Glamour and feminism

This is a Greta Garbo video.

By Susan Darlington in Britain:

by Carol Dyhouse (Zed Books, £19.99)

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The concept of glamour has become confused over the years as it has referenced both the appearance of enhanced attractiveness and cheap titillating portrayals of semi-nude women.

This has made it anathema to most feminist writers, who argue that it has objectified women and trapped them in an endless cycle of waxing and primping.

It’s a viewpoint with which Carol Dyhouse vehemently disagrees in this book, where her love of glamour is evident on every page as she traces its conception and evolution throughout the 20th century.

The relationship between glamour and fashion and the meaning of glamour to women is Dyhouse’s focus as she argues that it has afforded social aspiration and empowerment to women.

It’s an argument that works best in relation to the early screen stars when glamour was about personality rather than perfection and thus something universally attainable.

Dyhouse decidedly purrs as she describes early stars dripping with feathers and furs, their custard-blonde hair cut into chrysanthemum petal-cap styles.

It’s a passion that can sometimes be tricky for the non-fashionistas to follow and there are times when more photographs would have been useful in order to share her enthusiasm.

The influence of these screen sirens, unconventional and revelling in exoticism, was soon felt in wider society.

Young women, ignoring the fact that most of these sirens paid the price for their ambition and explosive personalities both on and off screen, were keen to emulate the latest fashions.

Industries were fast to exploit this and powerful marketing campaigns were built around everything from diet fads to diamonds.

It’s this tangent that makes this book so fascinating and extends it beyond pure feminism into popular culture and sociology.

Early animal welfare concerns are juxtaposed with advice on how to make a face mask made of raw meat, while impact studies of the cinema on morals offer a reminder that concerns over the effect of mass entertainment on the development of young people are nothing new.

These fascinating byroads of information pepper the book but ultimately Dyer’s love for red lipstick and bias-cut dresses clouds her analysis of other eras.

Her contempt for pastel nail polish and smocks in the 1960s, for instance, seems to run deeper than a simple argument against its infantilisation of women.

And her evaluation of the current state of glamour feels a little defensive although it intelligently challenges prevalent feminist history.

Despite its transparent bias, Glamour is impeccably researched and referenced yet Dyhouse’s enthusiasm for the subject matter raises it above the purely academic.

That makes it an accessible read which is guaranteed to provoke lively debate while making the reader want to watch old Bette Davis and Greta Garbo films for tips in glamorous self-assertion.

USA: Eager for authenticity, more women are celebrating their silver locks rather than hiding them, while more image-conscious men are choosing to color theirs: here.

Geena Davis Hopes to Shift Gender Balance in Film: here.

The Femme Monologues: Documenting a queer/femme/feminist history: here.

On Brand, iconoclasm, and a woman’s place in the revolution: a dialogue with Richard Seymour on the question of how to reconcile the fact that people need stirring up with the fact that the people doing the stirring so often fall down when it comes to treating women and girls like human beings; by Laurie Penny: here.

3 thoughts on “Glamour and feminism

  1. Pingback: Chinese Cultural Revolution operas | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: British young women’s history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: How primates got fingernails, new research | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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