straw ...
A key sign of modernity in women was the wearing of cosmetics, particularly lipstick, probably the most significant issue marking the generation gap between mothers and daughters in the 1920s. Iris Storm in The Green Hat applies lipstick to a mouth described by her author as a drooping red-silk flower. Tallulah Bankhead, who played the role of Iris in the stage version of the book, used cosmetics freely. Cecil Beaton likened her cheeks to 'huge acid pink peonies', adding that 'her eyelashes are built out with hot liquid paint to look like burnt matches, and her sullen, discontented rather evil rosebud of a mouth is painted the brightest scarlet and is as shiny as Tiptree's strawberry jam'.
Bankhead quoted this description in her autobiography, but left out the words 'rather evil'. Greta Garbo, playing the part of the siren Felicitas in Flesh and the Devil (1926), touched up her lipstick in church while the priest inveighed against her wicked ways as a woman. To women raised in the Victorian tradition of ladylike modesty, the wearing of cosmetics was unacceptable. But in the 1920s they became fashionable. According to Graves and Hodge in The Long Weekend, the fashion spread 'from brothel to stage, then on to Bohemia, to Society to Society's maids, to the mill girl, and lastly, to the suburban woman'. But it was the influence of the stars of early cinema, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and their like, which encouraged so many young women to start wearing make-up. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were among those who began to capitalise on this new trend. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Glamour by Carol Dyhouse. Copyright © 2010 Carol Dyhouse. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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