The 1950s really pushed the boundaries, especially compared to the wholesome looks we saw during the war. We introduce Playboy magazine, and iconic legends like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. Political, social, and economic influences also help dictate the style. Let’s take a closer look.
Once of the biggest advancements in this time period was Playboy magazine. Prior to Hugh Heffner’s now gamechanging magazine, a classy men’s magazine didn’t exist. Sure, you could find magazine that had great articles, like Esquire – or magazines that featured naked women, known as “artists magazines” – but there didn’t exist a magazine for the classy gentleman. One that you could read for the quality articles, and enjoy the photographs of tastefully done nudes. So when Playboy came about, people noticed (and purchased) the new magazine. The star of the first issue was none other than Marilyn Monroe.
But Monroe’s story doesn’t just start with playboy. She had been an amateur model prior, modeling for a few “art”magazines, and some small promotional work. Fate had a huge role in her success. Well, more like a crappy engine. Her car broke down on her way to an appointment, and it happened to be right across the street from photographer Tom Kelly (Hollywood Photographer). Kelly went over to help, got her a cab and paid her fare. When Monroe went back to Kelly’s studio to say thank you, he offered her some basic modeling jobs, which she accepted. He also offered to pay her $50 to model for a calendar he was shooting. She declined. And then she needed the money, so she agreed to do it. The calendar they created is, featuring Monroe on red velvet, is probably the most notable calendar of all time. And yes, it really kickstarted her career. One of the images from this shoot was even the featured image in the first issue of Playboy.
And here come’s Bettie Page. She has a unique story (and an awesome Netflix documentary). To get an understanding of her status in the pin-up world, you need to understand some of the politics of the time period.
Politics played a huge role in what was acceptable at the time. Silly little things, like the Hays code and the US Postal Service meant that traditional nudity was just too taboo for the average American. Nudity was all fine and dandy in your own home, but trying to show it or send it anywhere else was just frowned upon. Ok, maybe a little bit more than frowned upon. It was downright restrictive. Want to use a mail order film developing company to get some naked pictures of your wife? Yeah, that’s not allowed. Or maybe order in a sexy European magazine? Nope, that gets confiscated, too. Granted, the codes have gotten a little bit more relaxed since they were introduced in the 1930s (one of the driving forces behind Esquire magazine dropping pin-ups); but they were still pretty extreme compared to what we are used to today. For example, originally, an uncovered breast was completely unacceptable. Then it was OK to show as long as there was no viable nipple (Instagram/Facebook anyone?), and then that was relaxed a bit further to allow a full breast to be shown (but pubic hair was still outrageous – and I’m not just talking about shaving). So some progress has been made, but it was still somewhat restrictive.
Money also played a pretty big role in determining what was appropriate, too. Magazines, Movies, and other entertainment were designed to make money. That means they need audiences and they need advertisers. Together, they equal money. And to keep them both happy, they need to be a little bit more on the conservative side of the nudity debate. So the people of the period may have wanted to see more than what was being published, but the producers kept it friendly as to keep their advertisers.
This opened up a huge niche for a few opportunistic models – and is where Bettie Page becomes legend. You see, there was still a need for these sexier type pictures – but you couldn’t go out a buy them anywhere. You couldn’t even order them. The only choice was to make them yourself. And the 35mm camera and camera clubs helped fill that need. The premise was simple – if you and a couple of buddies each put a couple of bucks together, you could hire a model. The model would pose, everyone would take pictures, and then you’d repeat the process. It worked out well for everyone involved. This produced a different type of work than we are used to seeing. Professional photographers with professional equipment didn’t follow these steps – so the quality, process,and final product were ultimately different. Technical aspects didn’t matter as much. Composition was basic. Poses were sometimes vulgar, alternative, or shocking. It was raw and lustful art.
The popularity of this style ultimately led to more laws and different interpretations as the style grew. For instance, Bettie kept pushing the boundaries of the time period and went into fetish/bondage modeling. This was really taboo for the time period. And as it became more popular, the laws got more and more strict. The circumvention to the laws was to take the nudity out of the equation. So if Bettie was going to be tied up, holding a whip, or otherwise doing fetish modeling, there could be no nudity. For some reason, this was an acceptable solution to everyone.
The combination of the classic “girl next door” Playboy pin-up and the alternative “Bettie” girl helped define the 1950s as one of the most iconic periods for the development of the pin-up.