“I think pin ups are kind of badass,” laughs director Kathleen Ryan. “They’re tough, savvy and fully aware of what their image can do. Marilyn Monroe – she knew what she was doing in those pictures.”
Pin Up! The Movie, directed by Colorado based film maker Kathleen Ryan, is a new documentary exploring the past and present world of the pin up.
The film looks back on the history of the genre – its art, its personalities, its role in WWII, and its place in society then and now. Pin Up! The Movie also explores the way in which the form has evolved into the 21st century by way of two interrelated stories. In one, four women in Denver compete for the title of Miss 1940s White Christmas Ball. In the second, established pin up photographer Mitzi Valenzuela hunts down a new model for a magazine photo shoot.
Pin Up! The Movie is fast, flirtatious, smart and seductive. In short, it’s a pin up explosion!
But first of all, what exactly is a pin up? Why all the hoo-ha? Who gives a hoot about suggestion and hilarity when we live in an era of adult movies and 24 hour profanity?
“To me, a pin-up is brave, confident, driven, loyal to her craft and takes pride in all things she does,” says Colorado based burlesque performer Ginger Rose, one of the many colourful stars of Pin Up! The Movie. “A pin-up encourages women to remember that they are beautiful and feminine, no matter what they feel, no matter your shape or size. She is a timeless symbol of femininity and beauty. ”
It’s easy to look at pin ups – the faces, the poses, the naughtiness and merriment and dismiss the genre as something lightweight, flippant and fun. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that pin ups fought WWII and won, kept freedom flying before the sixties came along, and importantly, pin ups represented an era when women were allowed a form of personal liberation previously unavailable to them.
The same can be said of today, where the groundwork of independence laid down in the 40s is still carried on through racial diversity, celebration of differing body types, and women’s control over how their image is seen and enjoyed.
The story of the pin up is one hell of a show. So pin the f*** up and enjoy the ride…
Pin the f*** up!
In the 1940s, pin ups and pin up art came to the fore in the fight against the axis powers during WWII – playing an incredibly vital role as propaganda and recruitment tools, or morale boosters for the boys overseas in the shape of posters, magazines, and aircraft nose cone art. The rise of Esquire magazine coincided with this era, which helped to spread the image of the pin up far and wide. There probably wasn’t an allied fox hole, gun turret, rec room or cockpit in WWII without one.
As for the attitude, the original pin ups mixed the tease of burlesque, the blue collar brashness of the factory worker, the pioneering spirit of the gold rush, and the independence of the suffragette movement. They were tough, brazen, playful and beautiful – real life ball breakers and fly by night heart takers.
The imagery of the pin up, as it was back in the 1940s, featured work by pin up artists such as Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, George Petty, Joyce Ballantyne and Zoe Mozert. Famous photographic pin ups of the era included actresses such as Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.
In today’s media, the legacy of the pin up era can be seen in the styles of American music artists like Madonna, P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and Katy Perry. Likewise actresses and comediennes like Tina Fey and Zooey Deschanel. Not to mention the work of German fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth, burlesque stars such as Dita von Teese, and the late British soul singer, Amy Winehouse.
But these are naughty neon signposts to the colourful chaos underneath. They’re the roll, rattle and shake, to the shake, rattle and roll taking place in the background. Like the bad girl hiding behind a wall with a cigarette in her mouth and a twinkling wink in her eye, the world of the pin up – historical and contemporary – has always been more interesting and inspiring when it’s just out of the mainstream fold. This is the exciting world that Kathleen explores in Pin Up! The Movie.
But for starters, we need to go back to where it all began…
Today, the pin up industry is a huge sprawling empire taking in more than half of the globe. Pin ups are everywhere in as many different guises possible. But it hasn’t always been this way, and for Kathleen, pin ups have a special and personal place in her family history.
“My Mom served in the US military during WWII and she used to draw pin ups, so there was this huge notebook that had all her drawings,” says Kathleen. “One artist that she really admired was Alberto Vargas, and she used to try and emulate his sketches. So that’s how I first became aware of pin ups as a little kid – being six-seven-eight years old and looking through my mom’s stuff and seeing these things.”
