Interview: Virginia Postrel on The Power of Glamour

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Whenever Jimmy Page is interviewed about how he produced Led Zeppelin’s albums in the 1970s, he’s inevitably asked about the huge booming drum sounds he recorded. And he always tells the interviewer that he created that sound by moving the studio microphones away from the drum kit rather than having the mics right on top of the instruments as was the accepted practice at the time, and that it’s a recording studio axiom that “distance makes depth.”

One of the leitmotifs in Virginia Postrel’s gorgeous new book is that distance plays quite a role in creating glamour as well. In The Power of Glamour, the former Reason editor, who now writes for Bloomberg.com, notes that glamour hides the flaws of its subject, hides the difficulties in creating the photographs that give them such atmosphere. And that glamour can be a powerful tool for selling products and ideas as disparate as fashion, movies, politics, the future, and even negative subjects such as war and terrorism.

See also: the ubiquitous image of terrorist and mass murder Che Guevara, the crafting of which Virginia discusses in The Power of Glamour, along with the distance between Barack Obama, cool, distant, glamorous and exotic presidential candidate in 2008, and the bumbling wannabe technocrat of 2013.

During our 20 minute interview, we’ll explore:

● The source and meaning of The Power of Glamour’s iconic cover photograph.

● How does glamour focus its audience’s inchoate longing for transformation?

● What is the difference between glamour and charisma?

● Why does the future, particularly the technological future, seem both glamorous and terrifying?

● In the 21st century, is the role of glamour diminishing, or changing into new forms?

And much more. Click here to listen:

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

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MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with Virginia Postrel, the former editor of Reason magazine, who now writes for Bloomberg.com, and is the author of the brand new book, The Power of Glamour.  It’s published by Simon and Schuster, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Virginia, thanks for stopping by today.

MS. POSTREL:  Great to be with you.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Virginia, your first book was 1998's The Future and Its Enemies, which explored the clash of worldviews in American politics and was built on your work at Reason Magazine.  However, since then, you're next two books, The Substance of Style, and now The Power of Glamour, have explored the importance of aesthetics.  What inspired the shift in your interest?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, in my mind, if not in the world's mind [laughs], these books are all related to each other.  They are first of all, all about -- or one of the major themes in all three books is the source of econ -- the sources of innovation and new forms of economic value and how those are discovered and why it is that things that some high-level planner might see as unimportant or not objectively valuable, are, in the minds of consumers, in fact, valuable.  So that's one theme that carries through all the books.

And another thing about all three books -- and the third one is called The Substance of Style -- it was in 2003 -- is that they are all, in my mind, part of not a libertarian project, per se, but something that is in the classical liberal tradition.  That includes Adam Smith, David Hume, Friedrich Hayek, who were not only interested in the questions of the proper role of government, but were interested more broadly in the question of what does it mean to be a human being in a commercial society and a liberal society.  They were interested in issues of psychology and taste and aesthetics, certainly in the case of Hume and Smith, and issues of sociability and issues of rhetoric and persuasion.

And those issues also interest me.  I think they're -- you know, the role of government is very important, but it's not the only thing in the world that is important.  And it's not the only thing -- it's not the only concern of the broader classical liberal tradition, the intellectual tradition with which I identify.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I have to say, as befitting a book called The Power of Glamour, the appearance of the hardcover edition of the book is just gorgeous, from the photo on the cover sleeve to the many illustrations within to the font chosen for the book's title.  How was the appearance of the book crafted?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, the design was done by the designers at Simon & Schuster.  The font choice, for example, the cover font is Futura, was done by the designers there.  The photos were all chosen and sourced and paid for by me.  The cover photo, which I use all over the place, is a wonderful photo by a photographer named Toni -- with an "I" -- woman -- Toni Frissell, who was a big fashion and war photographer in the forties, and a fashion photographer in the fifties, and one of the early Sports Illustrated photographers as well.

Probably the best known photos of hers are the Tuskegee airman, one of which appears in my book as well, and also she did John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy's wedding.  So those are probably her best known photos.  But the photo that I use on the cover, which is a woman in a white tennis dress looking longingly at some hills beyond, which captures very much, I think, the idea of longing, which is very central to my idea of glamour, is something she took for a 1947 issue of Harper's Bazaar.

And one of the things that's interesting about Toni Frissell is that she gave her archive, including all of her photos, to the Library of Congress, and she, with the agreement of her children, gave all her copyrights to the public domain.  So the photo that appears on my book cover, is actually something I discovered very early on in my research, when I was looking at what might be available in the public domain through the Library of Congress.  And it just was the picture.  It was just the one.  And so I've always seen that as the photo that would go on my book.  And fortunately the publisher agreed.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Obviously, it won't have the heft and the beautiful feeling paper of the hardcover edition, but will the Kindle and Nook editions of The Power of Glamour maintain many of those same aesthetic elements?

