From Bicycles to Lipstick: The Evolution of Pin Up Girls

Pinup girls have been used as a clever marketing technique for over a century, where pictures of beautiful, voluptuous women could be “pinned” up for viewing pleasures while also promoting a product. This trend can be traced back to the 1890s, but caught on in the United States about a decade later when Christian Dior started using pretty ladies in his ad campaigns. The pinups were meant to be all-American good girls up until WWII.

US army soldiers / Miss America contestants / Hugh Hefner and Cynthia Maddox / Pinup girls.

Source: Getty Images

Artist Alberto Vargas started painting modest yet sexy images of women for Esquire magazine in the 1930s. Soldiers kept the images as a token of good luck when they went to war. It was believed that soldiers would have better morale if they were motivated to fight for something, like the women back home. The pinup evolved from women in lingerie to sexy women wearing a soldier’s uniform.

Let’s face it, s*x sells. Here is the evolution of pinup girls.

The Evolution of the Pinup Girl

A popular inspiration for pinup model is the “Varga Girl.” However, the style has evolved quite a bit since the 1930s. The classic pinup imagine is a sexy woman with curled hair, red lips, not wearing much clothes, and posing seductively. Another version of the pinup has the same signature makeup and hairstyle, just wearing casual everyday clothes.

A portrait of actress Jane Fonda in a cheerleading-type outfit

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Add tattoos to this version, and you got a “rockabilly” pinup. These pictures are highly inspired by 1940s fashion and style, just with a modern twist. Pinups are still used in advertisements today. Any magazine you open up will include girls with the classic pinup look. As we mentioned, sex sells, so models and photographers use this style to promote themselves.

The Classic Pin-Up Girl

Pinup girls have been around in some shape or form for over a century. A pinup is exactly what it sounds like, a picture of a pretty lady that you pin to your wall. For obvious reasons, there is a lot of sex appeal surrounding pinups, but when the phenomenon first started, it wasn’t all about sex. In fact, it was about empowerment… but we’ll get into all that in a minute.

United States Marines on a landing barge share viewing a pinup girl as they approach the Japanese-held island of Tarawa.

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A classic pinup girl is an image of a sexy woman while typically still leaving something to the imagination. For many people, pinup girls are associated with World War II, but in reality, pinups were around before World War I. And strangely enough, it all started with a bicycle.

Early 1800s: Introducing the Bicycle

Women riding bicycles was way more than a means of travel; it introduced an era in which women didn’t need a man’s help to get from point A to point B. But there was a catch, of course: the bicycle industry didn’t make it easy for 19th-century women who typically wore floor-length skirts and dresses.

A lady is wearing a long skirt trying to get her leg over the saddle of her bicycle.

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In order to be more comfortable on a bike, ladies started wearing more comfortable and functional form-fitting pants, which naturally highlighted their body shapes that their dresses had once concealed. Ministers and doctors initially campaigned against women riding bicycles for “safety” reasons…

Women Wear the Pants

According to these “experts,” riding a bike could damage a woman’s internal structure. They were also worried about the possibility of seat friction causing arousal. However, the women’s suffrage movement took all the freedom and liberty that came with this new mode of transportation and embraced it whole-heartedly.

Two women enjoy a tandem bike ride down the beach with parasols in hand.

Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

Ditching the long skirts would be the artistic inspiration of the new female form. Ladies were now rocking pants which was a significant shift from their long layered skirts. Now, women’s legs and bodies were shown in mainstream culture like never before. Suddenly, women were both more masculine and more sexual at the same time.

Late 1800s: The Calendar Girl

The introduction of bikes made a significant impact, and that’s when things started getting interesting. By the late 1800s, the use of calendars extended into the world of advertising. Thomas Murphy and Edmond Osborne printed the first calendar with ads under the images. The calendars would guarantee a full year of ads, and they should have been a success.

Soldiers piled on top of one another, trying to catch a glimpse at the girls on the calendar.

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However, George Washington appeared on the first calendar, and as it turned out, his photo didn’t exactly bring consumers back for more. But the concept was still promising; in 1903, the release of the “calendar girl,” Cosette would prove it.

Late 1800s: Gibson Girls

Life Magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson forever changed the future of women’s fashion in 1895, with pictures of what he saw as the epitome of the ideal feminine beauty. The representation of affluent women with full lips and hourglass figures became known as the Gibson Girl, which Gibson considered to be a combination of “thousands of American Girls.”

