A pin-up girl is a man’s ideal of the “perfect woman.” Men want to look at them and women want to look-like them. Pin-Up girls have been around since the 1890s but became most popular in the 1940s. Many “pin ups” were photographs of celebrities who were considered sex symbols.
Pin-up girls represented everything an average woman aspired to and reflected a glamorous side of life that seemed to be missing in the forties and fifties. These Images could be found almost anywhere; magazines, calendars, posters, newspapers, postcards or even in chromolithographs. Later, posters of “pin-up girls” were mass-produced.
During World War Two, pin-ups accompanied G.I.s in the form of movie star photos like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. This gave the servicemen a beautiful and sexy distraction from their all-male comrades as well as the war and possibilities of death. One of the most popular early pin-up girls was Betty Grable. Her poster was ubiquitous in the lockers of G.I.s during World War II. Others pin-ups were artwork, often depicting idealized versions of what some thought particularly a beautiful or attractive woman should look like. It is largely believed that Gil Elvgren was the best pin-up artist the world has ever known. From the mid 1930’s through 1972, Elvgren produced over five hundred paintings of beautiful girls and women.The picture of Grable to the left was the most popular pin-up of the war and established her as the GI’s #1 favorite Pin Up girl. Soon Lloyd’s of London insured her legs for a million dollars, a move that strangely echoed the title of her 1939 film, “The Million Dollar Legs”.
Art Deco depictions of the female form were considered tasteful enough for inclusion in magazines, such as Esquire, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post and others. Alberto Vargas makes for a convenient figure as we watch his style evolve from coy to more explicit. The fact that he started at Esquire and ended up at Playboy also makes for a barometer of trends within pin-up.
After the war, Christian Dior introduced his ‘new look’, war restrictions on luxury items such as nylons were lifted and undergarments finally made the transition to two separate pieces, the bra and the girdle. Society had moved past the androgynous flappers and the economically depressed 1930s to a new age of prosperity. The move towards commercialization was well under way. If a pretty, wholesome girl-next-door could be utilized to sell a product, why not a girl in stockings modestly flashing some skin (But she’s always a ‘good girl’ – Its not her fault that playful puppy pulled her skirt over her head!). If anyone is responsible for the explosion of vibrant beautiful pitchwomen, it is Chicago artist Haddon Sundblom.
In 1949, photographer Tom Kelley paid the then unknown model, Norma Jeane Baker (Marilyn Monroe) $50 to pose nude on a red velvet background. A couple of years later he sold the pictures. In 1953, Hugh Hefner bought the rights to publish one of the calendar shots, “Golden Dreams” and used it as the centerpiece of the first issue of his new men’s magazine, Playboy. Playboy created a sensation with their centerfold of Marilyn Monroe in 1953.
The introduction of explicit men’s magazines made such innocent depictions seem quaint and old-fashioned. Photography was a quick and easy means to satisfy the pressures of monthly deadlines.
Photographs of naked women in magazines before Playboy, and in fact in most magazines since, have a tawdriness to them, which if it is not pornography outright, is still cheap and disreputable. Hefner tried to capture the classiness of Esquire’s Petty and Varga Girls, and Kelley’s picture of Marilyn as the Sweetheart of the Month managed to set the standard for that tone. In doing so, it brought Playboy a sense of respectability and Playboy, in turn became one of the liberalizing elements of what became the sexual revolution.
Army Air Corps pilots developed “Nose art” that was painted on their fighter, bomber or cargo airlift planes. This “nose art” would consist of fierce animals such as tigers, eagles and sharks; but frequently you would find pin-up girls gracing the noses of U.S. aircraft. In 1941, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a jet that he decorated with a gorgeous pin-up of his wife, naming the plane “Glamorous Gynnis.” Vargas pin-ups were also very much in evidence in the barracks and as nose-art of the Airforce.
As years passed, sexual harassment and exploitation of women became more aware and sought after to desist. Nose art was officially banned 30 years later by the United States Air Force. It wasn’t till 1998 that the nose art ban was lifted, but the vintage pin-up art vanished forever. It’s only seen now in museums depicting the lives of servicemen in ages gone by.
Pin-up art reached its hey-day during World War II, and art experts say that it will never quite be the same again.