MS. POSTREL:  I have not seen the e-book, so I can't say authoritatively.  I know that it will have the photos that appear in the book.  But how exactly they'll work out, I just don't know.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I just want to return to the woman on the front cover for a moment, because that photo ties in with another example of how glamour works. We only see the back of her head. She’s staring into space;  we can imagine endless stories about her. Inside The Power of Glamour, you mention the title sequence of Mad Men, which ends with a silhouetted illustration of Don Draper, with his back to us as well. As you write in the Power of Glamour, Mad Men presents a much more stylized view of what New York and its inhabitants in the early 1960s looked like, when compared to actual photos of that period.

MS. POSTREL:  You've actually captured in this question two of the key elements of glamour.  One of the things I do in The Power of Glamour is analyze the three key elements that appear in all forms of glamour.

So the first is a promise of escape and transformation.  Glamour focuses our longings, whatever they may be, sort of inchoate desires, on some object that says -- makes -- it's not explicit -- but makes us feel that if we could be in that place, if we could be with that person, if we could be like that, these desires would be fulfilled.  And those desires are broader, like for respect or beauty or acclaim or, you know, those kinds of big -- big picture ideas.

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Okay.  So that's the promise.  But then key elements in sort of making that sense of projection and longing work, one is grace.  Glamour hides the difficulties, hides -- you know, like those pictures of Mad Men, that vision of the sixties, you know, they don't look schlubby.  It's a sort of perfected idea of the less -- the less polished elements are hidden.  Glamour always hides some difficulties.  And in fact, I have a piece up on Bloomberg View at the moment about how some of the problems of the Obamacare exchanges come from this kind of infatuation, this sort of glamour [inspired by] databases and computers.  We have this notion that they just kind of work by magic.

And there was a kind of overselling of how easy it would be to solve this problem.  Regardless of whether you like Obamacare or you don't like Obamacare, these exchanges were going to be really, really hard to put together, but that was not told to the public, and I suspect it was not told to the President either; that he had this kind of push-button idea.

So glamour has promise of escape and transformation, grace, and then the other element is mystery; so that in a lot of glamorous portraits, either the person is looking away or not entirely toward the camera or partially in shadow, or alternatively, they may be looking at you, but they're looking through you.  And it's a different sort of portrait from the kind of friendly snapshot or the kind of cover picture that you often see on American fashion or celebrity magazines, where the person is just looking like they [are] your pal.  You know, they're very familiar.

If you really want to have glamour, you need to have an element of mystery and distance that both helps the grace by hiding things and also is intriguing; it pulls the audience in so that people want to sort of project themselves into whatever that glamorous scene is.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Virginia, at one point in the Power of Glamour, you explore the difference between glamour and charisma. What are some of those differences?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, glamour is something that occurs between an audience and an object.  And it's really in the audience's mind.  Glamour is like humor.  It's something that depends -- it only works because the audience is receptive.  And it's not something that is owned by a glamorous person.  And in fact, it doesn't even have to be a person that's glamorous.  A car can be glamorous or an idea can be glamorous.  The idea of central planning was glamorous in the early twentieth century.  The idea of going Galt is glamorous to certain libertarians.  Glamour is not a quality of a person.

Charisma is like intelligence.  It's something that the person owns.  And it's something that is felt by the audience in person or possibly in a video.  But when the person dies the charisma goes away.  And the meaning of the charisma comes from the charismatic person.

Charisma was originally a religious concept.  And the idea was that you would sort of follow this charismatic person in a greater cause.  It's come to mean a sort of stage presence.  But that notion of a personal quality is still there.

Whereas glamour is in the audience's mind, and in fact, one of the good ways to maintain your glamour, if you're a person, is to die young, which is the opposite of charisma.  And it also is not under as much control -- well, charisma's not under the control of the person in the sense that they're sort of born with it, often.  But the glamour can vanish if the audience's aspirations change or if they learn too much.  It's very much in the audience's mind.

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MR. DRISCOLL:  You mentioned that glamour doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a concept, as well. As you write in the Power of Glamour, for much of the 1950s and ‘60s, the future was made to appear glamorous. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy was said to be leading us into the New Frontier. In 1966, Star Trek sent its first viewers into the Final Frontier. But at the end of the 1960s, even as man was landing on the moon, many on the left began to view the future not as glamorous, but as terrifying, with famine, overpopulation, and alternating doomsday global cooling and warming scenarios. Virginia, your first book was titled The Future and its Enemies; why does the future seem both glamorous and terrifying?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, the often the flip side of glamour is horror, because glamour has this mystery to it.  And it hides things.  So if you are inclined to like whatever the glamorous thing is, you will see it as positive.  If you are inclined to be suspicious, you may imagine that what's being hidden is not, you know, mundane not-so-great reality, but really something terrible.