Women Wearing Swimsuits Seated at the Beach.

Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

For the next 20 years, his pictures were published in Life Magazine and would inspire various imitators. As printing technology continued to advance, more and more magazines showcased this unattainable idealistic beauty.

1895-1932: The Gibson Copycats

For the first time in the United States, men had an attainable source of the feminine fantasy at the tip of their fingers. After the immense success of the Gibson Girl, other magazines tried to replicate Life Magazine’s idea.

A drawing of a ‘Christy Girl’ on the cover of the Sunday Magazine.

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In 1895, Howard Chandler Christy created the “Christy Girl” for The Century Magazine. Then, from 1912 to 1932, Harrison Fisher’s “Fisher Girl” was all over Puck Magazine and Cosmopolitan. All the women were beautiful and sexy, yet reserved. People just couldn’t get enough of the perfect woman. Men wanted to date her, and women wanted to be her.

1917: Wartime Propaganda

The classic pinup girl started to take shape in 1917. The idea was that you could “pinup” the magazine pages or business cards for everyone to enjoy. They were supposed to be an embodiment of all-American good girls, and that was the image that was being pushed in the early 19th Century.

A poster of a pinup girl encouraging men to join the US Navy.

Source: Pinterest

As the familiar pinup girl began to take shape, the Wilson administration formed the Division of Pictorial Publicity during World War I. The purpose of the division was to create propaganda, stir up patriotism and inspire new troops to fight. Pinup girls were now dressed in sexy military outfits, and the posters would say things like, “Gee, I wish I was a man. I’d join the Navy” and “Be a man and do it.” How subtle.

The 1920s: The Free-Spirited Image

With their husbands away at war, women in the 1920s were getting a taste of freedom and weren’t planning on giving it up. The Jazz Age came with shortened hems, spiked illegal alcohol, bobbed haircuts, and an enhanced sense of youthful rebellion.

A woman models a loose-fitting sleeveless dress and feather boa typical of the Flapper style of the 1920s.

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The free-spirited flapper generation was wild, and the ladies were excited to show some skin. The trend was spreading quickly, and artists like Rolf Armstrong jumped on the popularity by dressing his pinup girls in a little less clothing. This era revolutionized the ideal woman.

The 1920s: Flirtatious and Teasing

But when their husbands returned from the war, the women of the Roaring Twenties weren’t ready to give up the freedom they enjoyed while their men were away. Without their husbands’ full control, women finally felt like they could do (and wear) anything.

Actress Juliette in Flapper Style Dress

Photo by John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

If you combine this with the general atmosphere of rebellion, which marked the Prohibition period and the increasing trend of revealing clothing, it resulted in an ever-opening society. Calendar artists helped shape the changes in fashion and attitude. Eventually, a pinup girl became much more flirtatious and teasing.

The 1940s: Psychologically Perfected Propaganda

In the 1930s, a Peruvian artist named Alberto Vargas was painting and publishing modest and sexy images of women. But World War II certainly captured the pinnacle of pinup girls. These pinups were meticulously designed by the US government to boost morale by giving him the image of an all-American sweetheart waiting for him at home.

A photo of Rita Hayworth.

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Actresses Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable pushed forward this idea. They strongly believed that soldiers would have more motivation if they felt like they were fighting for something. Images of these girls were discovered inside barracks, submarines, and tucked into soldiers’ pockets.

The 1940s: Hollywood and WWII

The popularity of the art form was increasing and inevitably flooded into other mediums. Hollywood quickly jumped on the bandwagon as well. It didn’t take long for movie executives to start using sexually-charged imagery to promote their movies.

The poster for the film ‘His Girl Friday’ / The poster for the film ‘Two-Faced Woman’.

Source: Pinterest

After the overwhelming success of the Division of Pictorial Publicity, it didn’t come as a surprise when these propaganda efforts were used again. World War II certainly captured the pinnacle of pinup girls. These pinups were meticulously designed by the US government to boost morale by giving him the image of an all-American sweetheart waiting for him at home.

The Pin-Up “Golden Age”

This time around, pinups were used in recruitment materials, calendars, and posters advertising the purchase of war bonds. This was considered by many as the “Golden Age” of the pinup girl. Thousands of images were commissioned for soldiers fighting overseas.

