Any burlesque performer looking for a quick, affordable way to advertise their talents in the late 19th Century could, for a reasonable fee, have multiple calling cards printed, featuring a photographic portrait of them in their full on-stage get-up.
The performer would then leave these cards tucked into dressing room mirrors and behind gas lamps, or pinned up to notice boards in green rooms, and so the “pin-up girl” was born!
By the time of the First World War, images featuring beauties of the stage and screen had become collectors’ items. Soldiers fighting in the trenches would often cut photos of stage starlets from newspapers, magazines and calendars and pin them up in their barracks – presumably to remind them of the girls back home – and very soon the production of these images, as posters and postcards, became an industry in its own right.
World War II was the golden age of the pin-up, when posing for poster art and postcards extended beyond the burlesque scene and into Hollywood. An increasing number of Hollywood actresses, including Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, posed as pin-up girls, and some – like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe – did so before becoming household names.
Not all pin-up girls were photographic, however. Esquire magazine (launched in 1932 and still going today) often featured painted, idealised images of women by George Petty and the Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas. The paintings of both artists (known popularly as the Petty Girls and Vargas Girls) went on to inspire the famous “Nose Art” that adorned many Allied aircraft during the Second World War. One of Petty’s images even features in the famous line-up on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
The success of magazines such as Esquire, which featured reasonably discreet pin-up girls in bikinis, led to the launch, in 1953, of Playboy by Hugh Hefner. Hefner had previously worked as a copywriter for Esquire, and realised that the increasingly permissive times and the marketplace were both primed for a magazine offering something a little more risqué. Unlike its predecessor (and Hefner’s previous employer), Playboy featured nude pin-ups (including Marilyn Monroe), alongside articles and short stories by “highbrow” writers such as Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse and Vladimir Nabokov.
Notoriety and Scandal
Though pin-up images were, to begin with, very tame by modern standards they always enjoyed a degree of controversy. As early as the late 19th Century – when they began – moral crusaders complained about the corrupting influence they had on men, and the degrading effect they had on women. By the mid-20th Century and the emergency of magazines like Playboy, they were seen as being practically pornographic by social conservatives, and chauvinist exploitation by feminists.
Photographer Irvin Klaw, famous for his photographs of burlesque performer and model Bettie Page, was branded a pornographer by the 1957 Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, and his career destroyed.
Despite still being seen as a little saucy and salacious, many famous actresses in the present day have been photographed as pin-ups, including Megan Fox and Jessica Chastain, and images of classic pin-ups such as Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth now enjoy iconic status. Indeed, the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ features a twist involving an iconic poster of Raquel Welch which… well… if you haven’t seen the movie, we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise!
Some essential accessories for the perfect pin-up look...