“I’m always drawn to Vargas because of that,” says Kathleen. “I think his work is beautiful. Gil Elvgren was a master at what he did as well. And some of the vintage Vogue fashion work is astounding.”
Maria Buszek, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado, author of the book Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, and a producer on Pin Up! The Movie, has an equally personal connection to pin ups.
“I grew up very working class in Detroit, Michigan, which is incredibly industrial” says Maria. “In the community I grew up in, pin ups were visible and viewed as an art form. My grandparents, who were polish immigrants, had calendars in their house. My grandpa worked for the auto industry so they were always getting freebies from garages and tire manufacturers. Quite often they were the only form of art, so they were in the back ground as something beautiful and ideal and maybe even aspirational.”
“Then years later when I was in college,” says Maria, “the riot grrrl movement was happening and a lot of historic pin ups were being appropriated in collages for riot grrrl zines, so they came back in the same way that Bettie Page’s old S&M photos did in the 1980s.”
For Ginger Rose, pin ups are not so much an interest, but a major part in her everyday way of life:
“Growing up, I saw these women and became immediately intrigued by their style, without even knowing that they are what is called a ‘Pin-Up Girl’,” says Ginger. “Years passed and my fascination grew. I started watching classic films, researching fashions, and listening to jazz and Big-Band swing. I surrounded myself with so many things from the past, that my fantasy of living in that time and being that pin-up girl became my reality.”
“Vargas girls have inspired me with their simplicity and beautiful poses,” says Ginger. “While Gil Elvgren’s work gives me ideas for settings and costumes. Watching actresses such as Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland has had a great influence on my life and how I present myself.”
How the west was won…aka Patton had Pin Ups…the axis didn’t
Although WWII is where we tend to think of the dawn of the pin ups, the imagery and attitude of the genre were visible in America long before the bombs and bombast of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.
“Pin ups go back to burlesque and those sorts of performers in the mid 1800s who used the pin up as a calling card,” says Kathleen. “So they’d have a calling card, and on it they’d have a picture of themselves in this sort of pin up style of the time.”
“The Gibson girls which were around at the turn of the 20th century their images were being used to help advocate the women’s right to vote and for emancipation,” says Kathleen. “So it’s something that was already there, and then of course Hollywood had a huge role in that in using those actresses during the studio era to portray this sense of glamour and sophistication.”
Pin ups, as we all know and love them, really began to take shape during the roaring 40s. It’s no surprise that the art of the period represented these changes, from the muscular Rosie the Riveter, to the George Petty and Alberto Vargas paintings used for recruitment by the US Navy and the Coast Guard.
The imagery and attitude of the 40s is something that American singer Christina Aguilera tapped into as a basis for the video for her single Candyman, which, as many are aware, features a factory worker, a trio of singing sisters, and a sailor suited pin up – all of whom were not only standard pin up icons, but also important female roles during WWII.
“I would argue that the illustrated pin ups of the second world war were probably the golden age, as it’s often called by illustration scholars,” says Maria. “In the US, you had journals like Esquire that were printing pin up centrefolds by illustrators like Vargas and Petty that have since become these icons of the genre. And that Esquire, which people don’t realise, started off printing military editions of the journal that they would give free to soldiers overseas, so the magazine was literally travelling the globe during WWII. Those magazines became like Coca-Cola – a symbol of America.”
“I think why they were so important was that in WWII,” continues Maria. “The women in these pin ups were as exciting and as popular as they were because real women around the west were having to work in capacities that they had been denied for centuries. They were actually being required to leave their home towns to work in factories or to work for the military, so they’re enjoying unprecedented independence, not just on a professional level, but also on a personal level. It’s no coincidence this is the moment you see a lot of women becoming sexually active and liberated way before there was a women’s lib in the post war era, where they had kind of gotten this taste of freedom and all that it entailed.”
One of the most pleasantly surprising aspects of pin up art is how many artists in the 1940s were women. We tend to think of this as a male-dominated era with pin ups created purely by men for male tastes and egos, but a handful of women made more than a name for themselves during this period.
