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Home > A History of Pinup Art

A History of the Pinup Phenomenon

Pinup Girls - The Beginning

Collage of Pinup Art

The term pinup girl was coined in the 1940s, but it had its beginnings much earlier. pinup models symbolize the era in which they became famous and their pictures became sensational. The word "pinup" came from calendars, which people would pinup to see the pictures.

A pinup girl in today's terms would be a fashion icon such as Dita Von Teese or Katy Perry, who sport retro pinup girl styles of the 40s and 50s. For a more modern pinup girl you can look at Tyra banks or even Madonna.

The term pinup girl in the 1940s became a euphemism for "cheesecake", which in today's terms would be known as sex symbol. pinup girls are the symbol of the ideal sexy, glamorous, woman of the time period. The most well known pictures from each decade are of pinup models and actresses.

Pinup as we know it today is radically different to its humble origins which can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, a time when sexuality was both scrutinized and suppressed. For instance a woman showing a bare ankle was considered risqué and the word "sex" itself was not even used publicly.

Aspeople find a way around even the most stringent of rules and the desire for images of an erotic nature was overcome by the birth of portraying scantily clad ladies as an art form. As art such images were deemed acceptable by the society of the time and many of these early drawings and illustrations that are considered the roots of the pinup genre used imagery of the burlesque striptease routines as their starting point.

Additionally magazines such as 'The Police Gazette' illustrated stories of murder and mayhem by showing the leading ladies in various states of undress, which was considered to be completely legitimate by the general populous as they were considered newsworthy.

The 1920's The Vintage Pinup

During the 1920's society began to rebel against the repression of the previous decades with the energetic dancing, partying and fashions such as flap skirts that showed more leg than ever before.

The names of many pinup girls are familiar to everyone. In the 1920s, none are more famous than Mary Pickford, Josephine Baker, Gloria Swanson and of course Mae West.

Mary Pickford was the deminutive star of silent film in the 1920s. Her notability, unlike other pinup girls, became her symbol of sweetness and innocence. She wore ringlet curls which made her look young and sweet.

1920's the vintage pinup

Gloria Swanson hit her pinup prime during the 1920s. Her silent films were elaborate productions of fur, feathers, and incredible period costume pieces. Known for her fashion and style, she was an icon of the 1920s.

Josephine Baker was famous for her nude photographs and sex appeal. She is one of the first black women to become famous in the burlesque world with both a black and white audience. She is also one of the most substantial influences of pinup photography. Her, among other pinup stars, were the first women to show a lot of skin.

If Josephine Baker ushered in a new age of pinup girl, Mae West made it flourish. At age 38 she became one of the sexiest women on film and was well known for her ample figure. The subject of song, music and a new modern take on women, Mae West indirectly gave rise to Betty Grable's fame in the 1940's, in my opinion.

Pinup art gained popularity in the 1930's in calendars, magazines and postcards. Most of the images were paintings but movie stars were making photograph pinups popular. Esquire Magazine helped in making paintings of pinup art of glamorous women popular. It was from such publications that what we think of as pinup art began to evolve during the early 1930's.

Artists such as George Petty and Alberto Vargas created calendar girls that very soon adorned the walls of garages and workshops everywhere. Additionally Esquire magazine was initially published in this decade and very soon it was regularly carrying pinup art and illustrations from many different artists. Using a low paying artist was less expensive than photo production.

George Petty made paintings of women for Esquire from the 1930's to 1941 when he quit over his low pay. Most paintings of pinup art were not of famous people. Petty created womanly images by combining features of several models. His style is noted for making the head smaller and the legs longer. His daughter Majorie was his usual model from the 1930's through the 1940's. His wife, Jule was his first model and she helped think up the ideas.

His "Petty Girls" were as famous as the "Gibson Girls. " Petty also did paintings of Hollywood Stars.

Sailor Pin up bombergirl nose art

The 1940's Pinups and Bomber Girls

However it was the 1940's and World War II that really saw pinup art explode into the phenomenon we know today. There wasn't a G. I. who didn't have a painting of his favorite movie star such as Rita Hayworth or Bettie Grable on his locker door or stuffed somewhere in his kitbag so that he could be reminded of home during the long hours spent away from his family and loved ones. Add to that the girls so painstakingly painted on to the side of military aircraft, in the hope that such nose art, would bring them luck on their numerous missions and it was easy to see that pinup art had found a footing in mainstream society.

Post WWII artists such as Elvgren emerged as failing magazines and publishers tried to woo the public with risqué imagery. By this time the original artwork from the more popular artists was becoming much sought after by certain collectors and it was finally accepted that pinup had a place in the art world which was somewhat ironic considering it's origins.

Pin up Noir Detective Magazines

The 1940's and 1950's Pinup Noir

For a brief time in the late 1940's and early 1950's, American detective magazines featured some of the most deliciously painted covers in illustration art history. Employing a line-up of artists that included the great George Gross, Howell Dodd, and Rudy Nappi, the detective magazine covers oozed film noir. The cover artists took all the best elements of the genre including gangsters, gun molls, femme fatales, cigarettes, and ultra-feminine 40's fashion. Then they soaked them in hot, bright colors and added just enough sex appeal to make housewives blush. It made for one sultry mix that was likely more exciting than any story that appeared on the inside.

Ah, what a wonderful era it was in American illustration. It's only sad that it was gone in the blink of an eye.

The 1950's and 1960's Pinup as Art

During the late 1950's and early 1960's pinup began to surface in the form of photography as well as the now traditional art. Magazines such as the famous Playboy were published blending pinup style photography with well written lifestyle articles and the response was huge.

The magazines ripped through any remaining repression gaining acceptability in most parts of society in a matter of a few years. At this time different models and artists began to mutate pinup across and into different genres such as fetish and even bondage, the most famous of these being the partnership between Bettie Page and Irving Claws. Although some of this imagery could be considered much darker in style than that of the early pinup artists it was still invariably done with a sense of fun, tease and innocence that typifies the pinup genre. During the 1960's Playboy and other magazines gained a huge circulation all the while moving pinup style imagery into the psyche of mainstream America.

Bettie Page Pin up

The 1970's Pinup Innocence lost

Unfortunately by the 1970's photography had just about taken over from art and most of the original pinup artists had retired from the genre they had so lovingly created. With the advent of video the demand for adult material began to move towards far more lewd and graphic imagery depicting all manner of sex acts and it seemed that the playful innocence of pinup was lost forever.

The 1980's

However during the 1980's new artists such as Dave Stevens kept the genre going and with the arrival of the Internet in the late 1990's it soon became apparent that interest in classic pinup art and photography was still very much alive.

Modern Day Pinup

In the last few years there has been a real rekindling of mainstream interest in the genre with new art appearing from modern artists such as Olivia and many of the original Playboy pinup models using the Internet to sell their classic prints and images. From this a new breed of Internet pinup models has emerged and although many of them cross over into other genres they owe at least part of their style to the classic pinup era. Amongst them are several models who have attempted to solely recreate the classic pinup look with varying degrees of success.

All in all it seems strange that it should be something as modern as the Internet that will help ensure that classic pinup will be with us long into the 21st century. Fortunately it seems that at least some people out there still enjoy the beauty and tease of the pinup genre over the much stronger and more explicit material that is now so freely available. This is somewhat ironic when you consider that the latter in part way only exists due to pinup art and photography helping to make images with an erotic leaning more and more acceptable to American culture throughout the 20th century.

The main thing is that pinup lives . . .

Long may it continue . . .