Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Mapping the Origins of Glamour: Giovanni Boldini, Paris and the Belle Epoque

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Mapping the Origins of Glamour: Giovanni Boldini, Paris and the Belle Epoque

Article excerpt

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the origins of glamour. Today this magical and evocative term is widely used in connection with fashion, showbusiness and entertainment, beauty and beauty marketing and the social worlds that are determined by, or associated with, these industries. It is scarcely possible to open a copy of Vogue, Elle or Hello! without finding the word employed to underline the allure of an occasion, a dwelling, a product or a person. Yet precisely what glamour means is highly elusive and its origins appear to be obscure even to those whose professions are concerned with its evocation and perpetuation.(1) Dictionaries, notoriously poor at defining words whose meaning goes beyond a clear objective referent, are of relatively little assistance. The O.E.D., Webster's Third New International Dictionary and the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origin all refer to the glamour's origin in Scottish English, which used a similar word ('grammaye' or 'grammar') to mean 'enchantment' or 'spell'. Transferred into general English usage by Walter Scott, its sense gradually altered to become fashionably attractive, mysteriously exciting, physically and sexually appealing. These meanings convey the imaginative pull of the glamorous, its association with seduction and appearances, but tell us virtually nothing about when and why it became a general phenomenon, indeed even a routine feature of contemporary commercial and entertainment culture.

In this article it will be suggested that glamour as it is understood today emerged at a quite specific point in history that was characterized by: the shift in terms of the general order of meanings and priorities from a society dominated by the aristocracy to one governed by the bourgeoisie; the extension of the rules of monetary exchange ('commodification') into ever wider public and private spheres; the development of a new urban system of life permeated by consumerism and the importance of fashion; the closer proximity of the theatre and 'high society'; the creation of patterns of leisure experience shared by virtually all urban classes; an obsession with the feminine as the cultural codifier of modernity's tensions and promise.

To a greater or lesser degree these developments could be seen in all major European capitals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as New York and a handful of large cities in Latin America and the colonies; but nowhere were they more advanced than in Paris, the 'capital of the nineteenth century' according to Benjamin's now rather worn definition. The centre of international society, as well as the style and pleasure capital of the Belle Epoque, Paris was the first modern metropolis, that to which it is necessary to turn first in order to understand almost every facet of the experience of modernity.

If the choice of Paris needs little justification, the focus on Giovanni Boldini requires more explanation. An Italian who moved to Paris in 1871 and became the leading painter of fashionable society portraits, Boldini is not regarded as an important figure either in cultural history or, more specifically, in art history. He receives no mention either in T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life or Christopher Prendergast's Paris and the Nineteenth Century and critical judgements of his work are by no means universally positive.(2) In so far as he is recalled at all, he is best remembered today as the chief depicter of the superficial frivolity of an 'epoque' that seems now as distant and quaint as it was 'belle'.(3) Yet it may be argued that precisely Boldini's subjects (society women) and the special look he conferred on them (edgy, Parisian fashionableness) placed him at the very centre of a set of transformations that were crucial to the invention of glamour.

This quality in Boldini's work has not gone entirely unnoticed. Writing in 1967, Giorgio Mascherpa suggested that Boldini's art had much in common with the style and tone of advertising posters and cinema ('his most worthy successor' in the 'creation of "types" [which determine] the canons of modern beauty'). …

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