pinups, prohibition, and the greatest discovery of the 1920s

Dita Von Teese

the scandalous Dita Von Teese
from pinups

pinup girls on Pinterest

let’s get low-brow

I actually have a very well-curated Pinterest board devoted to pinup girls. Not surprisingly, the title of the board is pinups. I know, it’s not very creative. But it’s all lowercase so that makes it cool. Currently the board has 331 pins, and I’ve #hashtagged most of them with the artist’s name; sometimes the title and year, as well.

Since my pins come through on the facebook news feed, I occasionally get “likes” or comments about a pin that catches someone’s eye. A couple of folks expressed some surprise at the scandalous pin of Dita Von Teese (at right). I believe the exact words used were something to the effect of “I didn’t see THAT coming.” A sentiment promptly seconded by another friend.

I’ll admit: the photo of Dita with riding crop is a bit risque. In the larger context of my pinups board, however, I think it’s not too far off the beaten path.

Dita Von Teese

classic pinup Dita Von Teese
from pinups

The lovely Dita Von Teese is well-represented on my pinups board. She’s an absolutely gorgeous, real-life pinup girl. I’ve included one of my favorite pictures of Dita (at right), although looking at it now I realize it might raise as many eyebrows as the picture above. Perhaps, more specifically, it might raise the same eyebrows. I urge those folks to lower their brows, so to speak, and meander with me through a bit of history.

the roaring 20s

age of exploration—and discovery

Pinup art grew out of the turn-of-the-century burlesque scene. Photography and printing technology had evolved to the point that actresses and dancers could use postcards and posters to promote themselves and cultivate a kind of “public image.” I’m no expert in the history of advertising, but I have to think this movement played a significant role in the development of the field. It certainly had an impact on societal notions of female sexuality.

I know there are probably a lot of feminists who would have a lot of thoughts on the matter—and I’m DEFINITELY not picking a fight with any of y’all. I’m reminded, however, of my favorite quote from the Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition,” which [re]aired on PBS last fall. I did find it interesting to learn the origin of the term “teetotaler:” groups that advocated capital T “Total” prohibition. “Capital T,” of course, “rhymes with ‘P’ which stands for ‘Pool!'” But that’s In River City Iowa in 1912, some 8 years before Prohibition went into effect. Interesting, though, that the notion of a word beginning with “capital T” would colloquially indicate a degree of extremity in that same general time period. The lyrics to “Ya Got Trouble” weren’t penned until the 1940s, but the whole “capital T” thing suggests that Meredith Wilson was downright idiomatic in his word choice for a musical set in 1912. Huh. Interesting. Hadn’t considered that until I went all stream-of-consciousness on this digression. Which, aside from connecting Ken Burns with “The Music Man,” is completely worthless. Not sure how much that connection is worth, either.

Anyway, back to my favorite line from Ken Burns’s “Prohibition.” I had to look up the guy’s name, but I remember the quote itself quite well:

The FDR historian William Leuchtenburg proposes that “what happened in the 1920s is that men discovered the clitoris.” |from “Prohibition” review on

Nice. The quote was included as part of a discussion of the “flapper” culture of the 1920s, wherein women would drink, elbow-to-elbow with men at the bar in some speak-easy. The sexual revolution of the 1920s fostered a new kind of equality between the common drinking man the the rebellious flapper woman. Thus women formed a significant part of the subversive resistance movement during Prohibition years.

An interesting historical theory. Bravo, Ken Burns. And thanks for including such a marvelous quote in the middle of a really long documentary (five-and-a-half hours…).

To what degree did the turn-of-the-century burlesque postcards influence the sexual revolution of the 1920s? I have absolutely no idea. This is another stream-of-consciousness idea that I hadn’t really thought of before typing it out just now. I’ll have to research it and get back to you. Look for a post with a provocative title like “how men found the clitoris.”

OK, back to what this is suppost to be about: pinups.

[nearly] naked women

a time-honored tradition

The photograph postcards and posters from the burlesque scene developed into the mediums of drawing and painting. My guess: some artistic guys liked drawing beautiful women, and the burlesque photos had already forged a market niche, of sorts. The phenomenon is nothing new. Artistic guys have always loved drawing beautiful women. And painting them. And sculpting them. And most of those women are completely nude. So drawing a scantily-clad pinup girl is perhaps more modest than the “fine art” of the revered artists of yesteryear.

Delacroix Liberty Leading the People

Liberty Leading the People
painting: Eugene Delacroix (1830)

One of my favorite works of art is Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” Painted in 1830, she has inspired many over the years. Most-famously, she is the inspiration for that great symbol of the United States: The Statue of Liberty. Least-famously, she is the inspiration for a lot of fantasticdrivel. She is my unofficial mascot, and looks pretty damn good on my banner art (above), if I do say so myself. Or to myself. Because I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who reads this blog. At least I find myself entertaining.

You know what: I’m going to pin “Liberty Leading the People” to my pinups board, after I’m finished with this post. Because Lady Liberty would make a pretty awesome pinup.