Submariners, pictured reading the Daily Mirror's Good Morning Newspaper noticing the photo of the woman.

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Since it’s part of propaganda, it only makes sense that the pinups were covered in nationalistic symbols, but they also made normative claims of how the “ideal” woman acted: when they weren’t dressed in red, white, and blue, they were seen doing housekeeping tasks.

The 1950s: Bettie Page

Arguably the most famous pinup of all is Bettie Page. She is credited for helping the pinup’s successful transformation from illustration to photography. She started off working as a model for camera clubs, but her popularity quickly increased.

Pin-up model Bettie Page poses for a portrait.

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Bettie Page’s face (and body) was featured on numerous magazines and calendars. She definitely bumped up the sales as she brought these pinup girls to life. To this day, Page is considered to be the most photographed and collected woman in history. Well, that’s impressive.

1953: Playboy

Unsurprisingly, Playboy Magazine plays a significant role in the popularity of pinup girls. The magazine is entirely focused on the images of sexy women. I mean, the first Playboy cover girl was one of the most iconic pinup girls in history, Marilyn Monroe. The model and upcoming actress posed nude with a red velvet background and set the stage for the Playboy Empire that Hugh Hefner was able to create.

Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the first issue of Play-Boy magazine.

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After Monroe’s iconic cover and centerfold, many more high-profile celebrities joined the pinup world, including Bettie Page, Jayne Mansfield, and Rita Hayworth. Not all of them were successful in the pinup realm of modeling, but being a pinup became a desirable option for any woman in the 1950s.

The 1960s and ‘70s: Innocent Pin-Ups Weren’t Popular Anymore

When the 1960s rolled around, the free love movement was going on and innocent pinup girls were no longer popular. In pinup art, ladies never revealed their undergarments, and for good reason. It was more about the idea of catching a woman in a private moment that you aren’t necessarily supposed to see.

Rita Hayworth is posing for a photo in her bedroom while sitting on her bed.

Source: Reddit

It was mainly about teasing and leaving a lot for the imagination. But magazines like Hustler showed even more than Playboy, and actual pornography was becoming more common. At that point, there was not much left to the imagination, and the woman looked directly into the camera with those bedroom eyes.

Revolutionizing Pinups

At that point, the public opinion of sexy photos evolved. These days, almost every girl has a selfie where she poses in a seductive way. However, in the ‘30s, being a pinup model was considered shameful. Now, it’s something accepted, respected, and even expected by famous Hollywood darlings.

A model with her picture, painted for a Brown & Bigelow calendar by pinup artist Earl Moran

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We live in a different time, and it’s hard to find a celebrity without at least one sexy photograph. By comparison, the vintage pinup is far more innocent and wholesome than what we would see today, but some models prefer the classic pinup look.

The 1980s and ’90s: Coming Back

In the 1980s and 1990s, pinups emerged back into pop culture. They returned from their neglected state after an exhibition organized by Louis Meisel in 1982 and again in 1996, after the publication of “The Great American Pin-Up.”

Ann-Margret posing in hip-hugging pants.

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With TV, the internet, Tinder, and immediate access to your “ideal woman,” pinups may seem a little unnecessary these days. I mean, soldiers don’t need to take them to war, and beauty standards seem to have changed. However, the classic pinup image forever remains a nostalgic memory of the “ideal woman.”

Modern Day: Pin Up Tattoos

Pin-up tattoos seem to be trendy among both men and women. They represent female power and independence. Plenty of women will get these tattoos to symbolize their strength. At the end of the day, pinups are images of beautiful women – something that will always be desirable.

A tattoo of a pinup girl on someone’s arm.

Source: Pinterest

But now, instead of cutting out a picture from a magazine and pinning it on the wall, you can just get the image inked onto your body, and it happens to be an incredibly popular tattoo design. It goes to show that pinups are not outdated; the timeless concept of beauty resonates with many people.

Miss America Introduced the Ideal Woman

The Roaring Twenties was when the Miss American Pageant began. At first, it was pretty much a popularity contest for young ladies on the east coast. It was originally advertised on the radio and in newspapers to bring people to Atlantic City at the end of the summer. Soon enough, crowds grew bigger and bigger, and the expectations of what it takes to be Miss America increased as well.

Contestants for Miss America Pageant getting weighed before the contest.

