The Origins of Glamour


When it was first used in the late nineteenth century, the word ‘glamour’ had connotations of sorcery, mystery, allure and a kind of delusive charm. Glamour had a danger about it – the word was not used lightly or happily – it was a word of warning to young girls who could be drawn in by the power of allure and dangerous attraction. In the first decades of the twentieth century, ‘glamour’, a term which became to be recognised as implying a form of feminine sophistication, luxury, excess and sexual power, became a more attainable and attractive way of dressing and living. The business of fashion exploded as for the first time, cosmetics, beauty treatments, and furs and feathers leapt onto the market as fashion for fashion’s sake came to represent a most extravagant generation.

In his memoirs Cecil Beaton refers to music hall artist Gaby Deslys as ‘the first creature of artificial glamour’. The theatrical form of glamour which had traces of the courtesans of the late nineteenth century trickled down from the music halls, theatres and jazz clubs into the expensive saloons of the British elite. Edwardian glamour was awash with a thick and heady Orientalism, strings of pearls and for the first time in the history of female fashion a sexual confidence and air of aloofness. Elinor Glyn, author of ‘Three Weeks’ – published in 1907 an early form of the ‘chick-lit’ writing, took her own kooky notion of glamour and bought nine tiger skins, which she named after important men in her life, be they fictional or otherwise. Fashion for the wealthy and daring became a life-style choice – the old pale pinks and mauves were swept away along with the rigid bodices, in favour of flowing and soft drapery and small hemlines to contrast with the wide brimmed hats. In 1913, most daring of all came the ‘V-neck’. It was denounced by the clergy as something equating to indecent exposure and by doctors as even unhealthy – a blouse with a very modest opening became known as the ‘pneumonia blouse’. Into the early twenties waistlines disappeared and figures became more boyish – women even wore ‘flatteners’ to fit into the prevailing mode. But these styles were far from desexualising as the industry of cosmetics and beauty therapies began take over.

A key sign of modernity in women was the wearing of cosmetics, particularly lipstick, probably the most significant sign in making the generation gap between mothers and daughters in the 1920s; it became a symbol for independence and recklessness. Greta Garbo, in Flesh and the Devil in 1926 applies lipstick in church whilst the priest ridicules her for her wicked ways. The business of fashion became more and more prevalent for the first generations of the twentieth century, something which has been heavily criticised by feminist historians since, who claim that the sale of female attractiveness bolstered patriarchy. The 1910s and 1920s saw a growing demand for complex oriental scents that were advertised in women’s weeklies – the French perfume house Guerlain’s concocted a scent Mitsouko – a Japanese word for mystery. The cosmetic industry flourished as feminine appearance became ever more commercialised – The Art of Feminine Beauty recommended a face mask of raw meat as well as advertising various creams and lotions springing onto the market for the care of skin. By far one of biggest industries was in that of the desirable status symbols of feathers and furs. In the 1910s 200 million egrets were killed annually for their plumage and fur became such a desired accessory that during the First World War factory workers were banned from wearing fur to and from work out of respect for their husbands who were away fighting. The fashion for fur epitomized this pleasure seeking generation of British women who for the first time saw fashion as a lifestyle which became part of the rhetoric for independence and individuality.

Rosa Schiller Crawghurst


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