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The Dogface's Guide to World War II Pinup Art

   In World War II the pinup was often a soldier's sole link to the world they left behind. The pinup accompanied American fighting men everywhere. Bob Hope was once quoted as saying, "Our American troops are ready to fight at the drop of an Esquire," a reference to the magazine where pinups were born.

   Beautiful women had been portrayed in print media for years. These included the "Gibson Girls" of American painter Charles Dana Gibson (ca. 1887) and the posters, postcards, and magazine illustrations of Europeans Jules Cheret, Henri deToulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and Raphael Kirchner. In the 20th Century, the work of Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher evolved the Gibson Girls further, and in 1912 Paul Chabas painted the first scantily clad calendar-girl, "September Morn."

Coca-Cola had begun using images of glamorous females in their magazine ads as early as the 1920s, but in 1933 Esquire began publication and the evoltion of the form took a giant leap forward. A magazine aimed at affluent men with a taste for stylish clothes and beautiful women, Esquire attracted many talented artists. George Petty emerged from the pack early and it was his humorous single-panel cartoons of out-of-this-world girls being ogled and propositioned by unlikely suitors that struck the die, and America's fascination with pinups started to take flight. Other classically trained illustrators like Rolf Armstrong and Gil Evgren began creating some of the most memorable, technically exquisite pinup illustrations ever produced for Esquire. Along with magazines, calendars, mutoscope cards, and matchbooks (to name just a few venues) became a personal view into the private lives of "the girl next door."

   Pinup art continued to grow in popularity, but by 1940, Esquire thought Petty was demanding too much money, so it brought in Alberto Vargas, a Peruvian-born artist who had already made a name drawing the stars of Florenz Ziegfield's shows. The first pinup Vargas did for Esquire, in 1940, depicts a blonde woman stretched out on a bed in a short black nightgown talking on the telephone. Others that followed included curvaceous young women in Navy blues or other kinds of military dress, even a female George Washington in powdered wig and flowing cape. Small-town girls in skin-tight short shorts and negligees were favored, along with all-American cowgirls in brightly colored shorts brandishing six-shooters. The impossibly perfect females created by Alberto Vargas had arrived in a big way and made a bigger impression! (The editors at Esquire later made him drop the 's' when signing his work because they thought it sounded like a possessive, and hence his pinups became known as Varga Girls.) Along with Vargas-inspired pinup illustrations, similarly posed photos of popular actresses like Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Esther Williams soon adorned the noses of aircraft, the footlockers of nearly every GI, and the walls of every barracks in every theater of war. The pinup had become an American icon, and it was as much a part of every dogface's kit as his shaving brush and his M-1.

Sailor and pinup fan reading in his bunk aboard the USS Capelin
at the submarine base at New London, CT, August 1943.

Click on the postcard below to view our collection of 1940s pinup art.