Pin up photography is a classic art that will never go out of style, and I am utterly infatuated by it. Therefore, I will be doing a five post mini-series of all things pin up, from its roots to post-production.
First, I want to share the history of pin up. It’s important to know this to completely understand the feeling the pictures should convey. It’s so much more than pictures of pretty women. Pin up allows women to be portrayed as the sexy, seductive creatures that we are, while being in control and empowered at the same time. I picture the internal dialogue of a pin up model like this, “We are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we clean your house, we bear your children, we drive you crazy, we care for you when you’re sick. Do not mess with us.” (Fight Club, anyone?). No matter how large, small, wide or tall, the female form is a beautiful thing and should be celebrated. I have actually had a session myself, but more on that later.
The modern descendents of the pin-up can be traced to the Gibson Girl in America, who made her debut in 1887. Some people argue that the Gibson Girl was the first national standard for feminine beauty. For the next twenty years, Gibson’s fictional images were extremely popular. There was merchandising of “saucers, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillow covers, chair covers, souvenir spoons, screens, fans, umbrella stands”, all bearing her image. The artist saw his creation as representing “thousands of American girls”. The Gibson Girl was tall and slender yet with ample bosom, hips and bottom; she had an exaggerated S-curve torso shape achieved by wearing a swan bill corset. The images of her epitomized the late 19th- and early 20th-century Western preoccupation with statuesque, youthful features and beauty. Her neck was thin and her hair piled high upon her head in the contemporary fashions. The tall, narrow-waisted ideal feminine figure was portrayed as being multi-faceted, at ease, and fashionable. Gibson depicted her as an equal and sometimes teasing companion. The Gibson Girl personified beauty, independence, personal fulfillment and American national prestige. By the beginning of World War I, changing fashions caused the Gibson Girl to fall out of favor. Women of the World War I era favored a practical style compatible with war work, over the elegant dresses and skirts favored by the Gibson Girl.
With an increasing sense of sexual awareness, burlesque performers used photographic advertisement as business cards to promote themselves and raise their popularity. Understanding the power of photographic advertisements to promote their shows, burlesque women self-constructed their identity to make themselves visible. Being recognized not only within the theater itself but as well outside, challenged the conventions of women’s place and women’s potential in the public sphere. Because the new woman was symbolic of her new ideas about her sexuality, it was inevitable that she would also come to symbolize new ideas. Being sexually fantasized, famous actresses in early 20th century film were both drawn and photographed and put on posters to be sold for personal entertainment. The 1932 men’s magazine Esquire, most famous for their Varga Girls, featured many drawings like the Gibson Girl and girlie cartoons. Prior to WWII the Varga Girls were praised for their beauty and less focus was on their sexuality. However, during the war the drawings transformed into women playing dress-up in military drag and drawn in seductive manners. The Varga Girls became so popular that from 1942-1946, due to a high volume of military demand, 9 million copies of the magazine were sent to American troops stationed overseas and in domestic bases free of charge. Nevertheless, not one picture could be as significant or memorable as the Varga Girls nose art of the WWII bombers; not seen as prostitutes but patriots for good luck.
Of course, you can’t mention pin up without mentioning the timeless Bettie Page, who is the role model for most modern pin up styles today. By 1954, Page was the top pin up model in New York. During one of her annual vacations to Miami, Florida, Page met photographer Bunny Yeager, who produced Page’s most celebrated photographs, Jungle Bettie. In 1955, Page won the title “Miss Pinup Girl of the World”. She also became known as “The Queen of Curves” and “The Dark Angel”. While pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957. Although she frequently posed nude, she never appeared in scenes with explicit sexual content. The reasons reported for her departure from modeling vary. If you’re a Bettie Page fan, I highly recommend watching the movie “The Notorious Bettie Page.”
Fast forward to the present day. Today’s most notable pin up model is the beautiful Dita Von Teese, who is best known for her burlesque routines and is frequently dubbed “the Queen of Burlesque. Von Teese began performing burlesque in 1992 and has helped to popularize its revival. In her own words, she “puts the tease back into striptease” with long, elaborate dance shows with props and characters, often inspired by 1930s and 1940s musicals and films. Her feather fan dance, inspired by burlesque dancer Sally Rand, featured the world’s largest feather fans, which are now on display in Hollywood’s Museum of Sex.
Tune in for Pin Up Parade #2 – Pin up do’s and don’ts for model and photographer!