Books highlight elusive qualities of glamour
Trying to define the exact nature of glamour can be an infuriating pursuit. Is it epitomized by a glittering cocktail dress? A perfectly tailored tuxedo? Or some nonchalant combination of high- and low-end fashion such as Zara mixing with Chanel?
Glamour isn’t predicated on the fundamentals of beauty or a laundry list of celebrated trends. Glamour is more electrifying than elegance, more reserved than sex appeal and more eccentric than class. The dictionary considers it “magic,” “witchery” and even “enchantment.”
Yet, to consider glamour means searching for insight into popular society: the aesthetics we value, the fantasies that drive our imagination, the effortless perfection we hopelessly seek to project.
A biography, a history and an artist’s portfolio — all recently published coffee-table books celebrating the men and women who have populated the world of fashion or who have lived especially stylish lives — have, as their subtext, the topic of glamour. Lesley Frowick, niece of the influential American designer Halston, has written a biography of her uncle, one that is distinguished by her memories of the impact he had on her life when he welcomed her into his celebrity-drenched world. Halston, who died in 1990, helped to invent a distinctly American view of glamour and he wrapped his beloved niece in its embrace.
A massive tome published by Harper Design is filled with the moody and evocative sketches of fashion illustrator Joe Eula — a close friend of Halston’s — and is accompanied by text written by former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Eula’s work gives viewers a visual sense of how elusive glamour can be. The illustrator, who died in 2004, was able to convey, sometimes with only a handful of pen strokes, the regal magnetism of Halston, the charm of a model during a fitting or the energy inherent in a singular garment. Eula’s work evokes the feeling of speed and impatience, quiet beauty and turbulent creativity in a way that contemporary fashion photos — with their elaborate setups — do not.
And finally, the writer Nichelle Gainer highlights the glossy life’s political and social constraints in her book “Vintage Black Glamour.” The volume began as a blog focused on almost forgotten photographs of black singers, dancers and actresses. In her book, Gainer transforms those captivating pictures into a history lesson using the allure of beautiful gowns to tell substantial stories about ambition, insecurity and self-respect. Earlier generations, Gainer says in an interview, took pride in presenting themselves in a way that said, ‘I’m a lady. I’m a woman. I’m a person.’ ”
‘Halston: Inventing American Fashion’
The story of Halston is, in many ways, the story of America suddenly becoming star-struck by its own aesthetic ideals instead of those imported from Europe. Halston was a Midwestern boy, born Roy Halston Frowick in Iowa, and he began his professional journey in Chicago. When he arrived in New York at the end of the 1950s and began his rise to fame through the millinery salon at Bergdorf Goodman, he proved adept at maneuvering through the social elite and the entertainment world’s stars. He sold them on the beauty of simplicity and ease. With his well-crafted clothes, he gave stars such as Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor a singular costume for their public selves — as well as their private moments.
In Halston’s interpretation, glamour was embodied by classic clothes — streamlined, yet memorable and thoughtfully constructed. The Tom Ford era at Gucci was deeply influenced by Halston’s vision of uncomplicated sensuality. But Frowick, during a conversation over coffee, points to Ralph Rucci, who once worked for Halston, as a contemporary designer who continues to work with the rarified technique of Halston and other once-celebrated couturiers. (Rucci recently severed ties with the company that bears his name.)
Just as Halston’s clients reflected a dazzling magic, so did the designer himself. “Glamour is sort of an elusive thing,” Frowick says. “You’re born with it. You can sort of learn it, but it was the way he was wired. He appreciated beauty and he took it in.
“He spent his early career in Chicago working with movie stars, making hats for movie stars. He understood that glamour and chic — and used it to sell his hats. He branded himself. … He had a sense of showmanship,” Frowick says. “He knew he was movie-star handsome, but he was still humble.”
Halston understood that public presentation — no matter one’s occupation — was akin to being onstage and he used gloss, mystery and a sense of chic to create an aura of glamour around himself. A glamorous life is one that is lived — both publicly and privately — with the sound of applause never far off in the distance.
When Halston died in 1990, he bequeathed his sketches, journals and other papers to Frowick and encouraged her to write his biography. More than 20 years passed before she could talk about the designer without tearing up and before she could bring herself to open his trunks and boxes that had been stored in her basement. “I wanted to humanize Halston,” Frowick says of the designer who was known for his cashmere turtlenecks, dark sunglasses and prodigious night-clubbing. “He was a great self-promoter … (but) he never lost sight of his Midwestern roots.”
Despite his connection to a rarified world, Halston was a populist. When Frowick recently saw a very Halston-esque draped jersey dress on an H&M billboard — a sign of his enduring and diffuse legacy — she noted that her uncle “would have been flattered.”
‘Joe Eula: Master of Twentieth-Century Fashion Illustration’
Halston’s persona within popular culture was solidified, in part, by Eula. The illustrator, born in Connecticut, was short and bespectacled. He had a dynamic personality, but he did not exude glamour. His illustrations, however, did.
Eula worked extensively with Halston but his drawings also filled the pages of newspapers. He sketched Liza. He produced advertisements. He captured the essence of famous strangers and celebrated friends by freeing his sketches from extraneous details, cumbersome presumptions and overwrought fashion. Eula’s interpretation of glamour was based on restraint, not excess.
‘Vintage Black Glamour’
Decades ago, the pathway to glamour might have been eased by wealth, but it wasn’t defined by it. Things have changed. “People see Oprah as glamorous,” Gainer says. “Some of that is connected to wealth.”
And even beyond the magnetic appeal of financial success, various Real Housewives and Kardashians have codified modern glamour as an assemblage of designer labels, false eyelashes and hair extensions. A host of young women, from Starbucks baristas to junior office clerks, have picked up on those cues. But Gainer aims to make a case for a time when glamour had more to do with authenticity than expensive frocks.
“I remember women in my family loving Gladys Knight,” Gainer says in an interview. “They were just impressed that it was her own hair and it was long hair and she was a brown-skinned woman.”
“Vintage Black Glamour,” she says, is “a little bit subversive.” She was not interested in a photography book focused on the likes of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, well-known (fair-skinned) African-American beauties — although they are included. Instead, she wanted to highlight women who were heavyset, dark-skinned and less likely to be placed on a pedestal. They were also less likely to be the spouse of influential or celebrated black men such as Nate King Cole’s wife, Maria; Joe Louis’s wife, Marva; and Camille Cosby, wife of the embattled Bill Cosby.
Despite the title of Gainer’s book, the definition of glamour remains, for her, elusive. The book begins its assessment in the early 1900s and ends in the 1980s. The time range was a matter of practicality and passion. Glamour “is subjective and a matter of taste,” Gainer says. It is a matter of nurture and nature — an ineffable something. “I’m 45,” Gainer says, as a way of explaining her point-of-view.”I feel like I stopped at the pinnacle of fabulous.”
Gainer didn’t pinpoint the essence of glamour. That wasn’t her goal. She simply wanted to capture its enduring magic.
Robin Givhan is a staff writer for The Washington Post.