Virginia Postrel on the Enduring Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour author Virginia Postrel on the enduring appeal of mystery and grace, what makes a meeting or conference glamorous — and whether TED still is.

Glamour is the topic of Virginia Postrel’s new book, thoughtfully explored and beautifully illustrated, but her thinking about glamour goes back at least a decade, and began unfolding within the framework of conferences and events in which she participated as a speaker or organizer. It all started with her previous book, 2003’s The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, which led to an invitation from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to contribute the opening essay to the catalog for an exhibition called “Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture.”

She delivered a talk at TED 2004 on “The Power of Glamour,” tracing the evolution of glamour from previous centuries, when it was regarded as “a literal magic spell associated with witches and gypsies and to some extent Celtic magic,” through to today, when it’s more about “transcending this world and getting to an idealized, perfect place.” And in 2006, she led a Liberty Fund conference on “Liberty, Responsibility, and Luxury.”

“I organized the readings,” Postrel said in a recent interview with Convene. “We started in the 18th century and went up to a New Yorker article about high-end stoves. So we’re reading Adam Smith and David Hume, all the way up to the present, different ideas about luxury, and one of the quotes that comes out of that that’s in my [new] book is where David Hume says luxury is ‘a word of an uncertain signification.’ And the same is true of glamour. Glamour is not the same as luxury, but the two are related in some way.”

In the new book —The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion — Postrel, formerly the editor of Reason magazine, argues that glamour is about more than movie stars wearing sunglasses or fashion models posed in sultry black-and-white photos. And it’s not so much a characteristic as it is a dynamic, she writes, “a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images, concepts, and totems…. Glamour is not something you possess but something you perceive, not something you have but something you feel. It is a subjective response to a stimulus. One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.”

At the outset of your book you spend some time rescuing glamour from the idea that it’s a trick or lie or some kind of deception.

Well, glamour is a deception. It always has an illusion to it. But what I’m rescuing it from is the idea that that’s necessarily bad. So, I’m not saying glamour is good or bad, but whether glamour is good or bad depends on two things. First of all, it depends on the use to which the glamour is being put. I wrote a column in Time about the glamour that inspires jihadi terrorists. This was tied to the Boston [Marathon] bombers. Now, obviously, that’s a bad use of glamour. On the other hand, the kind of glamour that inspires someone to pursue a career that is ultimately rewarding or to move to a city where they find a better life — that is good.

And then there’s a lot of glamour that’s kind of in between. The illusion in glamour lies in the things it hides. It hides difficulties, it hides costs, it hides distractions, flaws. I’m sure your readers can relate to this in the sense that they are putting on shows, and anytime you’re doing that, there’s the behind-the-scenes things and there’s what the audience sees, and what you want, if you’re creating glamour, is for the audience not to think about the things that they know are there. Glamour is like a stage magician’s trick, where there’s this suspension of disbelief. It’s known to be false but felt to be true. You know that something’s being hidden.

And so then, if you’re thinking about whether glamour is good or bad, if it’s being used in a benign way, the question is, if you actually are acting on it, do you remember to edit back in all those things that [glamour] took out?

You return to that a few different times in the book — this idea of an illusion that is “known to be false but felt to be true.” There are all of these seeming contradictions or paradoxes, such as the idea that glamour can simultaneously fuel dissatisfaction but also make your present difficulties more tolerable.

This is one of the great paradoxes of glamour, which is that glamour runs on dissatisfaction. If you are to have glamour, you have to be able to in some way project yourself into some image or idea of a different, better life and different, better circumstances. Glamour always has this element of escape and transformation. So that requires acknowledging that you’re dissatisfied in some way, and this isn’t necessarily at a cognitive level. It’s all about emotions, acknowledging that you’re dissatisfied in some way and being willing to entertain a desire for something else. On the other hand, if you are in difficult circumstances, the ability to do that can be an incredibly valuable respite. Either an imaginative respite where it just takes you out of your difficulties for a moment, or it can actually provide a way that ultimately you do change your life. You change your circumstances.

