When I was a pudgy little eight-year-old running around in velour sweatpants and glittery unicorn t-shirts, I thought Miss Piggy from The Muppets was the most glamorous creature on earth. The satin gloves, long flowing hair, lavender eye shadow and bejeweled fingers.
So imagine my surprise when I gave my mom’s beautiful, highly made-up friend the greatest compliment ever, “Wow! You look just like Miss Piggy!” only to have her glare at me and snarl,
“What do you mean?”
I was confused. How could this have gone so wrong? How could she not understand? It wasn’t about looking like a pig. It was about looking glamorous.
I learned my lesson. The next time I paid a compliment to a grownup, I told a shiny lady wearing a metallic jumpsuit and massive dangling earrings that she looked like a Christmas tree. Surely that would be understood. A Christmas tree is the center of attention; so pretty that mom takes too many pictures of it, lighting up the room as it twinkles, making everyone smile.
Oddly enough, that didn’t go over too well either. This shiny lady just gave me a funny look and told me I’d spilled juice on my glittery unicorn t-shirt. (Ha! Joke’s on you, shiny lady! That stain was from last Wednesday.) She didn’t understand that it wasn’t about the tree. It was about how the tree made me feel.
After that, I gave up on complimenting grownups. I never seemed to get it right. I figured that the world must look very different to grownups, and maybe some day I’d understand.
But that day hasn’t arrived yet.
Last week I was out with a friend for lunch. The restaurant served my turkey sandwich with two plastic swords speared through olives on the top. I was giddy. “Remember these? I always thought they were so glamorous when I was a kid. A pirate sword turns any sandwich into an adventure!” My friend shook his head and said, “You’re easily impressed, aren’t you?”
So I ate the olives and threw the pirate swords in my purse, thinking about all the things that seem so glamorous when we’re kids that gradually lose their luster when we become adults. Somehow, as we get older we see how cheap they are. The sparkle dies out, like scratching off the silver coating of a losing lottery ticket. Things that delighted us–little umbrellas in Technicolor drinks, flocked foil wallpaper, gold flecks in popcorn ceilings glinting in the sun, that fancy fringed lamp in your grandma’s house (illuminating the glossy stack of People magazines) and paper doilies under stainless steel cups of ice cream–become either tacky or commonplace.
I decided to ask some friends what represented glamour to them as kids. Whether they were things that only grown ups did, so they had the fascination of the unknown, or things that only glittered when we were kids.
My pal Greg told me, “When I was 10, I was at the airport with my parents. I walked up to the TWA counter and had myself paged to the White Courtesy Phone. It seemed so grown up and jet set to hear my name over the loudspeaker, that I was important enough to get a phone call at the airport.”
See that? It didn’t matter that there wasn’t actually anyone on the other end of the White Courtesy Phone. It was just the make believe joy of being paged to the mysterious White Courtesy Phone. Childhood glamour at its finest! Other friends had equally sweet and funny stories:
Natasha was in awe of Stefanie Powers taking off her earring and tossing her hair to answer the car phone on Hart to Hart.
Amanda created a name for her brand of childhood glam: “What I refer to as “Pac-man Deco”… Art Deco without the detail and refinement, and with lots of overly vibrant pastels.”
Kari waxed poetic, “The smell of my mother’s L’air Du Temps makes me think of my parents turning the AC to a much cooler level than usual and setting up the bar for a dinner party at our house. Mom would put on her finest caftan and go barefooted with a great pedicure.”
Raised in a very practical home, Audrey fought hard for some glamour in her bedroom decor. It was “Sears French provincial. There was a big fancy mirror and a bed and night stand to match. My room was yellow with white organza curtains. Glamour and romance. From Sears, where America Shops.”
What I love about all of these stories is that none of these “glamorous” ideas are necessarily about real wealth or beauty or style. They are just the idea of wealth and beauty and style. But that’s the childlike nature of glamour. It’s not about reality. It’s fantasy; being whisked away to an enchanted land far removed from the everyday. Kids don’t care if the fancy lady is wearing real diamonds or rhinestones, solid gold or gold plated. (Although the glitzy Solid Gold dancers held a special place in my childhood heart.) Maybe that big, cheap costume ring from your boozy Auntie with the loud laugh turns your skin green. But there’s still magic in it anyway.
So glamour is the most democratic type of allure. That’s why it appeals to children so much. They haven’t been taught to make distinctions yet. Country superstar Dolly Parton based her glamorous look on the “town trollop.” She’s told the story many times over the years:
“There’s a trollop in every town. We would go into town when I was a little bitty kid. I would see this woman and I thought she was beautiful. She had yellow hair piled on her head, make-up, red lipstick, long fingernails, high shoes. And I thought, ‘That’s what I’m gonna be when I grow up.’”
Glamour relies on the right lighting, not the right upbringing. A cheap apartment in a crummy neighborhood can never be on the register of historic homes. But add a chandelier, a mirrored coffee table and a flokati rug and poof! It’s glamorous.
Beauty is something you’re born with. If you have long legs or great cheekbones or luscious thick hair, you haven’t earned that beauty. It was bestowed upon you by the genetic lottery. But glamour takes effort. It’s throwing stardust on the mundane.
There’s a reason that the most popular photo studio in suburban American malls throughout the ‘80s was called Glamour Shots and not Beauty Shots. Anyone could go in there and rifle through the collection of feather boas, hats and props and strike a pose. Glamour is achieved through creativity and strength of personality. No one is naturally glamorous. That isn’t the point of glamour. If you take a mousy woman and put her in a frumpy bathrobe, she’s simply a mousy woman in a frumpy bathrobe. You put that same woman in a sequined dress, dark sunglasses, red lipstick and leopard print heels and POW! She’s glamorous.
Say you’ve been in a car accident and have to use a cane for a month or two. If you hobble around with a standard issue cane, people may pity you for your plight. Well, just hot glue some rhinestones on that cane and you’ll no longer be pitiable. You’ll be sensational. That cane is no longer just a medical necessity. It’s a glamorous accessory, you sexy minx.
Glamour is how David Bowie transformed himself from a failed folk singer into a rockstar from outer space. Glamour is how Mae West maintained her screen goddess allure well into her 80s. Glamour is how a shy man with bad skin and a white wig named Andy Warhol ruled the New York art scene for decades.
Glamour is a way of getting back at people who lecture you with dreary clichés like, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Sure I will. As long as that bed has purple satin sheets. Which is why I never understood why Dorothy was so damn desperate to go back to drab Kansas when she could stay in Oz with her fun friends and wear those incredible ruby slippers.
Of course, the book version of The Wizard of Oz offers an important glamour lesson that was left out of the movie: everyone who enters the dazzling, jewel-encrusted Emerald City must wear green-tinted spectacles. The wizard claims this is to prevent being blinded by the “brightness and glory” of his beautiful city. But the truth is, without the green-tinted spectacles, Emerald City is “no more green than any other city.”
Now that’s Glamour 101: it’s always about the accessories.
More than anything, glamour is armor. It’s protection against the everyday drudgeries of life, and a childlike belief that we can turn ourselves into something extraordinary, tapping into our dreams, even if the illusion vanishes at the end of the night.