Start with the assumption that glamour is an art—or if not an art, then at least an artifice, which is to say that it isn’t life, but it’s close. Think of it as a distillation of experience, a concentrate, something made—made to be seen: on stages, catwalks, movie screens, magazine pages, and city sidewalks, sometimes, but only briefly. In its purest form, it’s a property of pictures, still and moving, a collaboration between a woman and a lens, the curve of flesh and the curve of glass. (It’s no accident that two of the most glamorous roles in Hollywood history are about women and photographers: Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Grace Kelly in Rear Window.)
It isn’t beauty, not exactly or not quite. For one thing, glamour is far more difficult to find: The world is full of beautiful women, and many of them look lovely in photographs, but very few of them have the specific charisma that makes a photograph beguiling. Nor is talent in itself anywhere near enough, nor intelligence, nor charm, nor virtue. All of them are valuable qualities—indispensable, even—but essentially democratic, evenly distributed, next door. Glamour is much rarer, as rare as those elements at the end of the periodic table. Glamour is unfair—one of the only things in this unfair world that are admirable for being so.
It is a fleeting thing, captured in moments, experienced in between heartbeats. It took Rita Hayworth just seconds to establish a standard of glamour that she spent, by her own admission, the better part of her life trying to live up to, or perhaps live down. “They went to bed with Gilda,” as she famously put it. “And they woke up with me.” Well, only a knave wants the woman in the photograph to be the woman next to him when he wakes, and only a fool expects it. But knaves and fools aren’t in short supply. Nor, I might add, are women themselves immune to that kind of mistake. I saw so-and-so on Fifth Avenue this morning. She didn’t look like such a star…Well, no, but magic is difficult, even for those who have a gift for it, and in any case, it should be used sparingly. A pinch is enough. Any more would be less.
Glamour isn’t real, I say, but that doesn’t mean it’s fake. It takes its cues from the character of the women who bear it, and as such, it comes in as many forms as do women themselves. There is the glamour of innocence (look at Michelle Williams: No matter how much she’s gone through, there’s something inside her that she hasn’t yet learned to hide) and the glamour of experience (Julianne Moore, who appears to be composed entirely of kept secrets) and even the glamour of innocence-in-experience (Scarlett Johansson, who seems to have been 30 when she was 15 and will probably be 15 when she’s 30). There is classic glamour—see Natalie Portman, as immaculately and incontestably enchanting as a Shakespearean sonnet—and Julia Roberts’s down-home glamour. It can be sweet or cruel, sleek or dirty, barefoot or in heels, bright as an afternoon or dark as an alley—or all of those things at once.