From Garbo to Lady Gaga: Glamour explored

Professor Dyhouse explores the power of Glamour

From Garbo to Lady Gaga, glamour has played a provocative role through the decades. Now a new book by a University of Sussex social historian looks at how and why women were seduced by perfume, fur and lipstick.

In Glamour. Women, History, Feminism, Professor Carol Dyhouse explores the changing meanings of the word glamour, its relationship to femininity and fashion, and its place in 20th century social history.

As she says: "Glamour is about luxury and excess. It speaks of power, sexuality and transgression. The gloriously bonkers Lady Gaga is just the latest in a line of performers who have celebrated glamour while sending it up."

Before 1900 the word was used only in the context of witchcraft and the occult. In the late 19th century it was associated with fallen women. But as the film industry took off and images of attractive, confident women in fur coats and make-up featured in the movies and magazines, glamour adopted its more familiar meaning.

Professor Dyhouse remarks: "For me, the high point of cinema glamour must be Dietrich sashaying in coq feathers down the corridor of the night train in Shanghai Express. She was described by the critic Kenneth Tynan as having 'sex, but no particular gender'. This, for me, touches on one of the important points of glamour - its potential for undermining the more decorous, socially sanctioned forms of femininity."

Although glamour was synonymous with money, manufacturers soon helped the masses emulate their favourite film stars through the mass production of perfumes, fur coats and clothing.

But by the 1950s, style of this kind was considered cheap and tacky and linked with loose morals once again. Professor Dyhouse points out that court accounts of the trial of Ruth Ellis, who was hanged for murdering her young lover, focussed on her heavy make-up and peroxide hair.

During the 1970s and 1980s glamour was submerged beneath feminist politics and grunge, only to resurface at the end of the century with powerful fashion icons such as Madonna and Princess Diana - together with the alarming rise in eating disorders among young women and an explosion in cosmetic surgery.

However, Professor Dyhouse, who consulted magazines such as Picture Post and Cosmopolitan through the decades, as well as researching the views of ordinary men and women as gathered in the Mass Observation archive, believes that we have really nothing to fear from what is essentially "artifice and performance". 

She says: "There are aspects of the glamour industries that we may deplore, particularly in the ways in which advertisers and manufacturers exploit the insecurities of consumers. But we do have choices, and most women are probably capable of enjoying glamour without deluding themselves into a denial of other values or wholly destroying their understanding of life."


Notes for editors

Glamour. Women History, Feminism, by Professor Carol Dyhouse, is published by Zed Books (£19.99).

Professor Dyhouse will be talking about her book at Waterstones,  North Street, Brighton, on 8 March at 6.30pm.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 9 February 2010