“If you are comfortable, you probably don’t look good.”
Stella Pearl is lying on the floor, back arched, fish-netted legs impossibly straight up in the air. A group of women are standing around her, taking notes and asking questions. At the moment, they are learning about how to do bevels, arches and twists during photo shoots. More generally, at this workshop, they are learning all the secrets of modern-day pin-up girls, from where to find the perfect vintage underwear (estate sales), to where to buy the right shade of red lipstick downtown (Smooch Cosmetics), to how to find a great photographer on a budget (try university students).
And of course, they are learning how to pose just like the pin-ups of the 1940s and ’50s.
“I am still wondering what you do with your hands,” asks an audience member who’s wearing sneakers and skinny jeans, but has her hair in a 1950s do, tied with a bandana like Rosie the Riveter, the We-Can-Do-It girl.
Stella Pearl considers the question, legs still up. “What do you want to draw focus to? Your face?” Her hands slide behind her head so that both elbows are bent flat against the floor. “Your legs?” Her arms swoop down across her body so that her hands touch her thighs. “Your bottom?” Her arms and hands drop to the floor again, but this time along her body. With each small movement, the tone and focus of the pose changes.
Although Stella should be the uncomfortable one, she’s obviously in her element. Her pupils look doubtful of their abilities, shifting their weight from one foot to another, furrowing their brows. While Stella makes vintage modeling look easy, it clearly isn’t. She stands up and takes a moment to reassure them all.
“The modern idea of beauty—it’s all Photoshop and fake tan,” Stella says. “Today’s models are made to look like they were born perfect, like they got out of bed with naturally blonde and beachy hair, that they are naturally thin with perfect skin. What I love about pin-up is that the look isn’t going for natural. It is something you create. It’s glamour. It owns up to the fact that it is fake. It owns up to the fact that beauty takes time and effort. Our hair, the makeup, the shapewear—it’s about creating a specific look. It’s about magic and illusion.”
And with that, Stella Pearl launches into an explanation of how to best make the range of expressions so common in cheesecake photos (another term for pin-ups). Her bright red hair is piled on top of her head in a mess of curls just like the iconic Betty Grable photo. She wears a simple black skirt and shirt along with bright blue pumps. One by one, she rotates through the classic pin-up faces while making vowel sounds. Her big toothy smile first turns into a pursed-lips kiss, then a demure grin. Next, her mouth transforms into a flirty, mischievous “O.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon in the back room of Lacy Zee’s tattoo parlor on Missoula’s Westside. The workshop participants are a small, diverse group of women, including one who wants to take pin-up inspired engagement photos, another interested in burlesque and a mother-daughter pair who simply want to learn more about vintage fashion and hair. During the three-hour class, they learn how to apply pin-up makeup, where to buy the right books that explain vintage hairdos and where to shop in Montana (and online) for the appropriate clothing.
Why would a person want to know these things? From the curriculum of the class, it seems that very few pin-up enthusiasts do so for money or fame. There are only a handful of paid modeling opportunities for today’s pin-up hopefuls and even fewer opportunities to achieve widespread recognition. In fact, participating in pin-up activities often means investing both time and money in finding a wardrobe, making alterations and paying a photographer. And yet women across the country are competing in pin-up contests, putting curlers in their hair at night and scouring Goodwill racks for vintage cardigans and circle skirts.
For Stella, who is admittedly making a little money from running the workshop, the joy seems to be in the act itself: finding a 1950s-era bathing suit in great condition and in her size. Creating a photo shoot storyline and set surrounding the new bathing suit—or entering a vintage bathing suit pageant. Doing her hair and makeup for the shoot. And finally—maybe most importantly—having the resulting pictures to keep, post online and share.
Something that takes so much effort for little apparent long-term return: Is that a hobby? A pastime? A way of life?