“There’s a list of the top ten pin up artists,” says Kathleen, “and three of them are women by the name of Pearl Frush, Joyce Ballantyne, and Zoe Mozert. In the film I’m using a clip from a Paramount production called Unusual Occupations, which came out during the war. It has Zoe in her studio painting one of the pin ups. And she’s got a mirror set up where she’s looking in the mirror and she’s posing in this costume and she’s painting herself. It’s a fabulous little snippet that we found of this old short that used to run between double features in the cinema back in that era.”
“I want to give props to Joyce Ballantyne,” says Maria. “If only to get her on people’s radar. She was illustrations version of Bettie Page in the post war era. Her career began in the 40s during WWII, but she was every bit as gifted a painter as any of her male counterparts. But also after WWII where even the most progressive of male pin up artists were succumbing to that repressive cutesy image that became so popular, she kept on painting women who like her were independent, assertive, and stylish. She herself represented everything that’s the best and the most feminist about historical pin ups.”
21st Century Riot Grrrls (how bombshells became warheads)
Contemporary pin ups is where the second aspect of Pin Up! The Movie kicks in. During the making of her previous film Homefront Heroines – the WAVES of WWII, Kathleen wandered into the world of present day pin up culture, which ultimately led to to Pin Up! The Movie.
“While doing promotions on my last film, I got involved with some of the people in the vintage culture here in Colorado,” says Kathleen. “There is an event that’s held twice a year called the 1940s ball, they do a summer ball and a winter ball, and there’s a pin up contest, and it benefits the military institutions such as the Wounded Warrior Project.”
“So I started talking with some people involved in that and I thought maybe I can follow the pin up contest, and I think I maybe want to look at doing a little bit on this business that’s involved in it, so I thought let’s follow a photographer,” says Kathleen. “So I ended up following Mitzi Valenzuela, and the reason I came to her is she does these things called the pin up academy, and she and I started talking and thought well let’s do a casting call and find someone that hasn’t been published before and then have them attend the academy and then we’ll select one of the women from the beauty academy and then we’ll follow her through to her first publication.”
“And so between that and the contest they gave me these two parallel storylines with these pin up women that were striving for things,” says Kathleen. “That was the overarching story here.”
“It has been an absolute pleasure being a part of this film,” says Ginger Rose. “This experience has been exciting, exhilarating, and life-changing. Five years ago I could only have dreamed about being a part of a film about pin up culture. Now, I’m actually living that dream!”
The imagery of today’s pin ups is much different to its predecessors – present day pin ups wear their hair in multi colours and styles or sometimes even half shaved. Their clothing incorporates the classical retro-vintage look of the 40s/50s, but also utilizes the styles of punk, rave, fetish, hip-hop, gothic, cosplay, and Latino/Hispanic.
In essence, pin ups beg, borrow and steal from any movement or genre (that’s a compliment), and incorporate their own interests, personality and culture into their looks.
As Madonna once sang in Human Nature, it’s a case of ‘express yourself, don’t repress yourself.’ Of course the video for Human Nature was influenced by Bettie Page and the bondage magazines of the 1950s.
And all of that in itself is pretty cool because with the genre so evident around the world, we get to see such a great mix of styles and nationalities playing with their pin up looks. Despite it being a largely American endeavour, pin ups can be anything from Japanese, Brazilian, British, Scandinavian and European. Half the fun of pin ups today is seeing and celebrating what new look or nationality comes along next. It’s a case of ‘surprise me!’
Pin Up! The Movie features a multitude of different pin ups – Dapper Dan Doll, Bang Bang Von Loola, Rockwell DeVil, Ginger Rose, B.Sinclair, Miss Emilie, Ashleeta Beauchamp, and Sydney Ralston. Each one is completely different to the other, which as an angle, is incredibly important to Kathleen.
“We think about the historic pin up and it’s something like a Betty Grable or maybe a Bettie Page,” says Kathleen. “And I knew that contemporary culture wasn’t like that. I knew that contemporary culture was much more accepting of a diversity of body types, and of races and ethnicities, and I wanted to represent that in the film.”
