What the World Doesn't Know About Pin-Up Girls
What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls

Shannon Quinn - March 5, 2019

When most of us think about Pin-up Girls, your mind most likely goes to vintage vixens from World War II, and the famous women who made the genre popular. But the tradition actually started as far back as the 1800’s, and it was growing its roots in American and French advertising long before artists decided to cross the line and publish illustrations of scantily clad girls on a regular basis.

Even though many modern-day onlookers might consider these drawings to be objectifying women’s bodies, historians actually consider pin-up art to be an extremely important tool for feminism. These drawings and photographs were powerful forms of propaganda for good. They helped make it normal for men to see women wearing pants, going out in public without a male escort, and even joining the workforce. Today, the suggestive poses are actually very tame compared to much of what we see in the media in modern times, as well. Let’s go through this long and fascinating history of the pin-up girl.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Women riding their bicylces in bloomers was considered to be very scandalous in the 1800’s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

18. Oddly Enough, Bicycle Ads Started a Sexy Craze

In the late 1800’s, women began to ride around on bicycles. This was actually a big deal, because it meant that ladies finally had the ability to go around town without walking on foot, and without being in the company of a man. Women started calling bicycles “freedom machines”, because they liberated ladies and completely changed their lives. Bicycle advertisements began to illustrate women on bikes.

Men felt threatened by this idea, and doctors began to speak out against bicycles, saying that the seat would damage their lady-parts and made them too “excited”. Women also started to go around town wearing their bloomers, because pants didn’t exist for women back then, and it was a lot easier to ride a bike without a long skirt getting caught up in the mechanism of the bike. Of course, this caused an outcry among those who believed this was indecent exposure. Looking back, these ladies were still very covered up, but it was still a small step forward.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Even though they seem very tame today, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters were considered to be very sexy back in 1891. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

17. Toulouse-Lautrec and the Dancers of the Moulin Rouge

The quote “Paint me like one of your French girls” from the movie Titanic is so well known, it should be no surprise to anyone that many artists were painting and sketching nude models in Paris. One of the most famous artists who became known for drawing gorgeous girls was Toulouse-Lautrec. He frequented a nightclub called The Moulin Rouge, where he sketched can-can dancers. After making his initial sketch, Toulouse-Lautrec would go home and create a lithograph stencil that would later be pressed onto a poster. His bold color block designs became an overnight success, and his advertisements for the Moulin Rogue really captured the atmosphere of the night club.

Even though the women in Toulouse-Lautrec’s art are always fully covered, there is still a sense of sensuality. You see these pictures, and you want to know more about the people and the story behind the art. The careers of the women who appeared in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work skyrocketed, and they would eagerly request to become the next subject of his art. Sadly, he died at the very young age of 35, so his career and fame was short-lived. His work would serve as an inspiration for future artists who were trying to master the art of pin-up: Make it innocent and yet sensual at the same time.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Poster for a popular burlesque performance in the 1800’s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

16. Burlesque Performers Used Photos to Advertise

From the 1860’s to the 1940’s, Burlesque performances became popular in the United States. They were a sort of variety show where women perform on stage by singing, dancing, or acting as she slowly begins a strip tease. Women began to take photographs of themselves naked or nearly-naked as their resume in getting the job as a Burlesque performer. In some of these photos, they use the same method that you see in the artwork, where they are partially covered up and leave something to mystery.

Even though this is still technically stripping, burlesque performers are usually partially clothed, even at the end of their tease. It is still considered to go hand-in-hand with pin-up, and it is considered to be more tame and far more difficult and entertaining than other forms of stripping that you usually see in a seedy bar. It has remained popular to this day in Las Vegas and a few other major cities.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Even though they were fully clothed, there is just something special about these Gibson Girls. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

15. “The Gibson Girl” Showed the Ideal Woman

An artist named Charles Dana Gibson created illustrations for Life Magazine, and he was remembered for the iconic women he always drew. These ladies had their hair piled on top of their head, and they were often wearing sleeveless, form-fitting dresses. They had perfect hourglass figures and flawless faces. They were often elegant, beautiful, fragile, and voluptuous. They were basically the perfect woman that a man would imagine marrying some day. They became known as “The Gibson Girls”.

