“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?
To understand modern pin-up, you first have to learn about traditional pin-up. A good place to start is The Great American Pin-Up by Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel, a Bible-big tome of cheesecake art history. On each page, paintings of sassy, classic beauties are smiling out at the camera, many suffering from sexy clothing malfunctions or revealing breezes. The portraits begin to appear in the early 20th century and don’t peter out until the 1970s. The women wear high heels, wedges or no shoes at all (though mostly high heels). They wear dresses, bathing suits, lingerie or nothing at all (but mostly dresses). They are all white, blemishless and busty. They all, almost without exception, look like they are having a lot of fun.
Born out of the widespread sexual repression of the early 1900s, and with a little help from pulp magazines and detective dime novels, pin-up art gained popularity that boomed when World War II sent millions of soldiers overseas with only a few photographs and their imaginations to keep them company on the front lines. After the war, pin-ups were common subject matter for calendars, magazine ads and movie posters—and, as one might guess, the pictures ended up pinned above men’s workbenches, in locker doors and in garages across the country.
Stella Pearl was certainly right when she told the workshop about the magic and illusion of the pin-up. Many of the women in the book are wearing impossibly structured high heels, which Stella had explained were often added on by painters after the shoot. Many are also wearing outfits that defy gravity or sense: bras that just barely cover breasts (but somehow support them magnificently) or sheer robes that don’t have seams or weight, as if they were made of spider web. The art creates a strange yet undeniably pleasing effect: very real women in slightly unreal surroundings and situations.
The book’s pages make a strong argument for the resurgence in pin-up’s popularity today: Who wouldn’t want to look like that? But the same pictures also depict some troubling aspects of a bygone era. It’s hard to miss that many of the women are baking pies, applying makeup, vacuuming or engaging in any number of other traditional 1950s female activities. Not to mention the blatant objectification of women. While some of the pictures are inspiring or even funny, others reveal a world that many women are glad is in the past.
In one picture by Art Frahm, for example, a woman is carrying a bag of groceries with one arm, her purse and a hatbox in the other. She seems surprised when her yellow dress becomes stuck in a telephone booth, and her lacy pink panties accidentally slip to her ankles. From the left of the picture, a man looks at the scene, unhelpful and leering.
While the book answers a lot of questions about the current popularity of pin-up, it also raises a new one: Why are people like Stella Pearl idealizing a time when a woman’s place was in the home, and the only woman you’d see at a garage would be hanging on the wall?
Meg Hansen answers her front door wearing a vintage printed cotton housedress. Her red hair is now pulled back in a simple curled ponytail, her bangs curled under themselves and bobby pinned. As she sits down at her kitchen table, the sun catches a sheen of silk stockings and a flash of white slip.
She isn’t on her way to teach another pin-up workshop, or to a costume party, or to a pageant. And today she isn’t calling herself Stella Pearl, her pin-up persona and stage name. In fact, she’s just returned home from the mall, where she’d picked up a few extra shifts at her job at LensCrafters (she also works at Swoon Beauty Boutique).
While she doesn’t dress in full pin-up gear every day, due to issues of practicality and Montana weather, she always tries to display a vintage style—a coat of bright red lipstick, a cardigan, a pair of high-waisted jeans. The only other thing that stands in the way of a complete pin-up lifestyle? She doesn’t always appreciate the attention. Walking through the mall on her lunch break means stopping multiple times to talk to someone who wants to know about her hair or stockings, or a senior citizen who wants to reminisce about bygone days.
“This goes beyond a hobby. It’s a lifestyle,” she says, sitting at her modern dining room table in her 1940s bungalow. “Something about it feels more natural to me. Although I have appreciation for modern fashion, it has never felt right or natural on me. When I put a vintage dress on, something about it on my body feels right.”
Hansen’s love affair with the 1950s and ’60s started as she was growing up, watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” on Nick@Nite and going to classic car and motorcycle shows with her father and brothers. Later, when she attended beauty school, she learned all the basics of vintage hairstyling, from victory rolls to finger waves. Her interest in tattoos (not to mention romantic interest in tattoo artists) and rockabilly culture (not to mention romantic interest in rockabilly artists) further influenced her lifestyle as a modern pin-up. But while she can point to these important events as stops along her road to creating her current lifestyle, she admits she simply loves most everything about the time period.