And this happened -- I've written about this not as much in the book but in some articles -- I mean, this was one of the reactions to Barack Obama in 2008.  Barack Obama was an incredibly glamorous candidate to his supporters.  And a lot of the people who disliked him, instead of saying, you know, he is to the left, he has these policy problems, they saw him as something over-the-top bad, you know, secret Muslim.  He's born in Kenya.  There's all this kind of really, really, negative stuff around it.

So what happened with the future, I actually have quite a discussion toward the end of the book about the ways in which glamour was a way that the general public in a sort of bottom-up, nonsystematic way, came to understand the idea of modernity and the idea of the future, first, in the sort of inter-war period, in the early twentieth century, and then in the jet age, which would be the sort of Kennedy era.

And partly what happened was, we got the future to a large degree.  We got the future that was imagined in the 1939 World's Fair.  We got a lot of the future that was imagined in the fifties and sixties.  And it became -- when it became real, the disadvantages showed up as well, whether that was, you know, air pollution or, you know, car accidents, that sort of -- carcinogenic chemicals.  I mean, there was a certain element of truth to this critique.

But instead of just saying there's an element of truth to it, it became in certain minds, the flip side.  That is, it's not that the future is reality and therefore not as wonderful in all dimensions as we imagined, but rather that it's horrible and going to get worse.  And so you get this sort of dystopic vision of the future.

angelina_jolie_louis_vuitton_swamp_ad_11-3-13 Angelina Jolie in a Cambodian swamp for Louis Vuitton.

One of the messages of The Future And Its Enemies is this idea, which I actually took from a writer called Henry Petroski, of form follows failure, which is, whenever something has been achieved -- he's talking about in terms of an artifact [or] a design -- and you have the thing there, then you start to notice all the things that are wrong with it.  And he argues, and I agree, that this is a major driver of progress, because you have people who start to try to make a better product or better procedure or whatever it is.  And particularly in the competitive marketplace, this is -- you know, this one reason things get better.

However, it's also a disillusioning process.  And this is where that relates to glamour, which is that when you get the thing that you envisioned in a very glamorous way, the glamour dissipates, it disappears, because you not only get the positives, you get the negatives.

And so glamour can only be this, sort of, pointer in the right direction, at best.  It can't be the reality.  When it meets reality, there's often a process of disillusionment.  And in some minds, not mine, but in some minds, that leads to saying oh, if it's not perfect, it must be terrible.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Virginia, last question: It’s easy to look back at the 1920s through the mid-1960s, and see much of that period as a glamorous era. Today, between casual Fridays, and the lessening importance of suits, ties, and dresses, and formality in general, and the lack of distance that ubiquitous social media seems to impose between ourselves and our celebrities, is the role of glamour in our lives diminishing, or simply changing into some sort of new form?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, one of the big messages of The Power of Glamour is that glamour is not a style, and it takes many different forms, depending on the audience.  So, for example, there -- space travel is glamorous.  I talk about Star Trek as glamorous to its audience in some of the obvious ways and also in some less obvious ways, like Star Trek as a glamorous ideal of a workplace.

So I think that what's happening today is less -- it's not so much that we don't have glamour, it's that the kinds of glamour that we have are much more fragmented, because aspirations are much more fragmented, what people want varies more.  There's more -- and media is less monolithic, so people can find their little corners.  Things that would have been -- the kind of glamour that, you know, was glamorous in the 1930s is still around in newer forms.  A lot of stuff that was the contemporary version of the 1930s glamour, you find [today] more in the hip-hop world than in the sort of educated, affluent, white people world.

I talk in the last chapter about this Louis Vuitton ad of Angelina Jolie sitting in a rowboat in a swamp in Cambodia and why that's glamorous to the audience that Louis Vuitton is selling to and why it wouldn't have been glamorous to somebody in 1950.

It's not enough just to have a beautiful movie star, it's the environment she's in, which sends certain positive signals about tranquility and nature that that audience resonates to today, whereas in 1950 it would have looked like she's in the jungle, it's hot, it's -- you know, it's like --

MR. DRISCOLL:  She's going to catch malaria!

MS. POSTREL:  -- the Pacific theater.  Yeah, and it wouldn't have seemed glamorous, even though she would have seemed like a beautiful woman.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been talking with Virginia Postrel of Bloomberg.com, the author of The Power of Glamour.  It’s published by Simon and Schuster, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. Stop by her newly revamped Website, at vpostrel.com. And Virginia, thanks once again for stopping by PJ Media.com.

MS. POSTREL:  Thank you.

(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.