I start the book with a story about Michaela DePrince. She’s a four-year-old kid in an orphanage in Sierra Leone and she’s treated very badly and it’s very miserable circumstances, and she sees the cover of a dance magazine with this beautiful ballerina on it. She tears that off, keeps that, looks at it every night, and that’s her escape from her terrible circumstances. She just wants to be this person, and when it starts that’s strictly a matter of helping this little girl to survive in horrible circumstances. It’s just an imaginative escape, but then she gets lucky and she gets adopted by an American couple, and at that point the glamour of the ballerina becomes something that she actually brings into her life. So her original idea of wanting to be like the lady in the picture becomes something that directs her toward studying dance, and she becomes who she is today — a professional dancer.

So in that case, [glamour is] sort of both. It’s fueling dissatisfaction but also providing that imaginative respite and then ultimately allowing her to shape her life in a way where it’s no longer glamour, it’s really her life. She obviously had to experience all the difficulties that get hidden in a beautiful picture of a ballerina. All those hours and years of rehearsals and the sore muscles and the damaged feet and all of that kind of thing that create that perfect moment that takes the audience into this glamorous image of the dance.

Another paradox that struck me reading the book is that one of the qualities of glamour is that it seems effortless, but it’s also something that you say can be consciously constructed.

I would say you can try to consciously construct it. Glamour is like humor in the sense that you can consciously construct humor. There are lots of people who get paid to write jokes or write sitcoms or write romantic comedies, but whether it works depends on the audience. What I’m trying to do is analyze glamour the way somebody might analyze humor. How does it work?

What you need to consciously construct it are these three elements that I identify. The first is, you have to take whatever your audience has — these sort of inchoate desires — and you have to translate them into some image or idea of escape or transformation. That can be as simple as “this dress will make you feel beautiful” or “this vacation spot will make you feel relaxed or let you escape from the hectic life you have.” Or it can be something more complicated, where we see images or settings in TV shows that show great friendships or great work fellowships, or the people on the red carpet who seem to be getting admired and acclaimed, and we imagine that sort of glamour.

The second thing, which you mentioned when you talked about effortlessness, is you have to have grace, which is the illusion in glamour. You have to hide the things that would pull people out of the moment, so you have to hide costs, distractions, flaws, difficulties. Glamour creates this pang of longing, this sense of projection, and you have to avoid things that might distract you from that.

The third element you have to have is mystery. You have to leave room for the audience’s imagination. You can’t show too much. Mystery both enhances the grace by hiding things and it enhances projection because it’s intriguing. That’s why there are certain common tropes in glamorous imagery that create mystery. For example, in a glamorous portrait, the person in the portrait is unlikely to be looking you in the eye. They’re either looking away or they’re looking straight through you to something on the other side of you, so it’s less of that friendly, smiling, snapshot look and more of something where they have a sense of reserve or of not being entirely engaged with you, so that you can imagine yourself in their position or with them. They have this sort of distance.

Is digital technology or digital media changing glamour? Or is glamour evolving in the face of that? On the surface it seems like it would remove a lot of mystery from the world, for example.

Well, glamour is always evolving, because audiences evolve and the circumstances evolve and, as you say, technology is evolving. The quick thing that a lot of people say is what you said: “Oh, in this age where everyone’s tweeting and everyone’s showing their selfies, we can’t have glamour.” But in fact, it’s just evolving. For example, a lot of what people do on social media is they create glamorous visions of their own lives. Versions of their own lives, if you will. On Instagram, some of the filters create a somewhat more glamorous look to the photos. It’s glamour by selection. You create an image of what you want your life to be and what you want people to perceive your life being.

Are there elements of glamour that can surround a larger meeting or convention?

