Innocent but erotic, cheesy as all hell and yet still oozing sex appeal — it’s truly an irrefutable fact that pin-up girls have one twisted tightrope to walk!
But how did we get this icon of salaciously safe female sexuality? A figure that’s somehow suitable for the side of weapons, twee ironic tattoos, and more boudoir shoots than you can shake a stick at?
Well, my friends, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with the mother of all pin ups:
THE GIBSON GIRL
Created in 1887 by Charles Gibson, The Gibson Girl is now widely accepted as the first pin-up.
Drawn lasciviously, the Gibson Girl represented a woman that could be imitated but couldn’t actually exist.
She had sizeable breasts but an itty bitty wasp waist; a swan-like neck that was dangerously close to biologically impossible; and masses of dark hair piled precariously atop her head, miraculously inoperable to sweat, rain and general disaster.
But what bought the Gibson Girl to life was that she had a clear personality. She was a new woman, self assured, put together, sensual and intelligent all at once. She wanted independence, but like… not too much independence (Gibson Girls weren’t after the vote, that would just be crazy!).
A Gibson Man was created to go with The Gibson Girl, but much like Ken to Barbie, nobody really cared. It was the impossible woman they wanted to pin to their walls, not her random boyfriend.
Soon there was a Gibson Girl boom, with her face appearing all over magazine and newspapers, quickly becoming the ideal standard for American beauty.
Women donned Gibson Girl-esque hair-dos, along with S-bend corsets which simultaneously pushed out the tits, nipped in the waist, and pulled the wearer’s back forward, allowing for that classic Gibson Girl arse to tit ratio.
But the outbreak of World War I saw the demise of the Gibson Girl. No more would women obligingly get that Gibson Girl figure by donning an s-bend corset.
You see, women had things to do, countries to keep running and they kind of needed working spines for that shit. So they stepped up, wearing more practical and masculine clothing than before.
A trend that was immediately sexualised for war propaganda.
Stay classy, America. As we move onto the next chapter in our pin up history…
THE PETTY GIRL
By the 1930s, a more a-typical version of the classic “pin-up” was starting to appear, but it was the “Petty Girl” that would take her to stratospheric levels of fame.
George Petty had been airbrushing and illustrating for years, mainly for cheese-tactic sexed-up adverts and calendars. But in 1933 he joined fledgling magazine Esquire and became an immediate hit.
Placed slap bang on a double page in the middle of the magazine, Petty’s drawings coined the term centrefold, as they were torn out and given prime real estate on walls and lockers around America.
A “Petty Girl” was the classic all-American girl next door, just reeeeally sexed up! She was lithe, but curvy, with elongated limbs that made her legs go on for daaaays.
But what really made the Petty Girl a phenomena was that Esquire readers could place her into their worlds. She was posed in idealized, everyday scenarios, from chatting on the phone to celebrating seasonal holidays and even ingratiating herself into what were then typically male jobs.
Soon Petty Girls weren’t just on walls, they were adopted by soldiers looking for a slice of comforting similarity as they headed to war. It was easy to transpose a childhood sweetheart or crush onto a perfect Petty Girl; after all, that was the whole point of their design!
And just like that, pin-ups went from book to bomber.
By the 1940s and ’50s, pin-up was everywhere. Petty-style drawings were used to both sell magazines to men and everything — fashion, homeware, films — to women. MGM even made a film about the drawings (the imaginativley titled Petty Girl).
With such success came a ton of rival artists, all with a slightly different take on what made the perfect imaginary woman:
Gil stepped up George Petty’s knack for the everyday, placing models in even more average scenarios (cooking, decorating, hanging out with cute animals).
Yet he made these humdrum scenes both implausible and accessible by setting up his pin-up girls as cutesy girl children/sex kittens (basically the photo type for any modern rom com lead!).
Sure, she was coyly flashing her underwear…but only because the poor lamb had accidentally tripped!
As well as this “cheesecake” pin-up style, Gil was known for his masterful (and slightly maniacal) manipulation of the female form. He’d have models pose for pin up photos, then set his pencil to work, nipping, tucking and enlarging certain key assets until he had the perfect fantasy.
But it wasnt just men! Women were a key audience for the pin-up fantasy and they were vital in its evolution.
Zoe made her mark by creating pin-up illustrations that veered much closer to reality than her male peers’ work.
Sure, these painted ladies were still very much in the realm of make-believe, but Zoe worked to have them look like actual women; tiny waists are great and all, but not when they are so teeny that women need to find somewhere new to keep stuff, like their organs…
It seemed like Zoe was onto something. Her realistic approach was selling like hot cakes, from adverts to film posters and men’s calendars.
But there was a problem — now the public wanted real women.
Photography was the order of the day. By the late ’50s, the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were decorating walls, and pin-up started to die out.
Pretty soon, it was the 60s and imagined illustrations just couldn’t compete with the likes of Playboy, whose mix of explicit images and –ahem- articles, had taken America into a new age of sexual fantasy.
AND YET THE PIN-UP COULD NOT BE DESTROYED.
The classic Petty, Mozart and Evgreen style of pin-up is very much back in. Just now it’s labelled as a vintage and classy alternative to the today’s more intense male gaze.
You can see its traces in everything from Virgin airlines branding to cutesy advertising and of course, every time a bridesmaid has worn victory rolls and a halter neck to a “vintage wedding.”
this post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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