“It isn’t just the clothes and hair,” she says. “People had better manners. It is everything. The penmanship from that era, the décor. The cars were so sleek and beautiful.”
As for the issue of idealizing an imperfect past—like the confining gender roles of the 1950s—Hansen returns to the idea of her persona, Stella.
“Stella is from a wealthy family and has a ditzy personality. It’s fun to have that character, to be able to exaggerate, to have that release,” she says. “When I’m Stella, I like to play up the idea of those old stereotypes. Stella thinks chivalry is dead, that we don’t have values anymore. I enjoy poking fun at those ideas.”
Alysson King (pin-up name: Legs á la Mode) has similar thoughts on the juxtaposition between traditional and modern pin-up. Sitting at her Formica and chrome 1950s dining room table, she explains that what could seem like idealization is really innovation.
“This is the 1950s reinvented,” she says. “I feel like the modern pin-up girl is strong. She has tattoos. She can fend for herself. But remember that even back then, a lot of pin-up wasn’t mainstream. There was Bettie Page. There were whips and chains. It’s rebellious now, and it was also rebellious back then.”
King also lives the pin-up lifestyle, to the extent she can, though she seems to have a few more modern and rockabilly influences than Hansen. While her hair is curled and pinned, her platinum blonde hair has a bright blue streak. And while she sports red lips and cat eyes, she’s also wearing a comparably modern blouse and jeans. Parked on the street outside her apartment window is a classic custom 1949 Ford, sporting the vanity license plate PINND UP. Her boyfriend, who also loves all things vintage, restores classic cars and builds hot rods.
“When I think of a pin-up girl, I think of the utmost example of what a girl should be: hair done up, too much makeup, form-flattering clothing, heels,” King says. “It’s a classic art, with a super modern edge. Our grandmothers used to get their hair done once a week, with rollers, and sleep on a satin pillow. They used to sew their own dresses. The art is dying, and I’d like to see it go on.”
King, like Hansen, has a history that includes beauty school, tattoo parlors and car shows. She now works as a stylist and makeup artist during the day while spending free time on her pin-up passions. Unlike Hansen, she has sewed since high school and has made outfits from both modern and vintage patterns. Her spare room is completely devoted to pin-up, from her antique waterfall vanity to her sewing table, to her closet, which spills out into the main space in a jumble of shoes, purses and fabrics.
She pulls one stunning dress from her closet—wine-red velvet—that is in almost perfect condition. As she smooths down the fabric, she explains that it belonged to her friend’s mother, who sewed it herself from a Vogue pattern and wore it to a New Year’s Eve party in the early 1960s.
“So many of these pieces have history behind them,” she says, showing off the stitching along the seams. “And it is so cool to own something that is one-off. Everything back then was made this way. The cars were made of steel. I think it is so special to preserve it.”
Meg Hansen is going through her underwear drawer. Lingerie is piling up on her bed as she digs deeper, making the tiniest puffs of sound when pieces land on top of one another. She pulls out a few bullet bras, plus an amazing example of vintage shapeware: white high-waisted underwear with a corset tie in the front. They don’t conceal quite as well as modern-day Spanx, she explains, but that’s not really the point. She digs deeper.
“And these are just so comfortable. They just feel so good,” she says, holding a handful of delicate slips like a bouquet. “I know they don’t serve much of a function, but I would wear a slip under my jeans if I could.”
Going through her lingerie, it becomes clear what’s at the center of the allure of modern pin-up, at least for Hansen. For her, it’s more than a yearning for a different time, or an attempt to stand out and be different, or a hipster trend. It’s not about vanity or even about beauty. It’s about personality and identity. Hansen doesn’t like the slip just because it is pretty, or just because it is vintage. She doesn’t like it because her friends like it. She likes the way it feels on her legs.
