Technically, the term pin up didn’t exist until 1941, but men have been pinning up pictures of beautiful women torn from magazines and advertisements since the Gibson Girl—Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations of ideal American womanhood circa 1900.
Photography and the subsequent rise of the movie industry gave rise to a whole new crop of real live pin up girls. The pinup was as much a part of World War II as rationing. American GIs adorned their lockers with semi-revealing photos of movies stars like Rita Hayworth. Dorothy Lamour and Veronica Lake.
But the number one pinup girl of the war was Betty Grable. Her picture in swimsuit and high heels, taken by studio photographer Frank Powolny, outsold those of all her contemporaries. What was it about the blonde with the million dollar legs that was so popular? After all, Grable wasn’t as beautiful as Veronica Lake, as sultry as Dorothy Lamour or as sexy as Rita Hayworth.
The ideal pinup of the day was pretty but not beautiful, sexy but not scary and saucy without being salacious. Grable, the box office queen of the 1940s, fit the bill perfectly. She was as wholesome as her movies, frothy, light-hearted musicals that served as a distraction from the war.
When the war ended, pinups became more revealing and the girls began modestly flashing some skin. But the results were still tame and the girl was still wholesome, a good girl who just happened to walk over a subway grate as Marilyn Monroe did in the movie The Seven Year Itch.
The change in tone coincided with the rise of magazines like Laff, Peek, Glamorous Models and Cheesecake and the advent of the conical bra.
The most desirable women of the day came in two flavors: Blonde or Brunette, either way she was stacked. The look was exemplified by movie stars Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and copied by legions of pin up girls and actresses.
Russell came first. Or, rather, her boobs did.
She was discovered in 1940 by Howard Hughes before the world’s first billionaire became a recluse. Russell’s breasts became famous even before she did, thanks to Hughes, who invented the underwire bra to showcase them in the movie Outlaw.
Hughes delayed the release of the movie, Russell’s first, for three years–from 1943 to 1946–and didn’t put Russell in any other movies, effectively putting her acting career on hold. But her breasts went on to fame and fortune: Hughes launched a three-year campaign with pictures of Jane wearing plunging necklines accompanied by slogans like “What Are the Two Great Reasons For Jane Russell’s Rise to Stardom?” Comedians got in on the act, too. Bob Hope once referred to her as “the two and only Jane Russell.”
Russell’s movie debut was a major hit, but her career didn’t really take off until the 1950s because Hughes, who had exclusive rights to the actress, didn’t use her much and wouldn’t lend her out to other studios. But from 1951 to 1957 her acting career took off. Russell’s co-starring role with Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes brought the archetypal blonde and the archetypal brunette of the decade together for the first and last time.
Monroe was the girl who changed pin ups, taking them from the tame pictures of girls in negligees to the modern day centerfold. She began modeling in the 1940s and became a sought after model for the exploitation magazines of the day.
The early photos show a wholesome Norma Jean in marginally suggestive poses. By the decade’s end Monroe had posed for several semi nude shots. Monroe, who had always planned to become a movie star, was careful about choosing assignments and had refused to pose nude. But in 1949, Monroe fell on hard times and agreed to pose for what became her most most notorious photo. Marilyn agreed to pose nude for a calendar shot taken by Tom Kelley. The 1950 calendar shot didn’t make many waves. But by 1953, when Monroe was on her way to stardom, the photos resurfaced. Hugh Hefner bought them and Marilyn became the first “Sweetheart of the Month.”
Marilyn Monroe became an icon and continues to influence artists and actresses. Anna Nicole Smith copied Marilyn’s platinum locks and appeared in Playboy in poses reminiscent of Marilyn’s classic centerfold. Lindsay Lohan reenacted Marilyn’s last photo shoot down to the last detail. And Madonna parodied and paid tribute to Monroe in the “Material Girl” video. In her own day, she inspired even more imitators.
Jayne Mansfield copied Monroe’s hair. Like Jane Russell, Mansfield’s most obvious asset was her 40-D bosom, which the actress promoted with all the enthusiasm that Howard Hughes displayed for Russell’s breasts a few years earlier. Mansfield became known for “accidentally” baring her breasts in public. Unfortunately for her, her invention of the nip slip did her no good; 20th Century Fox refused to renew her contract in 1963.
Although she denied being influenced by Marilyn, she followed in her footsteps with her 1955 Playboy centerfold and ultimately became known as the “Poor Man’s Monroe.”
Novak, whose given name is actually Marilyn, was hired to be Columbia’s version of Monroe; the studio changed her name to Kim so the comparison wouldn’t be so obvious. Although she often played the femme fatale, Kim Novak eventually established herself as a serious actress rather than an imitation of Monroe.
Bettie Page never became a movie star but she did become the central character in a film about her career. Page, who also aspired to an acting career, took pinups beyond Marilyn’s nudes and became a cult figure in the process.
In 1950, Bettie Page met Jerry Tibbs while walking along the Coney Island boardwalk. Tibbs, a police officer with an interest in photography, took pictures of Bettie for her first pinup portfolio.
In a matter of months, Bettie’s modeling career took off. Her total lack of inhibition, coupled with a dose of innocence, made her a hit within erotic photography circles. By 1951 her image appeared in men’s magazines with names like Wink, Eyefull and Beauty Parade. She also begame posing for mail-order photos with bondage or sado-masochistic themes, making her the first famous bondage model.
Bettie Page loved the camera and the camera loved her. Bettie was named “Miss Pinup Girl of the World” in 1955, the same year she appeared as the centerfold in Playboy’s January issue. Photos of the “Girl with the Perfect Figure” appeared on everything from record albums to playing cards by the time Bettie left modeling in 1957.
Interest in Bettie’s career revived in the 1980s when comic book artist Dave Stevens made “Betty Page” the female love interest of his hero, the Rocketeer. Other comics followed and interest in her grew along with the Internet. The 2006 biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Getchen Mol, brought Bettie to the attention of the mainstream.
Neo-burlesque star Dita Von Teese, with her long dark hair and red-lacquered lips, has made a career out of emulating Bettie, going so far as to copy outright some of Betty’s original poses.