The timeless allure of the pin-up girl

by Meagan Dill

Men want them, and women want to be like them. And it’s been this way for over a century. The pin-up girl is an iconic feminine figure that transcends time. The beginnings of the pin-up girl can be traced back as early as 1910, and pin-up girl style has remained a fashion staple ever since.

Originally, pin-up art was defined as a drawing or painting of an attractive woman which positioned her as a sex symbol. Since the pictures were illustrations rather than photographs, the images represented an idealised version of beauty and femininity. They usually took the form of a poster, calendar or postcard. 

These images were at the height of their popularity during World War II, when American soldiers would hang them in their camps as a reminder of what was waiting for them at home. In turn, women began to imitate the glamorous style represented in the pictures.

The look was distinctively delicate and feminine. The trademarks: red lips, thick eyelashes, cat-eye eyeliner, defined eyebrows, and pale skin. This was usually worn with soft, wavy hair and a blunt fringe. At the same time, designers were creating clothing that was intended to emphasise the female form and figure. High-waisted garments, waist belts and pencil skirts all cinched in the waist to create an hourglass silhouette. Popular patterns tended towards the girly, with signature pin-up outfits often incorporating polka dots, animal print and nautical designs.

It goes without saying that the influence of this look, which was most popular in the 1940s and 1950s, can still be seen today. Hollywood stars such as Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera and Scarlett Johanssen are prime examples. And it’s not just the classic pin-up girl look that can be seen today – another popular look is that of the “alternative pin-up”, which blends classic pin-up style with “harder” elements like tattoos and piercings. Think Miami Ink’s Kat Von D.

But back to the history lesson. Gradually, photography began to replace illustration in pin-up art. The problem was this: the allure of pin-up art had originated from the innocence of the woman portrayed. For example, the wind might blow up a lady’s skirt, resulting in a flash of thigh. If not for the accidental nature of the exposure, the woman would be considered lewd or trashy rather than desirable and sophisticated. As images became more realistic and therefore more explicit, the coyness and charm inherent to original pin-up art began to fade. Many consider this change as the end of the golden age of pin-up art.

But although the image of the pin-up girl changed over time and swung between the background and forefront of fashion, the influence of the classic pin-up can still be seen today. Take, for example, the famous burlesque performance artist, Dita Von Teese. While burlesque performance is not the same thing as pin-up art, the two share a certain similar atmosphere. Burlesque could even be thought of as a kind of live version of what is represented on paper in pin-up art.

Like pin-up art, burlesque has gone through many incarnations. It can be broadly defined as an adult entertainment show, usually with a satirical edge. Like pin-up art, it gained popularity in the early twentieth century, and experienced a revival in the late twentieth century. Dita Von Teese was part of this revival, and is perhaps most famous for her routine involving a giant martini glass. She is widely known as the “Queen of Burlesque”.

Von Teese has also done some fetish modelling, mostly involving corsetry. In these photo shoots, she frequently emulates another pin-up model: Bettie Page, known as the “Queen of Pin-ups”. While she worked first as a model in the 1950s, she too was a fetish model – in fact, she was the world’s first bondage model.

Although she suffered a troubled personal life, her impact on popular culture and the modern woman is immeasurable. Gil Kaufman, writing for MTV.com, elaborates on what would not have been possible without Bettie Page’s influence: “Katy Perry's rocker bangs and throwback skimpy jumpers. Madonna's Sex book and fascination with bondage gear. Rihanna's obsession with all things leather, lace and second-skin binding. Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. The Suicide Girls website. The Pussycat Dolls. The entire career of Marilyn Manson's ex-wife Dita Von Teese.”

The fact that Page impacted the identities of these celebrities, 50 years after her own career, just goes to show the universal power of the pin-up girl. This power lies in the feminine wiles, the mystery, and the bold nature of the pin-up girl. Their simplicity in portraying feminine beauty is what makes them timeless. And in a time before the women’s liberation movement, this femininity gave women a different kind of power – not political or social power, but the kind of power that comes from self-confidence and self-assurance. This is why the pin-up look is not just something bound to the past, or even to the present. Pin-up girl style looks set to be around for a long time yet.

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