Well, the obvious one is the location. Cities are often glamorous, and have longbeen. Even just the idea of the city is something I discuss in the book. So one idea is, why would you choose this location over that location? Obviously there are a lot of practical reasons. Do they have enough hotel rooms? How about the transportation? But another element if you’re thinking about why would people come to this convention is, is this a city that has a kind of glamour to it? Is it someplace that has enough meaning and also a little bit of mystery to it that people would want to go there? For cities nowadays it’s tricky, because since travel has become so easy, even the great, famous, glamorous cities like Paris are more familiar than they once were, and so how do you maintain the mystery? The way you have to maintain mystery is having constantly new things to discover. So the fact that you’ve been to New York or you’ve been to Chicago or Las Vegas doesn’t mean you know that city. There are new things to discover.

The other element [that] I think is really a big, important reason why people want to go to conventions and meetings of all sorts is the glamour of fellowship. This is a very powerful and rarely remarked upon form of glamour. It informs all kinds of TV shows and movies where you see a group of friends or colleagues who understand each other in a way that is actually rare at that level in real life. What a convention offers or can offer is the promise that you’re going to see people that you don’t work with every day but who have something in common with you, where you kind of understand each other in a certain way and maybe you also get away from the people you work with every day or some of the people you work with every day and you create new bonds. I think that a lot of the appeal is also [that] you’re still working but it’s an escape from your routine. It does offer that. You’re not in the office and you’re with different people with whom you have something in common, and that potentially offers a kind of glamour.

The third type of glamour that you might think of in terms of a meeting is the actual program. Seeing new things, hearing new ideas, the newness of it. You might discover something new and exciting, and that can have a kind of glamour to it, too.

You describe glamour as “a form of nonverbal rhetoric” — less an inherent quality than a sort of interplay between object and audience. That seems like a big takeaway for meeting planners. Are there things they can do to harness that dynamic within the context of a meeting?

It’s those crucial elements — the promise of escape and transformation, the grace, and the mystery. It’s tricky, because you’re also trying to offer people practical takeaways. Essentially what a meeting planner needs to do is to emotionally engage people so that they want to come, but then also rationally engage them so they can justify coming. So the emotional part is where the glamour comes in: This meeting will give you an escape from the routine and take you to a different, better place and give you a sense of a new you. But at that same time, it’s going to help you do your job, because otherwise your boss isn’t going to pay for it.

I guess this is partly why meeting planners try to get speakers who people always wanted to hear, as opposed to speakers where it’s going to be useful or it’s going to be original or new. Personally, I always want things to be new, so that’s what I value, but I realize that’s not always what everyone else values.

So a planner would go for glamorous names over a more hardcore industry expert who could speak more to the nuts-and-bolts stuff that you’re talking about?

Right. Or some other thing. That tends to be the way people think about it — either famous names or industry experts. And there is a third kind of [speaker], which is the category that I personally fall into. [Laughs.] Which is people who are not as famous but may tell you something that you haven’t actually heard before.

More of a thought-leader category?

Yeah, because you haven’t read their book already or whatever.

Have you been to any meetings or conferences that you would consider to be particularly glamorous?

I’ve been to TED a couple of times, which is glamorous. It’s interesting that we can think about whether TED has lost its glamour or whether it’s got a different kind of glamour. I actually spoke about glamour at TED in 2004, and that was kind of weird in retrospect because I had only written that one essay [for SFMOMA]. They invited me to speak at TED because of The Substance of Style, but they then told me I couldn’t speak about that book because they had given it to everybody.

At that time TED was about the people in the room. They recorded it because they gave everybody a DVD. It wasn’t about being on the Internet. There was no rehearsal. The production values were much lower. I was one of the few people who even showed pictures. But it was very glamorous because it was very exclusive. It was a little less earnest and more playful. More really about new ideas. Now it’s really about Internet videos, and I think it still is glamorous to the people who watch those videos, but it’s also something that a lot people roll their eyes at. So it’s gotten less glamorous as it’s become more popular, which is kind of interesting.

There is a kind of conference circuit where it’s these very idea-oriented, quite expensive, not necessarily tax-deductible or paid-by-your-company kind of conferences that have a kind of glamour to them, where you have to be invited. Then there are other kinds of conferences that have glamorous elements in them. For example, I’ve spoken at NeoCon [a design exposition and conference for the commercial-interiors industry]. I don’t think NeoCon is glamorous as a whole huge, giant conference or convention, but it’s about interiors, and interiors often have glamorous elements to them. And you will find little bits of glamour as well as a lot of the stuff that gets hidden when you create a glamorous environment at NeoCon.

