I’ve found it difficult to find serious work on the history and culture of beauty, including its design. Relatively little explores the allure of the objects associated with beauty, and their importance to our culture. So, I’d like to share here two of the resources that I've uncovered. My hope is that you might share your own recommendations with me!
Which brings us to the topic of this post: glamour. Ask a beauty collector why they collect and the word ‘glamourous’ will often end their explanation. Like many of you, I’ve been interested in glamour since my early teens. I remember pouring over a vintage beauty guide cross-legged in my bedroom, trying to shape my eyebrows like Veronica Lake. To understand why, compare the natural look of the nineties supermodels with the artificial glamour of forties Hollywood. Forties glamour was pure artifice – Ms Lake didn’t walk into the studio as Ms Lake, she was created. So although I knew I could never be Cindy Crawford, I thought that glamour might be achievable with a bit of elbow grease and practice. The possibility of achieving something so desirable (“if I just get my eyebrows like that…”) hooked me as a teen and still shapes the way I look at beauty.
So, it was with delight that I recently found two great resources on Glamour. The first I’ll talk about is the best; Carol Dyhouse’s Glamour: Women, History, Feminism. Author Carol Dyhouse writes thrillingly about the history of what we know as ‘glamour’, tracking the term’s modern meanings from the early 1900s through to those ‘Glamazon’ supermodels of the 1990s. The main chapters focus on the cultural and consumer changes that drove glamour from the 1930s to 1960s.
Dyhouse’s uses mass-market beauty products to tell her story of glamour. This is an inspired choice as it grounds the story in our personal histories. A particular joy is discovering the forgotten brands that shaped my grandmother’s (and great grandmother’s) ideas of beauty. Product’s like Grossmith’s Phul-Nana and Hasu-no-Hana are so evocative, transporting me back to their dressing tables and aspirations. Dyhouse also illustrates Glamour with her comprehensive research, quoting advice and comments from contemporary magazines and advertisements. These are a main-line into the thoughts and preoccupations of the past, while Dyhouses’s editorial flair mean that many of these are laugh out loud funny – little gems waiting for you in her 290 pages.
“You can even put your pancaked face into a bucket of water and come up smiling with your beautiful matt bloom unblemished,” is a lovely one from a 1938 Picture Post piece on Max Factor makeup. Dyhouse’s aside that “this water-soluble make-up foundation sold like wildfire” (my italics) is a nice example of the wit she injects throughout.
So, Glamour: Women, History, Feminism is a joy, and for a weekend of pure glamour indulgence I’d suggest combining it with a great series on Youtube. This is Glamour's Golden Age, a three part documentary made for British channel BBC Four. The series’s commentary is comparatively light-weight, but the makers have access to an extraordinary archive of film. Watch Fred and Ginger glide across an Art Deco stage, hang with the 1920’s Bright Young People or see Dietrich lit-up like a Hollywood angel in Shanghai Express. The episodes are a perfect visual accompaniment to the research in Dyhouse’s book. You can currently find the whole of the episode on 1920s Glamour on YouTube. The whole series is regularly available on BBC iplayer, and you can watch iPlayer’s selection of clips. Mute the commentary, enjoy the film then open Glamour: Women, History, Feminism.