The era of the vintage pin up girls is generally accepted as starting from the late 1930s and lasting until the early 1960s. Representations of the female form have always been a popular form of art, from the day that prehistoric man first picked up a piece of charcoal and drew his mate on a cave wall, but it was to be many millions of years later before it became a form of commercial pop art.
It can reasonably be assumed that the popularity of the pinup girl as we know her grew in line with the development of the popular media, and the movies were likely the start of it all. The famous stars were often given nicknames, such as Clara Bow (the ‘It Girl’), the ‘Blonde Bombshell’, Jean Harlow and Lana Turner, known as ‘the Sweater Girl’. Their photographs were also much prized, because cameras were not the domain of the ordinary person in the earlier parts of the 20th century.
Had you lived during these early years in the development of cinematography and photography, the representations of your favorite stars would have been much sought after. You would have prized a photograph of your favorite movie star, although you would not have recognized it as being a ‘pin up’ because the term did not become part of the English language until 1941.
In fact, the era of the vintage pin up girls really kicked off with the Second World War in Europe in 1939 and Asia in 1941, when first the British and then the American forces pinned photographs of their favorite stars to their barrack walls, locker doors and even to the sides of their foxholes and trenches during battle.
The vintage pin up girls of that era included ‘The Profane Angel’ (Carole Lombard), the Girl with the Million Dollar Legs (Betty Grable) and all of the above mentioned stars. Singer Vera Lynn also figured prominently on British walls, but a major reason for their popularity was that they offered hope and a sense of glamour to men who might die shortly, and also a contact with home when they were thousands of miles away fighting a faceless enemy.
Many men also posted up pictures of their mom or girlfriend, but Betty, Gloria (Swanson) or Carole was also there, along with Vivien Leigh after the 1939 production of ‘Gone With the Wind’. In fact, the term ‘pin up girls’ is believed to have been first used in 1941 simply, because these actresses and singers were pinned up on their walls.
It was not the first time that movie stars were pinned up on men’s walls, but it was recognized as the vintage pin up girls era because of the sheer volume of pinups covering untold walls all over Europe and the Far East. Rather than drop off once hostilities had ceased it continued, although eventually in a different form, and is still alive to this day.
Habits die hard, and as stated above men didn’t stop collecting pinups just because the war had ended, only the 1950s saw the beginnings of the mass production of scantily dressed females intended only to titivate, where previously the initial veteran pin up girls had been no more than promotional takes, designed to sell movies. In using the word ‘initial’, there are no doubts that many of the later photographs circulated during the war years were taken specifically for the troops and intended to be ‘pinned up’!
The post-war years brought with them an upsurge in consumerism and advertising, and the pin up girls were detected as great advertising subjects. The artist Haddon Sunblom developed the idea of the scantily dressed ‘normal girl’ promoting products such as showers and underwear, which was a break with the previous tradition in that professional models were portrayed as ‘the girl next door’, rather than using well known celebrities (though the term ‘celeb’ was yet to be devised).
Playboy Magazine’s 1959 centerfold of Marilyn Monroe wearing nothing but Chanel No 5 was the beginning of the end of the vintage pin up girls, and the beginning of the professional pinups, or nude photographs aimed specifically at men, although it would be another 11 years before actual pubic hair was permitted to be legal displayed in publications on general sale. Previously, ‘certain parts’ had been covered by arms or carefully posed legs.
The years of the vintage pin up girls did not last long, because World War II was followed by a general sigh of relief and the beginnings of the permissive society where the ’slightly naughty’ became commonplace, and the era of the nude calendar was just around the corner. This brought an end to the innocence that could be excited by a flash of cleavage and, and also an end to vintage pin up girls and the beginning of the professional nude models.