King expresses the same love for the style and time while talking about her sometimes extensive hair and makeup routine. She also addresses the potential perception that being into modern pin-up and self-photography means being vain.
“This is the way I like to present myself. It’s not a waste of my time because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good and that’s all that matters,” she says. “The pictures are for me. There’s nothing better than getting all dolled up, getting your picture taken and thinking, I look good. I do it for me.”
Or as Hansen says, “Women back then didn’t have less on their plates, but their plates were very different looking. Doing your hair and makeup wasn’t considered extra, it was standard hygiene. I think that’s how a women’s world was designed. The modern idea of beauty is so narrow. [Modern pin-up] is all-inclusive—we get that comment a lot. It is never a matter of, Am I beautiful enough? It’s about hard work to create and market my product. The product is yourself: classic vintage, rockabilly, suicide girl, fetish. It’s getting to create what makes you feel happy and beautiful.”
But perhaps Stella Pearl put it best during the pin-up girl workshop: “Traditional pin-up art used to be for the men. Modern pin-up is for women.”
Traditional pin-up was for men, modern pin-up is for women. This is the key to understanding what pin-up means to the new generation of enthusiasts. To see what Hansen really means by this is as easy as surfing the Internet or flipping through one of the many modern pin-up magazines. These are the places where women who work hard to create pin-up photos of themselves submit their art and also where they go for inspiration.
At first glance, many of the photos look similar to the originals of the ’40s and ’50s: the makeup is the same, the facial expressions are the same, their beveled legs are angled just so. But differences appear in quick succession. Many of the models are tattooed and many have brightly dyed hair. Although the photo themes and sets are similar, modern pin-ups are, much like Stella Pearl suggested, knowingly playing off the old, traditional and sometimes even offensive ideas of the past.
In one picture, a woman in an apron, holding an iron, poses on the set of a hilariously filthy kitchen. Another website displays a collection of Art Frahm pictures, including the one featuring grocery bags and ankle panties, but each image is recreated with goth- and fetish-inspired models sporting combat boots, mohawks and face piercings.
The biggest difference, though, may be that while the most iconic pin-ups of the past were painted—and mostly painted by men—the new pin-ups showcase real people with real bodies and faces, even if they are still trying to create magic and illusion. Today’s pin-up comes in all shapes and sizes, not to mention races. They are well aware of the art they are creating, and in fact many have designed their own hair, makeup, wardrobe, set and concept. And they don’t expect to be pinned above an oily tool bench in a dusty garage. They don’t even expect a paycheck. They take the photos for themselves and each other. They are all, without exception, having fun.
How to put a little pin-up in your life
Ready to make your pin-up debut (or just celebrate the pin-up resurgence)? Cigarette Girls Burlesque hosts a pin-up pageant emceed by Stella Pearl and Legs á la Mode Sunday, June 15, at 5 p.m. at Rock Creek Lodge. Entry fee is $15. Visit the Cigarette Girls Burlesque on Facebook for more information. Also, Stella Pearl runs her next pin-up workshop July 12, from 2-4 p.m. $30. Visit Stella Pearl’s Facebook page for more information.
Get some red lipstick. Stella Pearl recommends heading to Smooch Cosmetics (125 E. Main St.) and asking for a blue-red shade. Be precise and patient when applying it; you can’t smear it on like a lip gloss.
Add a piece of nostalgia to your wardrobe. Stella says even adding a few vintage (or vintage-inspired) pieces to your wardrobe can help you give a nod to pin-up in your everyday dress. Head to Carlo’s One-Night Stand (109 S. Third St. W) to dig for treasures. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask to look in the basement.
Paint on some cat eyes. All you need is some black liquid eyeliner and access to YouTube—the best place to find vintage hair and makeup how-to videos.
Tell a fella that you’re busy doing your hair. These days, when women turn down a date because they’re washing their hair, it’s an accepted lie. But in the 1950s, women did have to spend about one night a week with curlers, bobby pins and round brushes. Take a night off to dedicate to self-care or attempt a new style (or just tell someone you did.)