Glamour and the City

Daniell Scotti, Starlet on Via Veneto, Rome, Italy
George Daniell, 1955
vintage silver print

A fundamental prerequisite to glamour is the city. Glamour requires a high degree of urbanity because there must be the right combination of wealth, beauty, power, and publicity present in order to catalyze the reactions of luxury.

The city of the 20th century presented a society that was high in social and geographical mobility. The age of debutante balls and established aristocratic order was fading rapidly, while at the same time the elevation of outsiders became easier and more common. Money, merit, and beauty were now the criteria for power, rather than birth. There was also a fluidity to travel and the evolving economy that allowed for fresh new personalities, fashions, and places to inspire new stories. This heterogeneous mix was exactly what the press and media fed upon. A plethora of routes to self-transformation were possible in this capitalist, distinctly bourgeois scene all primed to seduce the public.

First and foremost, it is the visual inclusiveness of the city that allows for the seduction to occur. As a primary condition, the public must have front row seats to the display of the first class. Prominent people may aim to impress one another, but what truly boosts their celebrity or infamy is their absorption into the general public. And contrary to simple logic, this pursuit unifies, rather than divides, societies. When the city acts as the playground for the spectacle and display of life, the participation at public events and commercial institutions becomes a common pursuit of aesthetic and social effects. Desirability was a matter of portraying patterns of consumption, display, and entertainment. This is what constituted the "fashionable milieux".

The fashionable milieux is an area that has acquired an aura of desirability due to its associations with the privileged. With the proper balance of exclusivity and accessibility, a certain location propels itself beyond a mere centre for social interaction, but rather into an institution of glamour. These enclaves, mainly the commercial and entertainment sectors of a metropolis, become absorbed in the fabric of the city, concretizing and diffusing these moments of luxury -- in the mind of its inhabitants and all those others who become exposed to it.

And it is not even so important whether to distinguish the authentic from the false when it comes to glamour, because the idea itself is based on falsities:

The word "glamour" is an anglicized version of "glamer" (in use in Low Scotch since 1800s) referring to the "supposed influence of a charm on the eye, causing it to see objects differently from what they really are." According to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, published in 1879, some possible origins are "glimbr" (splendour) or "glamskygn" (squint-eyed). So "glamour" was always used to speak about the ability to transform, beguile, bluff through chimeras, and always into something more luxurious. And it's not a coincidence that glamour is one of the only words where even the American spelling adopts the -our ending instead of the regular -or one (e.g. labor, harbor). Even the Conde Nast magazine "Glamour", founded in 1939, has always spelt the title the European way, reinforcing the European influence on what typifies sophisticated style. (Ralph Lauren released a perfume in 2000 called "Glamourous", a very curious misspelling aimed to emphasize the -our spelling).

Thus, certain locations had transformed into landscapes of continuous narratives of the glamorous. To see and be seen in these areas epitomized the opulent incarnate in architecture, always within certain formulas that emblematize luxury.

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