By Howard T. Brody

They have been featured in movies and television shows. There have been songs written about them. They are as much a part of pop culture as rock and roll music and classic autos. They are the pin-up girls, and we’ve been in love with them for more than 100 years.

As STRIPLV celebrates the bikini in this issue, we have to ask, “What would the bikini be without the pin-up?”

While some of you older readers might think the pin-up started during World War II with the infamous photo of Betty Grable by Frank Powolny that many GIs carried into battle – where she is wearing a one-piece white swimsuit and pumps and is coyly looking over her right shoulder and smiling – the art form started much earlier than that.

In the 1890s, Charles Dana Gibson, the future owner of Life magazine, was inspired by his wife Irene Langhorne and her four sisters, to create a series of drawings that were a representation of the beautiful and independent American woman. Unlike previous images depicting the American woman as either fragile or voluptuous, Gibson’s composites took elements from both extremes to create the new style. The “Gibson Girl” was tall and slender but had big boobs, full hips, and a large butt. She also had an exaggerated S-curve torso shape that was attained from wearing swan-bill corsets.

By the time World War I rolled around, a new type of model took center stage and began to capture the hearts of men everywhere. Unlike the Gibson Girls who were drawn, these models were not only real, but they were nude! And in contrast to previous nude photographs of prostitutes that had been circulated, these were actual models. And not unlike the models of today, they were frequently waifs. Perhaps the most well known of this period was French model Fernande Barrey. She was so popular that soldiers on both sides of the conflict carried her photograph. She also posed for many esteemed painters of the era including Jean Agélou, Amedeo Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine.

Because sketch artists, illustrators, and painters were still in abundance and photography had not yet— excuse the pun— developed into an art form just yet, as the Great War ended, the Golden Age of pin-ups began as both artists and photographers would see their work displayed in workshops, factories and men’s social clubs.

Another new phenomenon around the pin-up girl was starting to take shape. In addition to professional models being the subjects for photographers and artists, celebrities, and more specifically, movie stars, were starting to become the focus of men’s fantasies.

Early American cinema had a slew of pin-up beauties like Bebe Daniels, Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. But there was one actress who stood out from the rest during this era, and her name was Clara Bow. After appearing in the film It as a spirited salesclerk, Bow shot to international stardom. The role not only earned her the nickname, “The It Girl,” but when she successfully made the transition to talkies, she personified the Roaring Twenties and became that decade’s leading pin-up girl and sex symbol.

With Prohibition in full swing, while Bow held on to her pin-up title, a new type of sex symbol was emerging. A controversial stage actress from Broadway was starting to gain national attention, and she was unlike anything anybody had seen before. Mae West was a bawdy, buxom, full-bodied blond, who although began her career in Vaudeville at age 14, ended up in jail at one point for breaking New York City’s morality laws—“corrupting youths.”

Well known on the East coast, West’s star didn’t rise until 1932, when she finally broke into film. Considering that pin-up girls at the time were women in their ‘20s, West was not thought of in that regard as she was 39 years old when she made her film debut. However, with Prohibition ending right around the time, she uttered the phrase “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better,” in the 1933 film I’m No Angel, it set male testosterone levels soaring, and her curvy figure was soon gracing the covers of movie magazines from coast to coast. Mae West, someone who can best be described as Hollywood’s first MILF, became the most unlikely pin-up of the ‘30s.

During this same period, some Hollywood starlets began turning heads and pitching tents in men’s trousers. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, a virtual who’s who of Hollywood became pin-up girls in one fashion or another, either through photographs or artwork. Among them were: Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner and of course, Rita Hayworth, who we’ll get back to in a minute. 

Meanwhile, the artists of the day were developing a huge following on their own, and for many of them, pin-up girls didn’t necessarily have to be based on real models (although most of them were).  Perhaps the most well-known of these 

artists was Alberto Vargas, as his style exemplified the genre. Many of his original paintings have sold and continue to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Vargas became widely noted in the 1940s as the creator of iconic World War II era pin-ups for Esquire magazine known as “Varga Girls.” From 1940 to 1946, the Peruvian painter created 180 original pieces for the magazine. Many of these paintings were reproduced as nose art on American and allied military aircraft during World War II.

Earlier in his career, he worked as an artist for the Ziegfeld Follies and several Hollywood Studios. His painting of silent film actress and model Olive Thomas, which Florenz Ziegfeld hung in his theater, is often considered one of the first Vargas girls. His most famous work of art for a film poster was for the 1933 film The Sin of Nora Moran, in which a near-naked Zita Johann is shown in a pose of desperation. The poster is frequently considered one of the greatest movie posters of all time.

In the 1940s, while Vargas’ pin-up artwork was displayed on planes that were bombing Nazi and Japanese targets, the United States Postal Service attempted to close Esquire by revoking its second-class mailing permit. The federal government objected to the magazine’s cartoons and most especially Vargas’ pin-up art. Even though Esquire prevailed in the case that went to the Supreme Court, the magazine decided to drop Vargas’ work “just to be on the safe side.”

