Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Phworrr - a brief history of pin up

I thought I would do something a bit lighter on Slings and Arrows this month after all that ice and snow and misery. As it is Valentine's Day this week and 'tis the season to be saucy, here's a post on the history of the all American pin up girl. As someone once said, 'I don't know much about art but I know what I like.' I like lots of art although I don't have much time for anything from the latter half of the 20th Century onwards. I do have a soft spot for pin up though. Though serious art lovers will doubtless dismiss it as kitsch, I like the charm of the golden age of pin up, from the mid Thirties to the mid Fifties, when something was still left to the imagination. Of course, a lot of the cheeky cover girls come from publications that contained more explicit images between their pages. The appeal of the cover artwork is timeless however and has been endlessly replicated and imitated. Yet never bettered.

A cheeky Ziegfield Follies songsheet cover by Vargas
Our story begins, as you might expect, in the Roaring Twenties. Arriving in the soon-to-be hotbed of jazz and licentiousness that was New York City, a young Peruvian artist by the name of Alberto Vargas, who had studied in France before emigrating to the US in 1916, was immediately struck by the crowds of smartly dressed, sassy and sophisticated young ladies who abounded in its streets. He decided to paint them.
Vargas first obtained work as a fashion illustrator for the Adelson Hat Company and further commissions followed. A most fortuitous encounter took place in 1919. As Vargas was working on a painting in a shop window, his work was spotted by a representative of the ringmaster of the hottest show in town; Florenz Ziegfield. Impressed by Vargas' work, Ziegfield commissioned him to produce portraits of his famous Follies, who were holding court at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Vargas worked with and painted the stars of the Follies throughout the 1920's, in the process making many other showbiz contacts. In 1934 he and his showgirl wife Anna Mae moved to Hollywood, where he worked producing art for most of the major studios and painted portraits of many of the legendary screen beauties of the day. By the close of the decade however, Vargas' participation in union strikes had seen him lose favour with the studios and work in Hollywood dried up.
Petty's TWA stewardess first took to the skies in 1942
Whilst Vargas enjoyed Hollywood, under the auspices of Esquire Magazine in Chicago, the first true incarnation of the all American pin up girl was gathering pace. The Petty Girl was the creation of Esquire's chief artist in residence George Petty. She was a long legged, slender-waisted yet amply endowed young lady, who came in blonde, brunette or redhead but always with the same cheeky smile. The original model for the Petty Girl was George's wife and later his daughter. Petty accentuated the features of his models, elongating the legs and making the head proportionally smaller. Making her debut in the inaugural issue of Esquire in 1933, the Petty Girl went on to feature in every issue for the rest of the decade and graced thousands of calendars and numerous advertising campaigns. Petty left Esquire in 1940 after disagreements over his salary, making way for the arrival of Alberto Vargas as his replacement. His success continued throughout the '40s and his art found great popularity with the troops as the Second World War got underway.  Advertisements featuring swim-suited Petty Girls were torn from magazines to brighten the drab and warlike surroundings that the enlisted men found themselves in and were copied as mascots on the noses of bombers, including the famous Memphis Belle. She remained an iconic image well into the 1950's, including as the personification of the TWA stewardess. As for Petty, his noted eye for the female form later saw him become a judge of the Miss America contest for over a decade. He died in 1975.

The Esquire Varga girl joins the Navy

Petty's replacement at Esquire, Alberto Varga, had dropped the 's' from his name at his new employer's request and hence it was the Varga Girl who took over from the Petty Girl on the front cover of the magazine. The Varga Girl was somewhat curvier than the Petty Girl though still impossibly long legged and was an instant hit with the GI's. Such was the demand for Varga's pin ups that over the course of the war over nine million copies of Esquire were printed without advertisements for free of charge distribution to the troops.

Esquire wasn't the only magazine finding its way into the hands of American troops during the war. Another favourite was Beauty Parade, a magazine filled with photographs of the famous women of the day and scantily-clad, young, wannabe starlets. It was the creation of Robert Harrison, who had begun his career as a reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, dubbed the 'Pornographic' for its smutty and sensational copy. Harrison's first assignment had been to cover the risqué Midnight Frolic. This was a show put on in 1919 by former Ziegfield Follie Olive Thomas, in which girls appeared clad only in balloons, which patrons were permitted to attempt to burst with their cigars. By the mid-thirties Harrison was working for the Motion Picture Herald, which gave him access to a large stash of photographs submitted by aspiring young models. Working at night without permission, Harrison used the pictures and the Herald's facilities to put together his own magazine. He was fired in 1941 when he was found out but obtained loans from his family to set up on his own.

