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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?