The Beauty of Illusion

Is our infatuation with glamour superficial, or subversive? We look to modern art — of all the unlikely places — for answers
Reading time 5 minutes
Inspiration: Dora Maar's 1930 Double Portrait is a thought-provoking snapshot of a soul divided within itself

The avant-garde movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s have more in common with the art of glamour than one would assume at first glance. As a word, “glamour” conjures a dream-like, heightened reality where nothing is exactly as it seems; in fact, Carol Dyhouse notes in Glamour: Women, History, Feminism that when it first appeared in the late 19th century, glamour was linked to trickery and the occult, a magical and slightly sinister force. Like the Surrealists who practised automatism to bridge the gap between the mysterious subconscious and the physical world, glamour has historically provided women an outlet to live out their fantasies.

Just as a painting of a pipe was never just a gag, but an interrogation of reality and our complacent relationship with images, young women at the turn of the century defiantly wearing red lipstick – historically linked with prostitution – was more than a question of vanity or an assault on public decency. It manifested a pathway to a more independent and assertive form of womanhood by posing a challenge to stifling notions of propriety and conformance.

It is a subversion that is little appreciated today, in a world inured to the shock once caused by melting clocks and lobsters, and where eye-wateringly bright lipstick and unicorn hair are practically banal.

“Glamour is enchantment, wonder. It is standing out from the crowd, by way of flourish, manners, charm… What thrill in artifice!” – Dita Von Teese, in Your Beauty Mark

Reactions toward the unsettling nature of avant-garde masterpieces have often been as polarised as those toward exaggerated presentations of feminine beauty, such as drag. Are they playfully anarchic, or are they degenerate and hazardous to the moral fabric of civilisation? 

André Breton, the godfather of Surrealism, declared that toying with perceptions of nature and the depiction thereof allows us to “regard the very images of the external world as transitory, if not suspect”, an idea which has frequently proved threatening to society’s rigidly imposed boundaries; proof of this can be found in the derisive, histrionic and even violent responses to Pointillism, Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism when each movement first emerged. 

As with art, Western culture has always had a love-hate relationship with glamour and its visually transformative powers. The notion of corrupted truth recurs in criticisms of women’s investment in appearances. There is a sense that, as Lisa Eldridge observes in Face Paint; The Story of Makeup, enjoying fashion and makeup suggests that “God’s creation wasn’t quite good enough in its original state” – a misogynistic view with roots extending to the tale of Adam and Eve. 

Inspiration: While not itself a Surrealist work, Phillipe Halsman's 1946 portrait of Salvador Dali perfectly captures the artist's disruptive playfulness and uncanny knack for image-building. 

“I don't want realism. I want magic! I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!” – Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire

In a modern culture where the pursuit of authenticity is king (or queen), femininity has, troublingly, come to be linked with superficiality and insincerity – the persistence of the “not like other girls” trope in pop culture is a sad testament to that. By extension, glamour – whose pleasures are nevertheless acknowledged – is frequently characterised as illusory and deceitful.

Calling into question the authenticity of a woman’s character on the basis of her chosen appearance, as people sometimes do when they mock a woman for excessive or extravagant makeup, is first and foremost a demonstration of power. In Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, journalist Dan Fox argues that to accuse someone of misrepresentation or falsehood “is a refusal of permission for that person to construct their own identity, a process that may well be true to how they see themselves”.

The discomfort that segments of society still express with artifice and adornment – particularly when it comes to women – thus lies in its revelation of the contrived and malleable nature of identity. Such disruptive play and self-invention is, to borrow a phrase from poet and Surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, “not an art of imitation” or adherence to pre-arranged narratives and possibilities, “but an art of imagination”. 

In much the same way that the visionaries of the avant-garde waged stylistic battles against the establishment for the right to capture life and reality however they saw fit, women continue to exercise their growing agency by resisting the constraints to which they have long been subject, and discovering new ways to be in the process.

Inspiration: One of fashion's most extravagant and eccentric rare birds, Luisa Casati's love of the unusual and surprising is best captured in Man Ray's 1922 photograph, the happy result of a technical error.

As people attempting to find our place in a modern world where traditional labels and values no longer seem inescapable, writer Halla Beloff asserts that “we are constantly in the business of stating, maintaining or repairing our social identity”.

Despite the perceived absence of rules, conventional and often restrictive ways of thinking continue to exert a powerful – albeit diminishing – influence, which produces new dangers for those still in search of themselves. 

Elizabeth Wilson sagely cautions that an act which exposes “the constructed nature of identity is not sufficient to define it as liberatory”. Simply put, navy blue lipstick or neon orange mascara won’t topple the patriarchy, although for anyone uncomfortable with pushing the limits of “respectable womanhood” it can be a tiny first step towards more substantive displays of emancipation.

Pablo Picasso, who lived through some of the most mind-bending movements of modern art, once claimed that “nature… is nothing but a struggle between my inner being and the exterior world”. So where lies the harm, exactly, if instead of wielding a pen as a sword or a paintbrush as a weapon, one chooses to wield a beauty blender?

Photography Jeff Chang Art direction Ryan Sng and Evon Chng Hair and makeup Melissa Yeo/FAC3INC Photography assistant Mhd Alif Styling assistant Filment Ho Model Alexa Laszlo/Ave Management

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