Beauty Parade magazine was the first of Harrison's publications

Beauty Parade ran from 1941 to 1956. Its covers featured the art of Peter Driben, my personal favourite pin up artist of the golden age. Driben's girls are more normally and realistically proportioned but retain the cheeky smile and knowing glint in the eye of the Varga Girl. Harrison created a whole range of men's magazines; Eyeful, Whisper, Titter, Wink and Flirt, the contents of which became increasingly explicit and pornographic, eventually moving into the world of fetish and bondage as Harrison pushed the boundaries ever further. The infamous Miss Betty Page, already well known on the 'camera club' circuit, as New York's underground pornography scene was known, did her first professional photo shoots for Eyeful.

Regardless of the content, Driben's images graced the covers. Peter Driben had studied art at the Sorbonne in 1925 and perfected his talents sketching the performers of the Moulin Rouge. He was a successful pin up artist throughout the Thirties, providing cover girl images for pulp fiction and gossipy magazines. A close friend of Harrison, his association with the publisher ensured that he was one of the most prolific of the pin up greats. Harrison's magazines began to fall out of favour with the emergence in 1953 of Hugh Hefner's Playboy. With its celebrity content, (Marilyn Monroe famously posing as the first centre-fold) and willingness to push the boundaries with full nudity, Playboy spelled the end for Harrison's stable of saucy titles. Instead he turned to celebrity exposes with the launch of his scandal-rag Confidential. Things became rather mirky as the magazine blackmailed celebrities to keep their sex scandals out of its pages and outed suspected communists at the height of McCarthyism. Buried in litigation, the magazine went bust in 1956. As for Driben, he retired to Miami, where he died in 1968.

Alberto Vargas joined Playboy in 1960
The old master Vargas moved with the times and in 1960 joined Playboy and was the magazine's primary artist throughout the '60s and into the '70s. The Varga Girl was a regular fixture of the magazine, with her trademark features that had been left partially to the imagination in the '40s and '50s, now fully on display. Although the more relaxed moral standards of Playboy allowed him to depict full frontal nudity, Vargas kept to his own standards and although his girls were now nude, he still left something to the imagination with much draping of flimsy material. He retired from painting in 1974 when the death of his beloved Anna Mae left him broken hearted.  He died in Los Angeles in 1982.

Aside from men's magazines, the other great outlet for pin up art was the calendar market. King of the pin up calendar girl was Gil Elvgren, who is perhaps the best known of all the pin up artists of the golden age. Elvgren's girls are still everywhere today and their popularity remains huge. Elvgren's art, like Driben's, is more naturalistic than the perfect fantasy girls of Petty and Vargas and his subjects more down to earth. The Elvgren girl is the girl next door, captured in the midst of some task in a momentarily compromising situation as her skirt is caught by the wind or trapped in a door; a cheeky expression of mock alarm on her face.

An unexpected lift by Gil Elvgren
Art graduate Elvgren went to work for the advertising firm Stevens and Gross in Chicago aged 22 in 1933 where he became the protégé of the great commercial artist Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom, in his work for Coca Cola, is the man today credited today more than any other for introducing the popular image of Santa Claus. At Stevens and Gross in the 1930's a whole generation of successful pin up artists mastered their art under Sundblom's direction, but Elvgren was by far the most successful. Elvgren began producing works for the Brown and Bigelow calendar company in 1944 for an agreed rate of $1000 a painting, a rate which increased to $2,500 in 1951. He produced yearly collections for the company for 30 years, moving to Miami in 1956, where he found the light conducive to his art. He died in 1980. His work, and that of his contemporaries, lives on.

A final mention must go to another of Sundblom's protégés, Art Frahm, whose most reproduced work can be found in the cereal aisle of every supermarket, as he created the Quaker whose image still appears on Quaker Oats packages. His best known pin up works, created for Brown and Bigelow in the 1950's, feature young ladies whose panties have fallen around their ankles at an inopportune moment in a flutter of pink silk. Frahm's subjects were often depicted carrying shopping which, in a signature touch, invariably included some celery. This has led to some suggestions that celery can cause underwear failure, although this remains unproven.

The effects of celery on 1950's underwear are not fully understood

 For more on the world of pin up check out

Normal Slings and Arrows service will be resumed next month.

1 comment:

  1. Great article Simon. I might even pin it up on my own wall