Actually, this is an interesting one to think about, because if you go to NeoCon, you will see all the things that are hidden in the glamour of a hotel lobby or the glamour of a really glamorous restaurant or something like that. You’ll get the peek behind the curtain, because it’s for the people who are creating glamour as opposed to being a glamorous convention itself. I imagine that there’s any number of conferences that are like that. When I go to NeoCon, it doesn’t destroy the glamour of interiors to me. It just makes me think, wow, it’s really impressive how people put all these things together and create a new whole.

When you go to a meeting or conference as an attendee, what do you look to get out of that experience?

I want to meet interesting people and hear new interesting ideas and find out interesting things that people are doing in their businesses. I am looking for things that are new to me. I guess that would sum it up.

I was wandering around the hospitality design conference [HD Expo] — this is quite a number of years ago — and I kept noticing all these fabrics that had this thing called Crypton on them, and I thought, what is this Crypton in all these different booths? Eventually it led to a story [Postrel wrote for The New York Times] about this way of making a fabric that was more resilient, spill-proof, bacteria-proof, etc., etc. And that was because I was wandering around a trade-show floor, seeing this in a lot of different contexts, saying, what is this? Because it was new to me, because I was new to the industry.


The mystery essential to glamour is not complete inscrutability. Glamorous sunglasses, after all, highlight as well as veil. They call attention to the face, most of which remains visible, and even the darkest lenses allow a hint of eye to show every now and then, when the light is just right. (Mirror shades, by contrast, are less glamorous than intimidating.) Glamour, as noted in chapter one, is neither opaque nor transparent. It is translucent, balancing attraction and denial. Glamour exists, as a French book describes the folding screen, “à la frontière entre l’évident et le caché,” on the border between the obvious and the hidden. “You can create instant glamour with candlelight, which covers up anything,” advises tastemaker Carolyne Roehm. But the cover-up is not complete. Candlelight not only conceals but illuminates. It creates an enchanted circle, drawing guests closer. By highlighting some qualities and obscuring others, mystery creates a compellingly stylized version of reality that heightens grace and focuses desire. “The most essential thing about my style was working with shadows to design the face instead of flooding it with light,” wrote the Hollywood photographer George Hurrell. One way or another, all glamour follows the formula he laid out: “Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination.”

In constructing glamour, mystery is both a tool and an essential element. As a tool, mystery does two things: it provides imaginative space for the audience to project its own desires onto the glamorous object, and it enhances grace by obscuring preparation and flaws. As an essential element itself, it captures and holds the audience’s attention. It fascinates and intrigues….

Mystery plays a central role in distinguishing glamour from another alluring quality: charisma. Though writers sometimes use the words glamorous and charismatic interchangeably, these concepts are quite different. In its precise sense, charisma (originally a religious term) is a quality of leadership that inspires followers to join the charismatic leader in the disciplined pursuit of a greater cause. More colloquially, charisma is a kind of personal magnetism that inspires loyalty.

Charisma in either sense is a personal characteristic like intelligence. A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. And while glamour depends on the audience’s receptive imagination, even unsympathetic audiences can feel the power of charisma. (Charisma in someone hostile is quite frightening.)

Most important, glamour requires mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the details with their own desires. Glamour doesn’t persuade the audience to share a leader’s vision. Instead, it inspires the audience to project their own longings onto the leader (or movie star, vacation resort, or new car). The meaning of glamour, in other words, lies entirely in the audience’s mind, making glamour most effective at a distance. Charisma, by contrast, works through personal contact. A still image, the ideal medium for glamour, cannot capture charisma, which requires a live performance or, at the very least, a video recording. Charisma draws the audience to share the charismatic figure’s own commitments, seeking that person’s affection or approval. Charisma enhances leadership; glamour enhances sales.

Excerpted from The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. Published by Simon & Schuster. © 2013.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.