Technically, of course, she isn’t a pinup girl. Although Delacroix’s painting was famous and influential, they didn’t have the technology to mass produce affordable postcards and posters (or calendars or magazines) that Joe Schmoe could take home and pin up on his wall. Yeah, that’s where “pinup” comes from. I’m not sure how socially acceptable that would have been in 1830, anyway.

Amish Babes centerfold

“Amish Babes” centerfold bares her ankle.
from the “Amish Paradise” video, by “Weird Al” Yankovic.

A hundred years later, however, burleque advertisements and the discovery of the clitoris made the pinup girl an acceptable presence on the walls of single guys everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere. Probably didn’t go over too well in Amish communities, for example. But most places. And technology made it possible to print and distribute these pictures.

Although some artists did work in the 1920s and ’30s (Enoch Bolles and Alberto Vargas are examples), pinup art exploded in popularity in the WWII era. Lonely and homesick soldiers overseas created a huge demand for pinups.

“Because the New Woman was symbolic of her new ideas about her sex, it was inevitable that she would also come to symbolize new ideas about sexuality” [writes historian Maria Elena Buszek]. Unlike the photographed actresses and dancers generations earlier, fantasy gave artists the freedom to draw women in many different ways. The 1932 Esquire “men’s” magazine featured many drawings and “girlie” cartoons but was most famous for its Varga girls. Prior to WWII they were praised for their beauty and less focus was on their sexuality. However, during the war the drawings transformed into women playing dress-up in military drag and drawn in seductive manners, like that of a child playing with a doll. The Varga girls became so popular that from 1942-1946, due to a high volume of military demand, “9 million copies of the magazine-without adverts and free of charge was sent to American troops stationed overseas and in domestic bases.” The Varga Girls were adapted as nose art of the WWII bombers; seen not as prostitutes but as patriots for good luck. |from Wikipedia

I suppose, in a sense, these pinups were a kind of propaganda. I’m sure someone has written about that. Something else to research for a future post.

Wow. All this was just a response to some raised eyebrows over a Dita Von Teese pin. Let this be a lesson to you: raise an eyebrow at the Michael Hanna, and you’re likely to get a response much longer than you’d like to read. Lol. At least it’s educational. I hope. If nothing else, it has provided me with some new ideas to reasearch.

back to Pinterest


OK, a quick explanation of the “pinups” board and I’m done. That’s how all this started, when I began a facebook comment about four hours ago. Once I decided it would make a better blog post than facebook comment…that’s when things started to get out of hand.

Anyway, my pinterest board includes work from a number of different artists:

Gil Elvgren (probably 75% of the board is Gil Elvgren stuff), Alberto Vargas, Enoch Bolles, Edward Runci, George Petty, Olivia DeBerardinis (who did a lot of Bettie Page), Peter Driben, Edward D’Ancona, Billy DeVorss, Zoe Mozert, Art Frahm, Pearl Frush, Bill Medcalf, Charles Showalter, Arnold Armitage, Timba Smits, Greg Hildebrandt, Paul Rader, Jessica Dougherty, Michael Malak.

I believe the last five artists are still living. Most of the rest of them did the majority of their work in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

In addition to the drawings and paintings of all those guys (and gals: props to Olivia DeBerardinis, Zoe Mozert, and Pearl Frush, to name a few of the FEMALE pinup artists!), I have pinned some photos, as well. Some of the beautiful women in those photographs:

Dita Von Teese (lots of Dita), Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Sabina Kelley, Scarlett Johansson (and I think Katy Perry shows up once or twice…). Oh, and Kat Von D is on there a couple of times.

Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable are no longer with us, but the others are still living.

I also have some sundry “rockabilly” pins. Regrettably, most of them are uncredited, as they tend not to be tagged by other pinners, and I’m not really familiar with any models in that genre

knowledge is sexy

or: how I like my vices

Macanudo Vintage Maduro

Macanudo Vintage Maduro

At the end of the day, I guess it’s not that different from the way I approach my other “vices.” I love smoking cigars, and I can tell you all about the history of cigars (including the profound impact Castro’s nationalization of Cuba’s plantations and the interminable United States embargo of all things Cuban), the different kinds of tobacco used (including how sun affects the “strength” of the leaf, how different parts of the leaf and plant have different flavors and uses, how they are smoked-cured, aged, and combined into the three component parts of a cigar: filler, binder, and wrapper), and how to properly smoke a cigar (choosing a good cigar and the right shape is important, but using the right technique is ESSENTIAL).

I could also teach you a lot about pipe-smoking (I like cigars better, but pipe tobacco is MUCH more affordable; and I have no money; so I smoke my pipes a lot).

I don’t really drink anymore (I think I had four alcoholic beverages in 2012; maybe five), but I love single-malt scotch. I could tell you a fair bit about that, too.

When it comes to pictures of scantily-clad women, I approach it in a similar fashion. Yes, I like looking at them. But I also learn about the history and heritage of the art form. For me, anyway, that knowledge and background context only heightens my enjoyment and appreciation of any “vice.”


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