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In the 1950s, young ladies were tuning in to watch Miss America for the first time and were influenced by the idea of the perfect woman. Rules were added that disqualified many normal-looking women. Although trained models were banned, it eventually turned into a competition where every girl on stage looked incredible enough to be professional models.

In WWII, Soldiers Received Pin-Ups For Free

Instead of focusing on the brutal battlefields, soldiers could concentrate on starting a family when they get back. When they returned home, they were ready to have children, and they essentially brought forth an era known as “The Baby Boom.”

USS Ticonderoga aircrewmen are inspecting a pinup.

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Other than getting freebies for soldier bunks, there were posters of beautiful pinup girls hung all over cities. Part of the propaganda was to convince men that women would fall in love with them if they went to war. There were plenty of war brides at home, so I guess women really do like a man in uniform.

People Realized that Sex Sells

When the first issue of Playboy came out in 1953, it flew off the shelves. The magazine was selling more than a million copies a month. No matter what the personal moral compass of the company was, there was no denying that their ideas would sell.

Hugh M. Hefner, Editor and Publisher of Playboy, is shown with Cynthia Maddox, the blond cover girl on the February issue of his magazine that he is holding.

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The genre was considered “disgraceful” for years, but it became more acceptable to feature beautiful ladies to attract customers to a brand. For example, in the 50s and early 60s, it was required for flight attendants to be attractive, in shape, and well-dressed. Pin-up art and the fantasy stewardess look extremely similar.

1959: Barbie Dolls Brought Pinup Style to Little Girls

Back in the 1920s, form-fitting bathing suits were considered inappropriate and even illegal for women to wear. A few decades later, Barbie dolls were rocking one-piece bathing suits and were targeted toward young girls. It was clear that the public opinion of what was considered indecent has changed, thanks to the popularity of the pinup.

Charlotte Johnson, director of fashion for the highly successful Barbie doll, shows off one of their dolls.

Photo by Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA/Getty Images

But it isn’t just Barbie’s clothes that seem to be modeled after pinups: it’s also the hairstyle, makeup, and of course, the hourglass shape of the original doll. Like pinup girls, Barbie is meant to symbolize the “ideal woman.”

Strong and Independent, with Unattainable Bodies

I don’t even need to mention how Barbie dolls are notorious for having unrealistic body proportions. Sometimes, the dolls are positioned in ways that, in reality, would be physically impossible. But a more comforting similarity between Barbies and pinups is that the dolls depict women in all types of careers.

A collection of Barbie Dolls on exhibit at the Public Library in New York.

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Women were no longer just housewives. Not only were they out in the working world, but they could do it in all different outfits. While it all began as a fantasy, it slowly helped shift the public perception that girls can do anything men can do.

Marilyn Monroe Becomes an International Icon

Before becoming the beloved legendary Hollywood starlet, Marilyn Monroe found modeling work at a calendar company where she was paid to pose nude for pinup photos. When she transitioned into movies, Monroe left behind nude modeling to play more glamorous roles. But she showed off her curves on-screen and was obviously known as an international sex icon.

Marilyn Monroe is posing for a photo while lying on the grass.

Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Monroe’s most iconic scene was in The Seven Year Itch: wind blows up her skirt from the New York subway, and the image is the epitome of what a pinup girl should be. It captures an “oops” moment where a modest woman innocently gets caught in an unfortunate situation. Without revealing too much, audiences got excited over just a glimpse of the real-life pinup.

The Creation of Playboy

In 1953, Hugh Hefner founded Playboy Magazine. After serving in World War II, he knew how much men loved pinup girl photos. But when they got back from war, it wasn’t easy for them to find that kind of material, and it was illegal to send it in the mail. At the time, magazines targeted men focused on hunting and fishing.

Hugh Hefner is sitting with women showing them images and articles as he tries to start his magazine.

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But Hefner knew that there was a huge demand for that kind of content no matter how risky it would be to publish such a racy magazine. Hefner got a hold of Marilyn Monroe’s nude pictures from her pinup modeling days and published them in the first issue of his successful magazine.

Women of Color In the Pin-up Limelight

Even though original pinup girls were mostly white, women of color got in on the action as well. Some of the most famous Black pinup models like Josephine Baker and Lottie Graves were burlesque performers. These women became the symbol of the Jazz Age and are still idolized to this day for their beauty.

Josephine Baker is posing for a photo.

