Where it All Started - Pinup Girl Origins

Pin-up culture and car culture are a happy pairing, and have been for decades. As someone who didn't necessarily grow up in the culture, I found myself a little overwhelmed with the styles and eras, which makes sense--there are so many! Today I wanted to take a closer look at the different subcultures and styles of pinup (and yes, a subculture can have subculture, and so on and so on...) But to understand the more common styles we have nowadays,--rockabilly, glam, WWII pinup--we need a history lesson. Before I write about the styles popular today, we'll explore where and when exactly the idea of a pinup girl took shape in America.

Early 1900's

When you say "pin up" most people have visions of WWII, Alberto Vargas's prints, and Betty Grable's perfect rear end. But the idea of a voluptuous, "perfect" perky female figure goes back before either World War. The arguable 'first pinup' goes to the Gibson Girl style, which became a smash hit in the 1890's. The creator of this style, Charles Gibson, loved the idea of the "wholesome, beautiful American girl" who would have, of course, plentiful curves. Despite the difference in the fashion, the theme was the same! Beautiful, flirty, curvy.

Camille Clifford, Source

1900-1920's, WWI

Louise Brooks, Source

It should be noted that when WWI began in 1914, women experienced freedom in a way they hadn't before. Woodrow Wilson created a new division, the Division of Pictorial Publicity, as part of the war effort. The idea was simple--propaganda. Inspirational, patriotic, beautiful imagery to inspire hope and loyalty to the men fighting. What is better to look at than a curvy, smiling gal encouraging her soldiers and sailors on? So even before the flapper emerged, the idea of posters and pin-ups was already taking off, both at home and overseas.

With that said, ignoring society's "proper" girls, the more seductive, feminine, and sexy image we often attribute to the pin-up originates decades earlier, in old burlesque shows. These were also popular at the turn of the century, and actresses and performers had their own calling cards, which were posted everywhere they could be (if you go to Vegas you can still see these, though they're a little more...adult...!) Though they were far from mainstream, these women posed with plenty of cleavage and curves for cameras, and performed onstage burlesque. Then the 1920's rolled around and what was once hidden in green rooms and stages became the look on the street. Women experienced an entirely new way to represent themselves in the flapper style--overdone makeup, short skirts, shorter hairstyle, drinking, and a very open mind to their femininity. Flappers were ahead of their time since they were seen as dangerous, overtly sexual, and "bad" by the general public, but despite the negative perception, these gals could also be considered pioneers of pinup.

Depression and WWII

It was actually the Great Depression that brought an end to the flapper. The luxurious lifestyles and trend-following of the 20's were highly frowned upon and the slogan "Make Do and Mend" warned women and men to stop indulging. The carefree days were traded in for a somber tone, but the legacy of the 20's led the way to women's lib as we know it today. Now, while the country experienced economical hardship and war, women were not only homemakers, they held jobs and kept their families afloat. This was not viewed negatively for the first time in American history, and that same image -- the "Ideal Woman" continued to find its way into magazines and artwork. Alberto Vargas's paintings were distributed to soldiers all over Europe, and it wasn't long before the "pin up" became nose-art for bomber planes and a good luck symbol for the troops overseas. They were in soldier's pockets, hung up in submarines, plastered on barracks. The US government had a heavy hand and a huge role in the distribution and popularization of pin-up. And more notably, the propaganda worked; pin-up art was a hit.

WWII 4th Fighter Group Association, Source

Entering the Atomic Age

Once the second war was over, the tides turned, but a few things stayed, including the image of the ideal woman, and the propaganda and patriotism. America was pushed into the Atomic Age, the parent to all things Americana--diners, drive-ins, hot rods, bobby socks, rockabilly. No doubt a favorite time period for anyone interested in the retro lifestyle, the atomic age was about America's eyes on the future, about the promise of new technology, about wholesome family time, white picket fences, casseroles, "the good old days."

The Atomic Age also brought our subcultures with it--car culture, greasers, bobby soxers, sweater girls, rockabilly and all its sub-genres. Everything from wallpaper designs, magazine ads, to yes, the slick angles of the new vehicles, were influenced by Our Friend, the Atom. The period lends so much to car and pinup culture it warrants its own post, so we will learn more about those next time!

Pinup History: the Atomic Age
The Fifth Annual Sounds of Freedom Car Show "BLOOD...

Comments (1)

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Excellent post Alex, thanks for some history. Love it!

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