I wrote a novel about pin-ups. My interest started quite a few years back with Bunny Yeager. She was a model in Florida in the Fifties with a decidedly campy sense of style and fun. She sewed her own costumes, bikinis, and clothes, once claiming that she never modeled in the same thing twice. A bleach-blonde beach girl of the high American order who did something unexpected: she stepped behind the camera. In doing so, she ended up capturing some of the most iconic images of the Fifties, taking the Playboy centerfold shots of the most famous model in the pantheon on photographic pin-ups: Betty Page.
Yeager made a career out of being a photographer. Even playing herself in some minor films, and publishing books about how best to shoot models. Those bondage photos of Page you can probably recall off the top of your head aren’t Yeager, but the ones of her wearing animal prints sure are.
I admired her gumption, and bucking the gender roles of the era. There are many biographies of Page, but nobody yet has written in depth about Yeager, and that’s a shame. I wondered about the journey a person such as her takes in discovering their calling — a calling which kept her busy until her death, in 2014, selling autographed photos and memorabilia from her archive. She was the inspiration for the protagonist of my novel, Delores Sarjeant.
With thoughts of Yeager running in my head, I had a conversation with a friend of mine in which she confided to me that she had boudoir photos taken. They were nudes in the tasteful black and white style, showing less than a bikini might. She made no secret of them — in fact, she’s put them on her Facebook — but the original intention was a birthday gift for her then-husband. A gift, but also, a memory for herself of her body as it was before time made its acquaintance in too direct a manner.
Then a different friend — living in a different city, from different social circles — told me about a party she threw with some friends. Six or eight women in a house, drinking. Two of them photographers. Each of them dressed up in campy lingerie. They did each other’s makeup, and took pictures in front of a white sheet hung like a backdrop. These were more burlesque than risqué; more smile than tease. This friend, now married, wasn’t seeing anybody at the time. The photos were just for her, and her friends.
Interesting news comes in threes. A third friend, completely unrelated to the first two, looking for a picture on her phone to show me, scrolled past one of her in a bustier and stockings, laying on a table in a vintage-style diner. Accidentally exposed, she confessed, and showed me the other shots from the set. Her then-boyfriend, now husband, hired a photographer and rented an old fashioned diner. They shot beautiful, elaborate pin-up photos. Vintage-feeling, but not campy. Much more sensual, and beautifully lit. These photos were probably the most authentic American pin-up style, out of my friends pictures. They could have been shot in the fifties.
Three woman, all from different walks of life, all taking part of a tradition that used to be about selling magazines to men. What is it that all three of these women had in common? They all were taking ownership of a modern fact: the pin-up now belongs to women.
Not sure if you agree? Look to the businesses who offer pin-up photography to women. Just a block from my studio is Old School Pinups, who market only to women. In Chicago, Windy City Pinups is owned and operated by women, offering different packages, including one for Mother’s Day. The Boudoir Divas in San Diego offer pinup parties for groups of women. Pinup Parties in New York caters to bachelorette parties. Cloud 9 pinups in Sarasota, Florida promises “Classic photo shoots for EVERY woman.” These businesses — just a few of many — cater to exclusively women. I’m sure some of their clients no doubt like the idea of appearing sexy for their partners, but the primary clientele for every last one of them is women who want to feel sexy for themselves.
Then there is Andrea Grant, the Pin-up Poet (“I have eaten of the golden apple, / and understand the solace of beauty’s tricks” from “Women Know Faces”), Laura Lynn, the Pin-up radio host, quite a few Pin-up conventions. There are Pin-up fashion lines, the most notable of which carries the name of the Queen of the Pin-ups. Pin-up culture is expressed by and caters to, without fail, women.
