Glam Rock| Before the Stardust
There was quite naturally a sense of euphoria throughout Europe and the US after the hardships of the Second World War. This new Zeitgeist of optimism provided the perfect back-drop for what followed in terms of new popular culture and new glamorous fashions. It is during this decade, especially from ’55 onwards, that we begin to see definite signs of the Glam rock mentality emerging: exploration of the borders of sexuality, and the re-defining of sexuality itself. Also, very importantly, this decade saw the inclusion of the teenager as a participating member in popular culture. The natural rebelliousness of this age group has been a key factor in forcing changes of attitude towards the freedom to express individuality. Teenagers lack the crippling self-consciousness of adults and aren’t afraid of change. They love to shock and be shocked. All of this became apparent in the 1950s when, as a social group, they began to exert their power and influence. The ‘mirror effect’ referred to in the last part- where an individual is captivated by the look or image of a ” glam rock star” enough to wish to emulate them, is something which teenagers are far more susceptible to than adults.
It is the transference of the freedoms like glam rock fashions and expression from stage or media into the everyday world which has taken (and is taking) a rather long time to come about. Broadly speaking, this is the aim of the Glam rock movement and although progress has been made, prejudices based upon anti-individualism abound even in the present day. Cross-dressers still suffer bigotry and abuse as does anyone with a penchant for sporting any kind of outlandish look. Such narrow-minded attitudes can be attributed to firstly, a fear of the unknown which, as animals, forms a natural part of our survival instincts, and secondly, to Religion. Whilst the first reaction is addressable, given adequate education and open-minded parenting, the second remains deeply entrenched in the modern world. There is a slightly heartening increase in atheism in Western Europe and the US but the yoke of religious guilt and ‘morality’ continues to suppress and stifle self-expression across the globe, as it has for centuries. In the post War years though, not even the Christian Church could exert sufficient influence to prevent what amounted to an explosion of brand new popular culture- through the media of Music, Film, TV and Fashion.
The ‘New Look’ of the 1950s is a term coined for the creations of French fashion designer Christian Dior. Although, without any doubt, fresh and innovative, his work had reference points in the distant past. The emphasis and even exaggeration of the female figure was a style which harked back to Elizabethan times. Dior’s famous ‘A-Line’ skirt with its high, narrow waist and full, wide skirt, flattered the wearer and became popular amongst women who wanted to look feminine again after the austere restrictions imposed by the War. The A-Line skirt may well have influenced the creation of the ‘Poodle’ skirt which followed a similar shape and allowed the wearer sufficient freedom of movement for the Rock ‘n Roll style of dancing, or ‘Jive’, which caught on across the US and Europe alongside the Rock ‘n Roll Music revolution of the 1950s. Dior’s lavish designs weren’t for everyone though and, in contrast, the ‘Chanel suit’ with its elegant, knee-length skirt and smart, figure-hugging jacket became a popular choice amongst many women. Both styles ‘feminized’ the wearer and in combination with a variety of new hairstyles: backcombed bouffants, bee-hives and French pleats, presented a strikingly fresh look which we still instantly associate with that decade.
Glam Rock| Ride a White Swan 50s Cadillac
These new glam fashions were adopted by female movie icons of the 50s: Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Audrey Hepburn, who all, in turn, promoted the popularity of such fashions by wearing them on screen. The power of cinema culture increased significantly as young movie-goers sought to emulate and imitate their screen idols. Television too, became an increasingly influential medium, especially towards the end of the decade. A survey conducted in the US in 1956 showed that teenagers were watching as much as 6 hours of television per day- programmes such as the Stage Show, American Bandstand, and the Ed Sullivan Show- all of which played a vital role in promoting up-and-coming stars of the future.
Glam Rock| Glambilly with Implants
We have already mentioned ‘feminization’ and how it gave women a newfound freedom to express their sexuality. It is equally remarkable how the 50s impacted upon male sexuality and the manner in which it could be expressed. Male movie stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Cary Grant weren’t just ‘good-looking’ or ‘handsome’. They were quite clearly ‘beautiful’- an adjective normally exclusively reserved for the female sex. Of course, the vast majority of ‘straight’ men would never admit such a thing (for fear of being suspected as closet gay) but the massive popularity of such individuals suggests that, slowly but surely, the public’s perception of sexuality was becoming less rigid than before.
Singer Elvis Presley fell into the same category as the aforementioned male movie stars: an undeniably ‘beautiful’ man. In his case, it wasn’t just his look- it was also his blatantly sexual stage persona which shocked the adult world, whilst delighting his young audience. Never before had a male performer been seen to gyrate and thrust his hips in such a provocative fashion. Male sexuality had never been expressed in this way, nor indeed in any particular way. Whilst women swooned over him, heterosexual men were left confused- after all, they couldn’t help liking him, even admiring him. Women wanted to bed him and men wanted to be him. He was the complete package: drop-dead gorgeous with a brilliant singing voice, irresistibly magnetic as a performer, and, thanks to a team of highly talented songwriters behind him, armed to the teeth with excellent material which provided him with a string of hits: ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Hound Dog’. The remarkable magnitude of Elvis Presley’s success is thus quite understandable- when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, some 60 million viewers tuned in, even though the camera carefully avoided filming the gyrating movements of his lower half.
Despite all these new and potentially exciting developments, the world remained a relatively conservative place to live in during the 1950s. Men were still expected to act like men and women were still expected to get married young and immediately have children. If Marc Bolan had somehow been able to step through a time machine from the 70s into the 50s and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show with his band T Rex in full Glam rock regalia, he would have either been thoroughly ridiculed or strung up from the nearest tree. But significant foundations had been laid. Foundations which would prove to be solid enough to support the future socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s paved the way to glam rock.