It was so successful, many other artists actually tried to copy the Gibson Girl style in attempts to sell their products, too. One of the key features of a Gibson Girl was that she was attractive without being vulgar. Even fully clothed, they was just something about these women that were very alluring to the eyes, and future artists tried to recreate that in their own work when they began to draw pin-up girls.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Dolores Morens was a Hollywood actress from the 1930’s-40’s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

14. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Hollywood Starlets Copied the Pin Up Style

Instead of wearing modest gowns in every movie, Hollywood Starlets of the 30’s and 40’s began to wear bright red lipstick and form-fitting outfits that showed off their curves. They often had curly bleach-blond hair and smiled constantly. Just like the women in the photos, if they did something cute or flirty, it was never on purpose to seduce a man. They were supposed to be innocent of their own allure, which made them all the more attractive.

Today, when watching these movies, these women still do seem to be far more classy than what we witness in modern times. However, at the time, there were plenty of people who thought they were still too vulgar.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Margaret Gorman, the first winner of Miss America. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

13. Miss America Introduced the Idealized Woman to the Masses

The Miss American Pageant began in the 1920’s, and it started out as a popularity contest for young women on the east coast of the United States. It was originally only advertised in the newspapers and on the radio in order to attract more people to Atlantic City at the end of summer vacation, but soon enough, the crowds kept growing and growing, and the expectations of what it takes to be Miss America became more difficult.

In the 1950’s, young girls were watching Miss America on TV for the first time and became influenced by the idea of the perfect woman. They started to add rules that disqualified many normal-looking women. Even though they originally had a rule banning professional models, it eventually became an event where every single girl on stage looked gorgeous enough to be a pro.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Actress Jane Russell was one of the most popular pin-up models during World War II. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

12. In WWII, Soldiers Received Pin Ups Free of Charge

During World War II, soldiers were drafted, and many of them were forced to fight overseas. The U.S. government decided that pin-up would help soldiers’ morale, because they could focus on fighting to protect what was back at home (namely, women, and the promise of having a family) instead of the brutality of battle. Men would hang these photos and illustrations in their bunks alongside images of their wives and girlfriends. When they returned home, they were very ready to start a family, and it turned into an era we all know as “The Baby Boom”.

Aside from these freebies that the soldiers were getting in their bunks, there were also posters hung all over cities and in camps of beautiful pin-up ladies. One of the main propaganda techniques during World War II was to make men believe that if they went to war, women would love them and fall all over them. For some, this actually did happen, since there were so many war brides at the time.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
B-24 Liberator “Net Results” is a perfect example of the “oops” Pin-up style. Credit: AirplaneNoseArt.com

11. Artists Painted Pin-Up Girls On the Noses of Bombers

It might sound strange to think that men wanted pin-up girls painted on their planes that were dropping bombs to kill people, but that’s exactly what happened during World War II. Even though it sounds like a strange paradox, it apparently got men’s blood pumping, and it helped them to get excited about going into battle. Many of them wanted to stay alive long enough to go home and be with a woman again some day.

One “nose artist” named Don Allen told the BBC that many of the soldiers requested paintings of women who were totally nude, but he refused to do so, because it was personally against his morals. But that doesn’t mean other artists were unwilling. Plenty of bombers had women who were completely nude. Others were in the pin-up style where the women were scantily clad, their private parts were always covered up. Later critics would say that many of these artists were not exactly classically trained, to the proportions of the women were not realistic to real life.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Pepsi Cola ad from the 1950’s. Credit: Business Insider

10. In the 1950’s, Advertisers Realized That Scantily Clad Women Would Make Millions

In 1953, The first issue of Playboy premiered, and it flew off the shelves. Simply by word of mouth, the magazine grew and grew until it was selling over a million copies a month. No matter what a company’s personal moral compass may have been, they could not deny that these ideas would sell, and they needed to get one the pin-up girl bandwagon if they wanted to keep up with the competition.

For years, the genre had been considered disgraceful, but it became more and more acceptable to include suggestive pictures of women, or hire beautiful girls to attract customers to a brand. For example, in the later 50’s and early 60’s, it became mandatory for young flight attendants to be attractive, fit, and well-dressed. Looking back at the photographs, you can almost have side-by-side comparisons of pin-up art of the fantasy stewardess and they look identical to what they actually ended up looking like in reality.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
The original Barbie doll only came with a bathing suit, and clothes were sold seperately. Credit: Twitter

9. In 1959, Barbie Dolls Brought Pinup Style To Little Girls

In the 1920’s, form-fitting bathing suits were considered to be indecent, and even illegal to wear on the beach. Just a few short decades later, Barbie dolls wearing a revealing one-piece bathing suit were being sold to little girls. It’s obvious that the public’s opinion of women’s clothing had changed very quickly in a short amount of time, and it’s mostly thanks to the prevalence of pin-up. But Barbie’s clothes aren’t the only thing that appear to be modeled after this art form. The hairstyle, makeup, and hourglass shape of the original doll all echo pin-up models.

