"Glamour is what I sell; it's my stock in trade" - Marlene Dietrich
On Friday night, the National Portrait Gallery's coronation portrait of Queen Victoria must have rolled its eyes in a resigned state of "not being amused". The museum had been besieged by vintage vixens and classic film buffs (as well as the occasional tramp delighted to find toasty warm comfort until ten on a frigid October night) as Glamour Factory came to town. Within the arched doorway, of the building that has been home to the Gallery since 1896, a riotous celebration of Hollywood razzle dazzle was taking place. Flapper girls entertained the Broken Hearts cocktail lounge whilst their audience, be-decked in retro black and white (I adored one lady's jet black hair set into a white streaked victory roll) wrestled to get another Hendricks Gin and Ginger at the packed bar. One floor below, Fred and Ginger were about to tap off at a screening of Top Hat in a theatre that had just emptied after a debate about the power of dress involving panelists from the world of style including, Janty Yates, the Gladiator costume designer.
Glamour Factory was inspired by the Gallery's current blockbuster exhibition, Glamour of the Gods, which displays Hollywood portraiture from 1920 to 1960. The pictures are on loan from the John Kobal foundation (a collector interested in "the role of photography in the Hollywood legend") and capture the stars of Hollywood's golden age - from a lips parted Greta Garbo through to Marlon Brando smouldering in a promo shot for A Streetcar Named Desire. Glamour Factory took its cue from these iconic pictures and explored the big business of manufacturing and manipulating beauty, youth and glamour. The fun of choosing from a menu of vintage makeovers by the Illamasqua team or the decadence of tweets by typewriter (One Twitter fantasy: "Arrive at an airport, mink clad, with an entourage. And a Snow Leopard") were contrasted by the darker science of age expert Dr. David Gems as he examined the Hollywood take on immortality starting with a portrait of Rock Hudson, who he described as "an advert for the joys of being young and beautiful".
But how scientific is beauty? Danny Rees, from London's centre of medical history, the Wellcome Library, was on hand to tackle this very question. He balanced the cliché "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" with the fact that we are hard-wired to look for a partner with good genes. If this is the case, it means that certain cinematic stereotypes are explainable. Us ladies, that are looking for a whole lot of manly man, can't help but fall for Sean Bean's cheekbones because high levels of testosterone enhance the zygomatic (cheek) bone giving that chiselled look. Meanwhile, men continue to be drawn to large eyes and a high, arched brow or the red lipped look that signifies enhanced arousal. This knowledge has been manipulated in women's make up choices from Liz Taylor's cat eyes to Marilyn Monroe's crimson pout. Danny talked about the appeal of symmetry and provided my favourite fact of the evening: "it has been shown that lap dancers get more tips when they are ovulating as it is thought that the body becomes more symmetrical".
On the top floor, the permanent portrait of George Frederic Handel looked on whilst visiting lecturer, Susan Wilson, gave a master class in how to draw vintage hair. I popped by as people were intently sketching a model with 1950's roller created Marilyn hair whilst Wilson was urging them to focus on the volume and "think Betty Draper". In a neighbouring room, the art of re-touching was demonstrated - another key ingredient in the amount of control that studios and stars held over their image. In this mystical time, before paparazzi, the shots that studios distributed to the press were the only stills available and represented an unattainable level of glamour. This was another lifetime to long lens shots of reality stars taking out the trash appearing in the tabloids or celebrity imperfections on the beach being circled in red by Heat Magazine.
In 1960, La Dolce Vita documented the concept of paparazzi (the literal translation is "buzzing insects") and this new intrusion, into every aspect of a film star's life, heralded the end of studio controlled images. The beautifully manipulated portraits shown at Glamour of the Gods re-visit the ethereal perfection that is impossible in the modern world.
Glamour of the Gods is at London's National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2011.
Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from
The Genteel is committed to delivering quality journalism, unearthing the forces shaping international fashion and design, through the lens of business, culture, society, best kept secrets and street style. As multi-dimensional and stimulating as its readers, The Genteel is the inspired destination where informed readers converge with in-depth fashion and design coverage.
A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.