In the Clear
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 9/23/13

The meaning of transparency isn’t always transparent. Is vodka “pure” just because you can see through it? Is Saran Wrap sexy? Can people who live in glass houses get away with throwing stones? And what about Cinderella’s slipper—innocent footwear or fetish object? This map shines a light on clarity and finds it can be a very murky matter indeed.

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to  Vodka

If a customer orders a martini “straight up,” the bartender will serve it in a cocktail glass. That vessel—stemmed, with a wide conical bowl—is now so strongly identified with that (generally) crystal-clear mixed drink that it’s often called a martini glass. Actually, the drink and the glass were created independently, becoming indelibly associated in the mid-20th century. With its distinctive shape, reproduced in countless neon bar signs, the martini glass became an emblem of louche modernity and the loose sexuality of the era of Playboy, the pill and James Bond. The shape of its bowl even bears a resemblance to the pointy “bullet” bras sported by mid-century pinup models.

Superspy Bond—especially as played by actor Sean Connery—was largely responsible for the switchover in popular preference from gin to vodka as the martini’s main ingredient. Bond liked his vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred.” Because agitation abrades the ice in the cocktail shaker, knocking tiny slivers into the drink, the technique results in a martini that’s very chilly—as icy cold, one might say, as the heart of any Ian Fleming villainess.

to  Ice

If you like your vodka neat—drunk straight, without ice—store the bottle in the freezer. Vodka’s high alcohol content (typically 80 proof, or 40 percent) will keep it liquid while intensifying its silky mouthfeel. The Russians, who likely invented vodka and who gave it its name (which means “little water,” a term of endearment), generally drink theirs neat. Imbibers elsewhere, however, are more likely to use the crystalline hooch in an enormous range of flavored cocktails.

Virtually unknown in the West before the 1930s (when it first appeared in a cocktail recipe book), vodka now accounts for more than a quarter of all spirits sales in the U.S. That’s probably because it is a neutral spirit—not just colorless but odorless and almost flavorless, making it easy to disguise when mixed with other ingredients. It’s the liquor of choice for those who don’t like liquor’s taste. But don’t let vodka’s disappearing act fool you. Its deceptive “purity” makes it stealthier than gin or rum or whiskey, as anyone who has accidentally had one too many brunch-time bloody marys or cocktail-hour cosmos can attest.

to  Glass

The ice cubes used in most bars and restaurants are puny, and since they’re also often hollow and not very solidly frozen, they melt rapidly. Those imperfections drive hard-core cocktail mavens crazy. Because excellent ice—fresh, clean, cold and hard—is as essential to a well-made cocktail as are high-quality spirits, juices and garnishes, the mixologists at some trendsetting cocktail bars are returning to a 19th-century practice: hand-fashioning ice for individual drinks from large ice blocks. By carving, chipping or shaving from the block, the barkeep can customize the ice to suit each drink—a dramatic spear of ice for a highball, say, or a two-by-two-inch cube for an on-the-rocks drink that will keep the libation well chilled without quickly diluting it. Today’s block ice, created by sophisticated (and pricey) ice makers, is better than the block ice of yore, which was chopped from frozen ponds and rivers and then stored long-term in insulated icehouses. High-tech block ice is superhard, supercold and—unlike naturally formed ice—as clear as glass. Although this pellucidity doesn’t affect a drink’s taste, it wondrously enhances visual appeal. It’s hardly obscure why ultraclear ice has become such an object of desire for discerning boozehounds.

to  Philip Johnson’s Glass House

Architectural glass simultaneously establishes and dissolves the boundary between interior and exterior space. It both shields a building’s occupants, providing protection from the elements, and reveals them, making them vulnerable to an outsider’s gaze. The glass may be transparent, but its meaning isn’t, and nowhere is the ambiguity inherent in architectural glass more clearly reflected than in the Glass House architect Philip Johnson (1906–2005) built on his New Canaan, Connecticut, estate, in 1949. Johnson was an early U.S. champion of clean-lined European modernist architecture—he helped organize the International Style show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1932—and the Glass House displays the lessons he learned from his German mentor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). Johnson’s dwelling, however, with its glass walls, takes Mies’s doctrine of simplicity—“Less is more”—to a near absolute. The house’s single concession to modesty is its bathroom, which is concealed within a brick cylinder. But Johnson was also throwing stones at the master. He completed the Glass House while Mies’s residential masterpiece, the Farnsworth House (near Plano, Illinois), was under construction, and the media sensation surrounding Johnson’s project stole Mies’s thunder. Mies reportedly was infuriated by his pupil’s betrayal.

to  Cinderella

Variations on the Cinderella story—the tale of a virtuous, beautiful young woman who is brutalized by a cruel stepfamily but ultimately foils her oppressors—date back at least to ancient Greece and appear in the folklore of nations from Ireland to China. A lost slipper figures in many of the tales, but the version by French fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault, published in 1697, first describes Cinderella’s slippers as made of glass. (Walt Disney’s 1950 animated film Cinderella follows the Perrault story in many particulars.)