Barbie dolls and illustrations of these pin-up girls are notorious for having unrealistic body proportions, and they sometimes posed in ways that would be physically impossible in reality. Another similarity between pin-up girls and Barbie dolls are the fact that women were depicted in all kinds of careers. They were no longer just a housewife, and the were out in the world dressing up in all kinds of outfits. While it started out as a fantasy, it slowly helped to change public perception that girls can do anything they set their mind to.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
One of Marilyn Monroe’s modeling photos before she became a superstar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

8. Marilyn Monroe Becomes an International Icon

Before she became a legendary Hollywood super star, Marilyn Monroe was trying to find work as a model. She was paid to pose nude for pin-up photographs at a calendar company. Some people knew that they existed, but they could not prove it, or find the original photographs. When she went on to a more serious movie career, she left nude modeling behind and tried to play more glamorous characters. However, her costumes were still very tight and showed off her curves, and she was obviously known for being an international sex icon.

Marilyn Monroe’s most famous scene was from The Seven Year Itch where the wind blows up from the New York subway to her her skirt is a perfect example of what pin-up was supposed to be. It captures an “oops” moment when a modest women just so happens to accidentally get in a situation where someone else gets to see something they normally never get to peek at, while still never revealing too much. The vast majority of Monroe’s roles continued on with this same sort of style- classy and yet sexy at the same time. Even though she tried to keep up this reputation for herself, Hugh Hefner got ahold of her nudes, and published them in the first issue of Playboy.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Josephine Baker was an international burlesque star. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

7. Women of Color In The Pin-up Limelight

Even though a lot of the photos of pin-up girls are white, that doesn’t mean that women of color were not getting in on the action, as well. In the 1920’s, some of the most famous African American pin-up models were also burlesque performers, like Josephine Baker and Lottie Graves. These women became symbols of the jazz age in both France and The United States, and they are still idolized for their beauty and grace to this day.

In 1951, the African American magazine Jet began to print photos of women posing in bathing suits as their “Beauty of the Week”. They were not afraid to public articles discussing how difficult it was for women of color to make it in Hollywood. One performer named Sahji Jackson danced in a movie called Jivin’ in Bebop in 1947, but she could not expand her career beyond that, so she moved to South America and had an explosively popular music career. In 1965, Jennifer Jackson became the first black woman to win Miss America, and she also had a music career, but even then, these examples were few and far between.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Young Eartha Kitt. Credit: Pinterest

6. Eartha Kitt Used Pin-Up To Launch Her Career

Eartha Kitt is remembered for her tremendously successful singing and acting career. She acted in several broadway musicals, put out her own albums, and acted in several movies. Even Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman alive.” Her song “Santa Baby” is still played on the radio to this day, and her iconic gravely voice can be heard as a villain named Yzma in the Disney movie Emperor’s New Groove.

When she was young, Eartha Kitt she got her start pin-up modeling, but she never got into some of the more risque areas of the genre. But even as she got older, she was not afraid to pose in front of the camera. She was not alone. Many famous actresses started out getting pictures taken in the pin-up style to show off their body without revealing too much. She went down in history as being one of the most successful African American actresses of all time.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Marilyn Monroe was on the first cover of Playboy Magazine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

5. Playboy Magazine Premieres in 1953

In 1953, Hugh Hefner founded Playboy Magazine. He had served in World War II, and he knew how much men loved pinup model photos. When they returned home from the war, it was very difficult for men to buy that kind of material, and it was illegal to send through the mail. All magazines geared towards men were about hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. Publishing such a racy magazine was risky, but Hefner knew it would be a success, because there was a huge demand for it.