“I very quickly realised,” says Kathleen. “That there was this aesthetic link between what the pin up look and then the cholo look in Southern California, where I grew up, which is part of the Latino culture, where you’ve the cat eye make up, the eye lashes, that sort of look that’s always been a part of Hispanic culture in SoCal. So it made sense to begin to look out beyond that blonde hair, blue eyed, traditional sort of girl. And then one of the women we ended up using is Ashleeta Beauchamp, who is African American, and she works for WhatKatieDid the vintage lingerie company.”
Looking back sans anger…
One of the most interesting aspects of pin up culture is that it looks back to the 40s and 50s, which as history shows, was a predominately male dominated era. Without WWII, women would have been stuck at home with the kids or enslaved within the rigours of the typing pool. It really did open new frontiers for women. So if the pin up era of that time was surrounded by sexism, why do pin ups today enjoy looking back on it and include its themes and imagery in their lives?
“The thing that really surprised me about my research,” says Kathleen, “was that I ended up finding that 90% of the women proudly self identified as feminist. And that to me was really stunning. And really surprising considering the retro idea of the culture that so many people are looking back to this era.”
“Bang Bang von Loola, the Japanese American model I interviewed, said, things were not so good for Japanese people in the US in that era. I don’t really want to go back to the 1930s/40s. I’m happy being in the 21st century, but there’s something about the aesthetic look that I really like and there’s something about the way people were presented then that I really like to be able to try to emulate in my own day to day life.”
“So that’s the type of thing that I’m hearing a lot of,” continues Kathleen. “It’s this idea that we don’t want to go back to the conservatism of the 1950s where there were issues, when things were not so good. Not saying that things were perfect now, but at least we’re talking about these issues and that sort of thing and women have awareness of that. That’s probably the single thing that really surprised me was this real embrace of the word feminism by most of these women.”
When you look at a badass, the badass looks back at YOU
What’s exciting about pin up culture is its sense of empowerment. With pornography, you feel like a woman is a piece of meat and an object for sex. Pin ups, on the other hand, convey a feeling of strength and power – they pinch and punch and they taunt and tease. It’s a genre that is well served by strong women and indeed, the men and women that love and adore them. Pin ups have control over their image. They dictate what we see and how we see it. Sometimes it’s a little, other times it’s a lot. But always, it’s what the pin up wants us to see.
“There’s a lot of control for the women that’s doing the pin up,” says Kathleen. “For me that’s what makes it so interesting – there’s this tension between showing things and not showing things.”
“My act is an extension of myself,” says Ginger Rose. “She is sassy and playful, sensual and sexual, fearless and daring, and has a mesmerizing stage presence. Ginger is indeed one spicy woman and is fuelled by the audience’s excitement, desire, and hunger for more. She is highly energetic but knows how to focus the energy in a sensual, sexual way. Music flows through her body and informs all of her movements, regardless of whether or not every beat is choreographed.”
“It’s no surprise that these pin ups are coming out of rockabilly and neo-burlesque,” says Maria, “where there is an intense knowledge of historical styles and context in order for the image to work. Many of these women are also interested in body modification, tattoos, and piercings that mark their body as very contemporary, so I think there is a very new and exciting tension that they are exploring.”
“I feel like the pin up for a lot of those women is interesting because it demonstrates and necessitates a tremendous amount of control but also because I think that the nostalgic image of the pin up already suggests a certain amount of research and knowledge on the part of the artist, and of the subject, and that’s really intriguing. I think it demonstrates an intelligence in the creation of the image.”
“One of the things I find interesting in these images,” says Kathleen, “is that unlike that sort of downcast eye looking to the side playboy pin up, which you often see in modern society, these women are pretty much all looking back at you, and they’re really challenging you to gaze upon them. So there is something going on there that is just not the women being looked at. That’s why I think pin up women are badasses. Because they’re not just content to have you look at them, they want to look back at you too.”
If you want to find out more about Pin Up! The Movie, then get your heels along to pinupthemovie.com.
It’s also not too late to contribute towards the Pin Up! The Movie Kickstarter campaign. The more money pledged, the more great content you’ll see!