The notion of inflexible glass shoes is, from a practical perspective, preposterous. But within the fairy tale’s magical frame, glass slippers make perfect sense. Because it has no suppleness, glass guarantees the lost slipper will fit a foot only as exquisitely dainty as Cinderella’s. More important, though, is the symbolic logic of the shoe: As a rigid container, it signifies Cinderella’s imprisonment; as a transparent container, it denotes her self-exposure. That closed-but-exposed dialectic can be erotically charming (especially, one imagines, to a princely foot fetishist). Considered in that light, a glass shoe isn’t an oxymoron. It’s a double entendre.

to  Lucite

Glass is to plastic as Cinderella is to Lady Gaga. Cinderella was a nobody who became a happily heterosexually married princess; Gaga was a nobody who became a rainbow-flag-waving disco queen. Cinderella wore a pretty ball gown with those glass slippers, and in Disney’s version the gown is a virginal blue; Gaga wears decidedly unpretty getups that have included several transparent and semitransparent ensembles. One was a dress constructed of plastic bubbles, another a pointed-shoulder sheath made (apparently) of frosted Mylar. And Gaga doesn’t eschew accessorizing with clear plastic. For one American Idol performance, she wore platform boots with six-inch-high Lucite heels shaped like penises. (Fox TV wouldn’t let the shoes be shown on camera.)

The sartorially untamable Gaga has, of course, taken stereotypically whorish fashion into previously uncharted back alleys, but Lucite has long played a role in the footwear favored by “sluts,” both female and faux female. Google stripper shoes and you’ll find plenty of selections incorporating see-through plastic platforms, straps or both; google drag queen shoes and you’ll find more of the same. But cheap isn’t necessarily cheap: Luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin has made some nakedly clear plastic numbers, though their soles remain his trademark red.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House
to  Lucite

As deployed by master modernist architects and designers like Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray and Isamu Noguchi, glass established an ideal of minimalist elegance in building and furniture design. By contrast, the synthetic glass substitute poly(methyl methacrylate)—better known by the trade names Lucite and Plexiglas—reached the height of maximalist swank.

Introduced commercially in the 1930s and first used in military applications, Lucite was favored by Morris Lapidus (1902–2001), the designer of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel (completed in 1954). Lapidus’s design dictum was “Too much is never enough”—an over-the-top philosophy epitomized by the Lucite-and-gold chairs he created for the Fontainebleau’s original lobby. Although designers of the 1960s and ’70s went on to create sleek space-age lamps and other objects from Lucite, it never lost its aura of taste-challenged glamour, and popular contemporary furniture designers who use see-through plastic—they include Philippe Starck and Jonathan Adler—exploit the irony invisibly embedded in the material. Starck’s transparent Louis Ghost chairs, manufactured by Kartell, pay tongue-in-cheek homage to a Louis XV prototype; the glossily lacquered, Lucite-knobbed desks and bureaus of Adler’s Channing line possess an austere art deco chic while looking ever so slightly…trashy.

to  Saran Wrap

Before becoming a princess, Cinderella was a drudge who did her stepfamily’s housework—which presumably involved putting away the leftovers—without benefit of modern conveniences like Saran Wrap. This humble film, grandmother of all cling wraps, was first marketed for household use in 1953. Saran surely revolutionized food storage, but it may not deserve the encomium delivered by comedian Mel Brooks, who—in the guise of his 2,000-Year-Old Man character—once declared it the greatest invention in human history. Why? Because “you can put a sandwich in it! You can look through it!... It’s so good and cute.”

Cute? Maybe. But is Saran Wrap sexy? Antifeminist self-help guru Marabel Morgan thought so. In her best-selling 1973 book The Total Woman, she gives new meaning to the phrase clingy woman by advising readers to greet their home-from-work hubbies clad only in Saran. How many real women followed her suggestion is unknown, but at least one fictional character does. In the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) imagines attempting to reignite connubial passion by strutting her stuff in a Saran wrapper—which unfortunately leaves her husband unaroused. Perhaps she should have donned a pair of stiletto-heel Lucite sandals instead.