In the very first issue of Playboy Magazine, Hefner purchased the photo of Marilyn Monroe’s nude pin-up from a calendar company. This was a legendary picture that nearly every man had heard of, but very few had actually seen, so they were dying to get their hands on it. Not surprisingly, the magazine sold like hot cakes, and it has been a huge success ever since. Eventually, many models would consider Playboy to be the highlight of their careers.

4. Bettie Page Was the “Queen of Pin-ups”.

Bettie Page was the most photographed model of the 20th Century. She actually didn’t start modeling until she was 27 years old, but people thought she was much younger, and she became “Miss January 1955” in Playboy Magazine. Hugh Hefner said that Bettie Page “…was a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society,”

When she passed away, her grave even said “Queen of Pin-ups” on her tombstone. Betty Page’s look became iconic, because of her black hair with bangs and bright blue eyes. She inspired several characters throughout pop culture, including Jenny Blake from The Rocketeer. From then on, women in comic books were always drawn in a pin-up style, and even popular female brunette characters who existed before her peak of popularity, like Wonder Woman and Veronica from the Archie Comics may have been influenced by Bettie Page when artists designed future incarnations of their characters, because she redefined beauty in American culture.

3. In The 1960’s and 70’s, Innocent Pin-Ups Were No Longer Popular

By the 1960’s, the United States went through the free love movement, and pin-ups were no longer popular. In pin-up artwork, women were never revealing their undergarments on purpose. It was more about the idea of catching a woman in a private moment that you’re not supposed to see. It was all about teasing or leaving a lot to be a mystery. Magazines like Hustler showed more than Playboy, and pornography became more common, and women looked straight into the camera with bedroom eyes.

The public opinion of sexy photos has changed, too. Now, almost every girl has a selfie where she poses in a sexual way. But back in the 30’s, being a pin-up model was considered to be a shameful thing to do. Now, it is something that is completely expected by famous actresses. Today, it is difficult to find an actress who doesn’t have a sexy photograph. By comparison, the vintage version of pin-up is seen as being far more wholesome than what we see today, which is why a lot of women still enjoy modeling in the pin-up style.

2. Original Pin-up Art Now Sells For Six Figures

For years, pin-up art was seen as yesterday’s news. It became so tame, that people did not want to use it for pornography any longer, and yet it was too raunchy to be taken seriously as fine art. So it was stuck in a strange limbo where only dedicated fans and collectors were holding on to the original pieces that had been re-printed thousands of times in advertisements, magazines, and calendars.

Since the 2000’s, there has been a new interested in vintage pin-up, and collectors absolutely love to buy the original artwork when they can. On average, an original pin-up painting by a famous artist will go anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000. One piece called “Gay Nymph” by art artist named Gil Elvgren sold at auction for a whopping $286,000 in 2011. Back in the 1930’s, no one would have ever imagined that these borderline pornographic images of women would ever sell for just as much as fine art. Even after the economic recession of 2008, the price of pin-up artwork never dropped.

What the World Doesn’t Know About Pin-Up Girls
Dita Von Teese at the 2007 Cannes Festival. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. Nostalgia Is Bringing Pin-Up and Burlesque Back

In a world where entertainment is constantly trying to push the envelope of going one step further than the next guy, being edgy is often more profitable than playing it safe. However, it leads to a society where cringe is almost a genre of its own. In horror, we can barely watch what we see in the gruesome scenes. And in romance, now even S&M is acceptable to watch in the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey.

For a few decades, pin-up artwork was seen as being very dated, but by the 2000’s, people began to feel nostalgic for times when the definition of “sexy” was actually very innocent in comparison to what is expected in today’s world. For years, men were the #1 fans of pin-up, and now, women are embracing it more than ever. There are several clubs and organizations as well as conventions that celebrate women’s love of pin-up, and there are opportunities for women who want to model in the vintage style. Even today, women like Dita von Teese are becoming famous as a modern version of a burlesque model and performer.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. Maria Elena Buszek. Duke University Press. 2006.

50 Years of US Pinups. The Week. 2008.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s pin-ups: Original stars of the Moulin Rouge. BBC. 2018.

How nose art and pin-ups boosted WWII USAAF troops’ morale. Martin Barber. BBC. 2012.

Pin-up Girl History. Priscilla Frank. The Huffington Post. 2014.

The Lost Art of American Pin-Up. Jake Wallis Simons. CNN. 2014.

Our History. Barbie/Mattel.

Pin-Up Model. Wikipedia.

Marilyn Monroe. Wikipedia.