Photo by Klaus Niermann/ullstein bild/Getty Images

The magazine Jet started featuring women in bathing suits in 1951 as part of their series “Beauty of the Week.” Public articles discussing how difficult it was for Black women to make it in Hollywood didn’t scare them.

Modernizing Pinups

For example, Sahji Jackson performed a dance in a movie called Bebop in 1947, and when she couldn’t expand her career further, she moved to South America, where she had an explosive and successful musical career. But things would continue to become more progressive.

A photo of Jennifer Jackson.

Source: Pinterest

By 1965, Jennifer Jackson became the first woman of color to win Miss America before launching her music career. Thankfully, we live in a time where black women are admired for their beauty just as much as white girls. Now, women of all shapes and sizes are depicted in Hollywood, not just the “perfect” pinup girl.

The Queen of Pin-Up

Bettie Page was the most photographed model of the 20th Century. She didn’t even start modeling until she was 27, but thanks to her youthful appearance, everyone thought she was much younger. She was named Miss January 1995 in Playboy Magazine. Hugh Hefner described her as “a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society.”

Bettie Page poses in a red negligee.

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When the model passed away, her tombstone even said “Queen of Pin-ups.” Her black hair, signature bangs, and bright blue eyes will forever be iconic. Bettie Page is the beauty that inspired various characters throughout pop culture, including Jenny Blake from The Rocketeer. Ever since, women in comic books were drawn in pinup style. Even the ones that were created before her popularity, like Wonder Woman and Veronica from the Archie Comics, were inspired by Bettie Page in future designs.

The Pinup Collection

Right around the time pop culture began losing interest in pinups, Charles Martignette was finally old enough to buy his own and pin it up. Martignette found pinups appealing since he was eight years old and got his first at age 27. He spent the entire 1980s purchasing as many pinups as he can.

A man is standing before a collection of pinup girl pictures.

Source: Pinterest

In 2008, Martignette unexpectedly died of a heart attack. This means it was time to auction off his 4,300-piece collection that was given to the Heritage Auction in Dallas, Texas. It took 12 auctions over a four-year time period to disband the set, considering owns the largest surviving collection of pinup art. The pinup images were removed from the warehouse and dissembled.

The Bombshell Pin-Up

This is the pinup that you are probably familiar with: stunning curvy women with red lips, revealing clothing, and seductive poses. For earlier pinups, the women would pose for an artist who would draw a picture of a pinup.

Betty Grable in high heels and a one-piece bathing suit and looks over her shoulder, one hand on her waist.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But the Bombshell pinups are real-life people posing for actual photographs instead of drawings. They pose with that classic, vintage pinup style. Marilyn Monroe is one that needs no introduction. With her red lips, hourglass figure, and blonde hair, she will forever be a pinup girl in the hearts of America.

The Burlesque Pin-Up

The Burlesque pinup takes things up a notch. With these girls, you are going to see a little more skin, so the images were considered a little more risqué. One of the very first examples of a burlesque pinup is Bettie Page.

American Pinup girls are huddling their heads together for a photo.

Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

She would strip down (at times completely naked) and show off her goodies, as opposed to the more traditional pinup who was meant to leave more to the imagination. These days, the most famous burlesque pinup model is Dita Von Teese.

The Classic Pin-Up

So, the classic pinup would be an illustration: a Gibson or Varga girl style of image. Like we mentioned, models would pose for artists who would replicate the gorgeous girls in a beautiful art form. Although scandalous at the time, there was no actual nudity involved.

A drawing of a waitress getting surprised by a lobster lifting her skirt.

Photo by Swim Ink 2, LLC/Corbis/Getty Images

The girls would just look sexy and pose in naughty ways. These girls are the ones that we see in memes today, attempting and failing to do household tasks like cleaning, cooking, or laundry. But then, something goes wrong in an endearingly sexy way.

The Rockabilly Pin-Up

Rockabilly is a more modern style of pinup but has become a popular one. One of the earliest examples is Rosie the Riveter. She had a badass attitude, hair tied up, and fully clothed – but not in girly outfits.

A pinup girl sitting on a vintage car.

Source: Pinterest

Anything funky can qualify as a rockabilly pinup, as long as it still has the distinct pinup look. These ladies even have tattoos. Pinup girls have become a timeless image and have continued to evolve with the times. Who would have thought it all started with a bicycle!

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