The revolution is not only for woman who fit the mold of the traditional Pin-up. Seattle writer Caren Gussoff writes beautifully of how dancing burlesque helped her with her body image: “I am 28 years old, over 50 pounds overweight, a published fiction writer and college professor. I am going to undress in front of a room of total strangers. This is usually the content of my nightmares.” Many of the businesses above make a point to show that all women are welcome. This is not about judging whether or not you fit into a size 0, so much as saying that any comer who desires to can — and should — express their inner pin-up, and in doing so, find a sense of beauty that the culture at large, perhaps, previously denied them.
The history of the pin-up is a history of the struggle for dominance between photography and painting in the twentieth century. The modern pin-up era is traceable back to Parisian leg shows of the 1870s, according to Maria Elena Buszek, author of Pin-up Grrrls: Feminism, sexuality, popular culture. Many burlesque performers would have carte de visite printed to advertise themselves.
By the twenties conventionally attractive illustrated women were commonplace in America. Many magazines featured paintings of women, both glamour, which tended to be women in evening wear, and pin-ups, which tended to be women in bathing suits or lingerie. A pretty woman on the cover sold magazines.
Esquire magazine, first published in 1933, was one of the first that used pin-up art to specifically target to men. By coupling essays and fiction by famous writers with sexy cartoons by George Petty. The magazine was a hit, and the idea of the “Petty Girl” entered the popular vernacular.
At the end of his Petty’s contract in 1941, Aberto Vargas was hired to replace him. An Esquire produced calendar of “Varga Girls” (he was asked to drop the ’s’ in his name) sold better than any previous calendar. An advertisement for it, which extolled readers to “Order it, look at it, feel it quiver; set it to the music of a slow drum,” was taken to task in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column in January of 1941 for triviality on the eve of European war:
“Skipping ahead, we are now in a position to tell you what is in store for you. August, the invasion month, is a cutie lying prone a beach, covered slightly by a transparent hat. October, when the sky may be full of bombers, is a slip of a girl bared from toe to hip, shooting an arrow. November, when the mists may be rolling over the Channel, perhaps as a shroud, will be a blonde in a dress as tight and as white as the skin over the knuckles of your fist. What may be the end of the world will be marked by a nice thigh, the beginning of chaos by the lift of a pretty hip. That’s the year ahead of you, gentlemen. Feel it quiver. Set it to the music of a slow drum.”
In fact, it was the war that cemented Vargas’ reputation. Varga Girls were painted on the nose cones of bombers and other aircraft. Often the airplane was christened with names taken from the Phil Stack couplets that accompanied the images. Esquire printed millions of copies of its magazine, without advertisements, and sent them to the troops overseas.
The pin-up became a symbol of patriotic home, and also a Valkyrie-esque companion of our vulnerable boys at war. Quite apart from The New Yorker’s barbed critique, the men closest to the action used the pin-up as a momentary escape from their inescapable reality. Pin-ups were used to reassure soldiers things were fine on the homefront, and that supple American beauties were awaiting their return.
The Fifties kicked off with a hit romantic comedy musical called The Petty Girl, starring Robert Cummings as George Petty. But the artist who really owned the decade was Gil Elvgren. His light is vibrant and impeccably sourced, his models luminescent. Every picture is an advertisement of something, especially Ivory-clean American cuteness. Elvgren was truly a commercial painter, taking on assignments for Coca-Cola, and other companies, besides his pinup work. Through his relationship with the calendar company Brown & Bigelow, he did well for himself, perhaps becoming the most iconic pin-up painter of the twentieth century. He was certainly the best paid.
Then in 1953 came this magazine Playboy. While Playboy hired painters and illustrators (probably harkening back to Petty, they were more cartoons having fun at the expense of the models, as opposed to Stack’s more worshipful spin on Vargas’ paintings), they were known, of course, for pictures of naked women. Playboy was clearly not the first magazine to feature naked women, but it was the first to do it with such high quality; to couple it with stories by great writers, and, later, interesting interviews. It was the first to sell a world-view of a new kind of man who could wear his taste in public, instead of under the couch in wood-paneled basement rooms. As Dian Hansen put it in The History of Men’s Magazines, Volume 2, it recast the male role from “hunting, fishing, beer-drinking, bar-brawling fellows who associated with females only for sex and to have their wounds bandaged, and then rushed back to punching shoulders with their buddies. Playboy proposed a more sensual life where culture trumped brawn, where a man might actually share his leisure time with women and like it.”