Not long after he left the magazine, a legal battle ensued with Esquire over the use of the name “Varga.” The lawsuit resulted in a favorable judgment for the magazine and created financial hardship for Vargas until 1959 when Playboy magazine began to use his work. Over the next 16 years, he painted 152 original pieces for Playboy, and his career thrived as he began showcasing his work in exhibitions all over the world. After the death of his wife in 1974, Vargas went into a self-imposed retirement until 1978 when his autobiography was published. He did the album cover artwork for The Cars (“Candy-O” in 1979) and Bernadette Peters (“Bernadette Peters” in 1980 and “Now Playing” in 1981). 

In addition to Vargas, there were several other notable pin-up masters of the day.

Rolf Armstrong was mostly known for the cover art he produced between 1915 and 1930 for movie fan magazines like Photoplay and Screenland. Some of his more famous subjects included Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson.

Enoch Bolles was among the earliest glamour, and pin-up illustrators and his most circulated piece was a 1937 advertising illustration known as the “Windy Girl” for Zippo lighters. In 2009 the work was reissued as the “Vargas Windy Girl” and has appeared in more than 100 variations on Zippo lighters. 

Gil Elvgren was best known for his pin-up paintings that were used on calendars between 1945 and 1972 for Brown & Bigelow, a company that to this day produces advertising specialties. Elvgren began painting calendar pin-ups in 1937 for Louis F. Dow, one of the leading publishing companies at the time. He produced 60 works of art on canvases that were 28-inches by 22-inches, distinguished by a printed signature. Like other pin-up artists of the day, many of Elvgren’s creations were reproduced as nose art on military aircraft during World War II. 

George Petty was best known for a series of pin-up paintings between 1933 and 1956 for Esquire magazine called “The Petty Girl.” It was his Petty Girl gatefolds that originated and popularized the centerfold. Petty frequently depicted the women in this series with the relative lengths of their legs being longer—and the relative sizes of their heads being smaller than those of his actual models. While his art mostly appeared in Esquire and for True magazine put out by Fawcett Publications, his pin-ups were also featured in calendars marketed by Esquire, True and Ridgid Tool Company. Like Vargas, Elvgren, and others, reproductions of his work were widely used as nose art on military aircraft during World War II, including the famous B-17 Flying Fortress, Memphis Belle, which depicted an image of a Petty Girl talking on a phone. In pop culture, an image of a Petty Girl is included in The Beatles album cover composite art for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Speaking of pop culture, let’s go back to Rita Hayworth for a moment.

In 1982 Viking Press printed a book by author Stephen King titled Different Seasons. In the book was a novella titled “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” which was adapted as a movie in 1994 and re-titled The Shawshank Redemption. Whether you’ve read the novella or seen the movie, the story is about an innocent man named Andy Dufresne who in 1947 is sent to jail for murdering his wife. After Andy is brutally attacked and raped by other inmates, his friend Red gives him a gift – a pin-up poster of Rita Hayworth. Andy uses the poster to cover the fact that he is digging his way out of the prison. Throughout the years Andy switches out the poster to have different pin-up. During the 1950s, it’s Marilyn Monroe who hangs on his prison cell wall, and by the mid-‘60s it’s Raquel Welch in all her glory – wearing the iconic fur bikini from the movie One Million B.C. In the book, the last pin-up is that of singer Linda Ronstadt from 1977. Thanks to the display of various celebrity pin-ups an innocent man was spared life in prison.

From the late ‘40s, throughout the ‘50s, and into the early ‘60s, pin-up models started developing into a sub-culture. The popularity of hot rod automobiles and the growth of the interstate roadway system not only meant there would be more cars on the road, but there would need to be more mechanic shops to service those vehicles, and with it, the pin-ups found a very comfortable home. Tool companies and auto product suppliers used pin-up models to promote their goods and services, mostly displayed on calendars.

A procession of famous and infamous celebrities came into vogue as pin-ups during this time including Eartha Kitt, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Jayne Mansfield, Cleo Moore (who was touted by Columbia Pictures as the blonde Rita Hayworth), Bunny Yeager and of course, Bettie Page. While Kitt, Lollobrigida, Loren and Mansfield were all certainly bigger stars than she was, it was Page who broke new ground with bondage and S&M pictorials at a time when the practice was frowned upon. With the resurgence of vintage and retro art 50 years later, it would be Page’s appearance, not the others, that became the standard for how pin-up models would be viewed.

But even more popular than Page, the biggest pin-up model of this era was also one of its biggest movie stars and one of the all-time greatest sex symbols that ever came out of American culture. Norma Jeane Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe, holds a place in pin-up history all to herself. Many of the pin-up models who would follow her for the next 70 years would attempt to recreate her look and presence, and while many came close, there was only one Marilyn.

