Glamour and feminism: a marriage made in heaven or hell?
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Are women capable of enjoying glamour without deluding themselves into a denial of other values or wholly distorting their understanding of life? Carol Dyhouse thinks so.
Women still stand to gain more than do men from investing in their appearance: this may be deplored, but can scarcely be denied.
At the same time, young educated women of the last quarter of the twentieth century enjoyed a new autonomy, were not unlikely to have feminist views, and had enough self-respect to feel uneasy about resigning their economic independence.
They enjoyed having money to spend upon themselves and the idea of being accountable for every penny to a husband seemed unacceptably demeaning. It seemed imprudent, too. With divorce rates rising, who could ensure that the husband would not later go off with a younger – and more glamorous – alternative?
If he did this, the wife would probably be censured for not having taken sufficient pains to make herself attractive, and for ‘letting herself go’. Aside from the sexual politics of this, a majority of young women now combine paid work with family responsibilities because they have no alternative: soaring property values from the 1990s into the early twenty-first century, and the cost of maintaining a home, have required them to continue earning.
As women have become wealthier and more autonomous through education and employment, they have spent more rather than less on their appearance.
In part, the rituals of hairdressing, grooming and body care might be read as supplying some respite from the exhausting demands of the double shift, of combining domestic and family responsibilities with employment.
Against a background of rising prosperity, there were also issues of self-respect, optimism and pleasure. Those who studied patterns of expenditure and consumption in working-class life in the 1900s in Britain recorded that women rarely bought new clothes: they constantly sacrificed their own needs, whether for clothing or food, for the sake of husbands and children.
The French celebrity hairdresser Antoine, visiting London in 1905, found shop-window displays full of clothes for men, and observed that almost everywhere women were much worse dressed than their menfolk.
It was a common observation that many working-class women in Britain looked middle-aged when they were still young. Margery Spring-Rice noted in the 1930s that erstwhile pretty girls looked drab after a few years of marriage and appeared worn out by the age of thirty.
The contrast between the appearance of married and unmarried women remained for a long while – Mass Observers had commented on this in the 1940s. But by Antoine’s own account, things had changed remarkably between 1905 and the time of the Second World War: there were many more clothes for women in the shops and the gulf between the standards of male and female dress was less apparent.
Film footage from the 1930s and 1940s of women queuing for the sales in big department stores is nevertheless revealing: to modern eyes the majority of women look old, tired and down-at-heel.
Poverty still makes women look old before their time, but it would be hard to argue against the contention that the majority of women look much better today, and well into what used to be regarded as old age, than did their predecessors. Affluence, aspirations, better nutrition, dietary awareness, exercise, clothing, ‘beauty culture’ and cosmetics have all contributed to this.
It is difficult to reconcile these changes with any all-embracing theory of women as victims, imprisoned by false consciousness or deluded by the snares of patriarchy.
There are aspects of the glamour industries that we may deplore, particularly the ways in which advertisers and manufacturers exploit the insecurities of consumers. This is a criticism that can be levelled at most consumer industries.
There are clearly problems with the extent to which we invest in appearances, and younger women are prone to particular anxieties about their appearance, as older women are prone to lament their wrinkles and the loss of their youth.
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 distorting their understanding of life.
Has what we might call the democratisation of glamour led to a bland conformity in standards and ideals of feminine attractiveness?
This is an important question if we adopt a wider focus and consider skin whitening, hair straightening, and the ways, for instance, in which women with Asiatic features may aspire to a more ‘Westernised’ appearance.
Standards of beauty are undeniably linked with ethnicity and carry cultural weighting: this argument is propounded strongly by black models and the organisers (since 2006) of beauty contests to select a Miss Black Britain.
These issues were raised in Britain by Claudia Jones in the early 1960s. Issues around ethnicity, skin colour and ideals of feminine beauty are regularly debated in the pages of Pride, a British magazine founded in 1990, which is addressed to ‘the aspirational modern woman of colour’.
But glamour, bound up with artifice, style, performance and attitude is less subject to ethnic hijacking than ‘essentialist’ conceptions of beauty. And if a certain vision of glamour framed the bland, busty blonde and sun-kissed look fashionable in late twentieth-century California, this must be set against glamour’s long association with the oriental and the exotic.
In part this has represented the eroticism displaced onto non-white women (and men too), which has allowed for a degree of cultural diversification and heterogeneity in standards of appearance worldwide.
But there has undoubtedly been two-way traffic: the glamour that India had for the British in the 1920s, for instance, was reflected in the cosmetics and perfumes popular in Britain at that time, and the glitter and gorgeousness of Bollywood cinema feeds into contemporary notions of glamour in the UK.
Exploring the role of glamour in history shows that it has often served to express a sense of aspiration and entitlement for women as well as a dream of escape from hardship and the everyday.
Glamorous women have often expressed an attitude of self-possession and assertiveness in conflict with traditional models of femininity rather than in conformity with them. Glamour has often been perceived as transgressive.
There was no shortage of observers in the 1930s prepared to dismiss it as artificial and self-regarding, in the 1950s as vulgar and lacking in class, in the 1960s and 1970s as lacking in youth and innocence, in the 1980s as associated with ambition and an unfeminine materialism.
The word ‘glamour’ is so widely and loosely used today that we may well argue that it has lost edge and meaning. But it maintains its power of suggestion, a connection with the dreams of the past, a whole history of associations and longing.
One writer who understood this well was the British novelist Angela Carter, whose work reflects both a fascination with Hollywood glamour and continual engagement with themes of femininity, performance and illusion.
Her last novel, Wise Children, explored the lives of twin female chorus girls, Dora and Nora Chance (‘the Lucky Chances’), seen through the eyes of the 75-year-old Dora.
The writing is exuberant and subversive in the spirit of the carnivalesque. Dora and her sister live out their lives in glorious defiance of patriarchy, poverty and ageing. Deprived (or relieved) of paternal protection by their illegitimacy, raised in highly unconventional circumstances by their grandmother, and embarking on careers that go steadily downhill, they triumph through wit, wisdom, generosity and sheer joie de vivre.
The end of the story has them putting on their gladrags and glamming up for their distant father’s birthday celebrations. They strut their stuff, shouldering off their trench-coats as they ascend the grand staircase, flash bulbs popping, flaunting their still shapely (‘not quite catastrophic’) legs in starry tights, mutton dressed as lamb, out of sheer delight in the sense of still being alive and kicking.
A pair of elderly grandes dames, they are a poignant contrast with Gloria Swanson’s famous representation of the ageing star Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard precisely because they are so self-aware, with no illusions: their fading glamour no disguise but rather, in the face of all that has to be endured, a celebration of the human condition.
Carol Dyhouse is a social historian. Her research has focused on gender, education and the pattern of women's lives in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. Her books include Girls Growing Up in late Victorian and Edwardian England (1981); Feminism and the Family in England, 1890-1939, (1989); No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities (1995); and Students: A Gendered History (2006).
An interest in clothing and material culture, and the ways in which these relate to changing ideas about femininity, led to Carol's work on the subject of glamour, its controversial status within feminism, and its meanings to women in history. Carol is currently a research professor in history at the University of Sussex.