If we accept that pin-ups were appealing to men as sexual avatars, then the introduction of Playboy turned the Sauron’s eye of men’s attention back to photography. Once pictures were the dominant driver of male lust, pin-up paintings eventually faded to anachronistic and kitschy.
Combine that with a modern art movement which argued against the value of photo-real rendering and traditional painting craftsmanship, in trade for conceptual abstraction, and whatever stock the American public put in the type of illustration which made pin-ups popular took a precipitous dive in the Sixties and Seventies.
Which is too bad. Like Norman Rockwell, Gil Elvgren was a master painter who was completely ignored by the gallery scene. He was, in the most deleterious sense of the word, an “illustrator”. (Both Rockwell and Elvgren inspire characters in my book, who in one scene have a drunken argument about abstract expressionism, and the effect Playboy is having on their profession.)
By the Seventies, pornography was readily available, and explicit enough that a pin-up’s slipped stocking or lifted skirt were naive in comparison. But they were great examples of vintage fashion. They became very popular with women who loved thrift shopping and dressing up. They became associated with rockabilly revival culture. They became tattoos: emblems of a time that people saw as simpler.
The Great Generation fully embraced pin-ups, but the Boomers eschewed them. There was nothing worse than sentimentality over the Forties or Fifties to a generation who saw true value only in the shackles-breaking Sixties. It was Generation X who rediscovered them, bringing Betty Page out of obscurity into the fame of a super heroine. They bought vintage prints and magazines, made t-shirts and posters, made comic books, got elaborate tattoos. Her cute kitsch was both sexy and innocent. It was fun to think of her out-of-time, and a photo of her was a mini time machine to an imagined past.
Erased were the stresses of great wars, racial or sexual inequality, rigid gender roles, the stifling homogeneity of the popular culture, or the crippling terror of the early nuclear cold warthat marked actual life in the Fifties. Betty Page was just Betty Page. She was a smile and a whip, or surprised arched brows and a gag. Or, in those Bunny Yeager shots, a long tan leg in a Tarzan-approved Jane outfit, posing with real Cheetahs.
This is why I wrote my novel. I think the arc of the pin-up perfectly encapsulates three important battles of the twentieth century: feminism, and ability of women to choose their own cultural expression; Painting vs. Photography, and inside of that, commercial work vs. fine-art work; And how one generation’s culture gets appropriated and remade by the next.
I doubt there are many men today who get their sexual kicks from pin-ups. With explicit pornography (including faux-vintage modern explicit porn made to harken back to the days of mid-century shape wear and stockings) so easily accessible, the mild tease of the pin-up is a bell pepper on the Scoville scale. It’s exactly this lack of male attention that made it a space for women to claim as their own. It’s a way of expressing sexuality without the stigma of men taking too much notice of you for expressing that sexuality.
More reading, if you’re a fan of the pin-up:
- The Playboy Vargas Years
- Jon Patrick, writing about Bunny Yeager on the Selvidge Yard (I cribbed some of these photos from him). Part I, and Part II.
- The Pin-up Files
- Interview with Jill Lepore on Fresh Air: The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds
- Caren Gussoff’s essay From Go-go Dancing On The Loading Dock: A Memoir, Half Dressed.
Books (Amazon links)
- Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, by Maria Elena Buszek, Duke University Press, 2006
- Dian Hanson’s: The History of Men’s Magazine, Vol.2, by Dian Hanson, Taschen, 2004
- Dian Hanson’s History of Pin-up Magazines Vol. 1–3, by Dian Hanson, Taschen, 2013
- The Great American Pin-Up, by Charles G. Martingnette and Louis K. Meisel, Taschen, 2011
- Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-ups, by Charles G. Martingnette and Louis K. Meisel, Taschen, 2008