The iconic nude photo of the actress, where her legs are curled beneath her and her is arm raised up on a red velvet sheet, was photographed by Tom Kelley in 1949 and first appeared in a Golden Dreams calendar two years later just as she was starting to become famous. By 1953 Monroe was one of the biggest stars in the world, and not only did she appear on the cover of a brand new magazine, but the nude photo appeared in it too as the very first centerfold for Playboy. In 2015, the original color separations of that nude photo, once thought to be lost, were sold for an estimated $6 million. Although she was a top-billed actress for only a decade, Monroe’s films grossed $200 million by the time of her unexpected death in 1962. According to The Guide to United States Popular Culture, “as an icon of American popular culture, Monroe’s few rivals in popularity include Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse ... no other star has ever inspired such a wide range of emotions – from lust to pity, from envy to remorse.”

By the mid-‘60s a new type of fashion and pin-up model was emerging called the supermodel. Led the way by a waif-like Brit named Twiggy, the supermodel would slowly chip away at the pin-up dominance held by movie actresses. No place was this more evident than of all places, a men’s sports magazine.

Although Sports Illustrated had been producing its annual swimsuit edition since 1964, it was the issues of the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s, which helped propel the popularity of the supermodel, allowing many of them to become multimedia stars and transition to television and film. At the same time, by featuring the top models of the day on their cover – Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, and Elle Macpherson to name a few – the otherwise average selling sports magazine rocketed to newfound popularity. Year in and year out, the annual SI swimsuit edition was and remains their biggest selling issue.

While SI was making its mark on the pin-up industry, the most popular pin-up in history was about to be unleashed. 

In 1976, a poster featuring actress Farrah Fawcett in a one piece red bathing suit, accentuated by the fact that all could see a hardened nipple of hers pressing outward against the material, made its way to the bedroom walls of teenage boys everywhere. According to various sources, the poster has sold anywhere from 12 million to 20 million copies, making it the best-selling pin-up in history.

As the ‘70s wrapped up and the ‘80s came into focus the supermodel/celebrity crossover phenomena continued, and music videos were the latest craze to cash in on making pin-up models into stars; and vice versa. Blondie, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and other faces of the MTV generation were not just great singers, but they transformed into pin-up models. Even Cher, who had been around since the early ’60s, found a resurgence of popularity both in music and as a pin-up thanks to MTV. In 1983 rocker Billy Joel secured his place in pin-up pop culture history as he was singing about his future ex-wife, pin-up supermodel Christie Brinkley, in the hit “Uptown Girl.”

In February 2017, Brinkley, 63, along with her two daughters, Alexa Ray Joel, 31, and Sailor Brinkley-Cook, 18, returned to the pages of the SI for their annual swimsuit issue.

Over the past 30 years, a whole cavalcade of actresses, supermodels, dancers and singers have been seen as our fantasy pin-up girls. Whether it was Carrie Fisher in a metallic bikini from the film Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Paula Abdul dancing her way through music videos, Kate Upton gracing the cover of SI, or a scantily clad Miley Cyrus singing and swinging on a wrecking ball, all of them hold a special place as pin-ups in our obsessive hearts and minds.

Today, with a renewed interest in vintage and retro art, a whole new generation of models has taken center stage, making the pin-up as popular as ever thanks in part to emerging technologies and social media platforms like Instagram. 

Perhaps the biggest or most influential pin-up model today is striptease sensation and worldwide phenomenon, Dita Von Teese. The former Las Vegas dancer who was once known as Heather Sweet and remade herself as a dark burlesque queen, has become one of the world’s top burlesque authorities and turned her skills and assets into a global business with fashion, lingerie, makeup and other products. From 2012 to 2014 her burlesque show “Strip Strip Hooray,” which incorporated various fetish elements of bondage and S&M, went on a whirlwind world tour, solidifying her place in pin-up history. Even though she has appeared nude in several men’s magazines, Dita much rather prefers the art of the tease, thus her name and reputation.

Pin-up continues to gain momentum today and influence culture with models like Masuimi Max, Mosh, Claire Sinclair, Darenzia, LouLou D’vil, Carlotta Champagne, Kristin McCormick, Jeska Vardinski, and comedian April Macie all gracing the pages of STRIPLV Magazine donning pin-up styles.

Pin-up popularity cannot be ignored. As a matter of fact, entire businesses and the way they market have been built upon the pin-up and its subculture. For example, The U.K.-based lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur takes pin-up fashion to the masses, as their products might be what one would find in a pin-up’s wardrobe. They boast exquisite lingerie, classic corsetry, sumptuous nightwear, striking hosiery, sensual beauty and playful accessories. At one point the company had 100 stores in 13 countries in such diverse places as the U.S., Russia, Dubai and Hong Kong, giving the local women just as much pin-up power as the professional models and celebrities who inspired them.

One thing is for certain, whether the girls were real or imaginary, photographed or drawn, wearing bustle skirts and corsets, nurse uniforms, one piece or bikini swimwear, silk stockings and panties, or nothing at all, our 120-plus year fascination with the pin-up model doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Fashion trends may come and go, and the shape of the models may change from time to time, but one thing has remained constant since the 1890s: our obsession with the pin-up it seems, will always be there.  

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