What Is Pinup?

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The Struggle with Defining an Iconic Genre of Imagery

Written by Rick Trottier & Nicole Ferreira


IMG_13-NicoleF-COVERIt is often fascinating to listen to people define any term straight from their “belief” in what that definition is. The contrast of their assumed understanding to the real definition (as it is stated in a dictionary like Merriam-Webster) is often quite dramatic, sometimes bordering on contradiction. Part of the reason for this is the human tendency to adopt and accept socially or culturally transferred “knowledge” as meaning, even when such thinking is as far from reliable as is imaginable.

Pinup Imagery is defined as “a picture or painting of a sexually attractive woman”, which is as all-inclusive a description as one could possibly envision. But when you ask someone what their definition of “Pinup” is, that characterization tends to be incredibly narrow, excluding all kinds of beautiful art that could be included under the general meaning.  When asked to simply describe Pinup, instead of precisely defining it, most people would include any number of particular accents as having something to do with “Pinup” like poodle skirts, bobby socks, bandanas, Capri pants, polka dots, hair ribbons and all kinds of other iconography from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. But what most persons who wish to narrowly define Pinup imagery don’t realize is that their definition comes from an association with one specific set of images burned into their brain through Pop Culture and the weighty impact of advertising, commercial art and other forms of highly visible imagery. Even when the first types of Pinup images began appearing in the 1920s and reached their height of popularity in the 1950s, “Pinup” was already an immensely diverse collection of paintings and photographs of women of all shapes and sizes, hair colors and skin tones, wearing garb that ran the gamut from sporting attire to wearing nothing.  In what is considered “the Golden Era of Pinup”, the genre was already embracing a widely cast net of appearances, and since those days, with over 60 years of fashions and cultural trends to build upon that foundation, “Pinup” is more varied than ever. But despite being so diverse in its true definition, the vast majority of people still tend to pigeon-hole the genre, demeaning what it can and should be.


pinup__0023The basic definition of “Pinup” – “a picture or painting of a sexually attractive woman”, assumes that personal tastes and interests will dictate the nature of what kind of picture or photograph will be “pinned up”. In other words, what viewers of sexy imagery like determines what they collect and want to look at. Once upon a time, to “pin” some kind of imagery “up” meant to hang a poster, a calendar or a torn sheet from a magazine on a wall, a door, inside a locker or some personal place of display. Today, the most common type of image that is “pinned up” is wallpaper for computer screens or phones. But the concept remains precisely the same as it once did. An audience of mostly men ranging from roughly 13 to 53 years old chooses by their personal inclinations what kinds of imagery they most wish to view and they create a “pinup” by exhibiting an image of a woman they find desirable in a manner in which their choice can be seen and their personal statement of beauty made. To narrowly define the boundaries of “Pinup” confines the nature of what “Pinup” truly is, not an artistic genre, but an inheritance passed from one generation of admirers of what they consider to be the ideal of feminine beauty and sensuality handed down to the next generation. For example, in the 1950s, it was common to see pictures of women holding tennis rackets or golf clubs and dressed (or undressed) in some kind of sexy attire. That was the “sexy sports image” of the day. It was unthinkable that a woman would wear garb showing them engaged in working out or even simply showing interest in a professional sports team. Such behavior was not an acceptable alternative for young ladies of that era and such was the case for a long time. But today, a sexy woman is a girl who hits the gym and wears sports-themed attire. A teenage boy would certainly upload any number of sexy pictures of that type to his IPad, and as such, it is a very uniquely specialized form of “Pinup”. What makes “Pinup” of today precisely the same as “Pinup” of yore is that the liberal or conservative nature of the imagery is dependent on the whims of the rapturous male who swoons over his beautiful woman of choice. Men in the 1940s didn’t look at pictures of Betty Grable and Bettie Page because they were “licensed and approved” forms of pinup. Depending on what those two icons of sensuality wore (or weren’t wearing in the case of Ms. Page); they were as different as peas and apples and it was their differences that helped satisfy the diverse interests of men who wanted pictures to “pin up”. What made those womens’ images the “Pinup Girls” of the day was that they typified what men of that era wanted to admire and dream over as they went about their daily grinds. And tastes changed as they always do. By the 1950s it was smoky-looking Ava Gardner in leopard attire, while into the 1960s it was posters of a prehistoric-skins-clad bikini-wearing Raquel Welch that could be seen on nearly on young men’s walls in American homes. As each decade has passed, the type of “pinup” that has made men’s eyes bulge has changed from Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the 70s, to Cindy Crawford in the 80s and Stephanie Seymour in the 90s. Each of these is just examples of only a few of the iconic women men have admired through the years, but the point is simple. Every one of these Visions of Beauty is a Pinup.


At the same time, however, the general population does think of iconic models such as Marilyn Monroe or Bettie Paige when they hear the words “pin up”. The hairstyles, swimsuits and lingerie of that time period are honored by a new wave of fans, who label all these things “retro”.   Models posing with authentic 1950’s props and sporting a classic hairstyle and wardrobe has merged into its own sub-genre, if you will.  In the end, regardless of a beautiful woman’s hairstyle, lingerie or props she is holding in a photo, a sexually enticing female’s photograph will get “pinned up”, “liked” or “shared” by its adoring admirer. Since the 1920s, tastes and mores, fashions and trends have come and gone, but the need to uphold a certain icon of defining feminine beauty remains a rite of passage and a distinctly male cultural construct that truly delineates what “Pinup” is.

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Managing Editor, GlamModelz Magazine I’m a Central New England photographer based out of Worcester, MA, just one hour west of Boston. I specialize in fashion and glamor commercial imagery as well portraiture of all types. My style is a blend of commercially viable work melded with artistic innovation, whether on location or in studio. I prize collaboration quite highly and am proud of the fact that most of my work displays the ideas and designs of my models as much as it does my skills, efforts and planning. Rick has published 80, articles with GlamModelz Magazine.

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