A cheeky Ziegfield Follies songsheet cover by Vargas
Vargas first obtained work as a fashion illustrator for the Adelson Hat Company and further commissions followed. A most fortuitous encounter took place in 1919. As Vargas was working on a painting in a shop window, his work was spotted by a representative of the ringmaster of the hottest show in town; Florenz Ziegfield. Impressed by Vargas' work, Ziegfield commissioned him to produce portraits of his famous Follies, who were holding court at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Vargas worked with and painted the stars of the Follies throughout the 1920's, in the process making many other showbiz contacts. In 1934 he and his showgirl wife Anna Mae moved to Hollywood, where he worked producing art for most of the major studios and painted portraits of many of the legendary screen beauties of the day. By the close of the decade however, Vargas' participation in union strikes had seen him lose favour with the studios and work in Hollywood dried up.
Petty's TWA stewardess first took to the skies in 1942
The Esquire Varga girl joins the Navy
Petty's replacement at Esquire, Alberto Varga, had dropped the 's' from his name at his new employer's request and hence it was the Varga Girl who took over from the Petty Girl on the front cover of the magazine. The Varga Girl was somewhat curvier than the Petty Girl though still impossibly long legged and was an instant hit with the GI's. Such was the demand for Varga's pin ups that over the course of the war over nine million copies of Esquire were printed without advertisements for free of charge distribution to the troops.
Esquire wasn't the only magazine finding its way into the hands of American troops during the war. Another favourite was Beauty Parade, a magazine filled with photographs of the famous women of the day and scantily-clad, young, wannabe starlets. It was the creation of Robert Harrison, who had begun his career as a reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, dubbed the 'Pornographic' for its smutty and sensational copy. Harrison's first assignment had been to cover the risqué Midnight Frolic. This was a show put on in 1919 by former Ziegfield Follie Olive Thomas, in which girls appeared clad only in balloons, which patrons were permitted to attempt to burst with their cigars. By the mid-thirties Harrison was working for the Motion Picture Herald, which gave him access to a large stash of photographs submitted by aspiring young models. Working at night without permission, Harrison used the pictures and the Herald's facilities to put together his own magazine. He was fired in 1941 when he was found out but obtained loans from his family to set up on his own.
Beauty Parade magazine was the first of Harrison's publications
Beauty Parade ran from 1941 to 1956. Its covers featured the art of Peter Driben, my personal favourite pin up artist of the golden age. Driben's girls are more normally and realistically proportioned but retain the cheeky smile and knowing glint in the eye of the Varga Girl. Harrison created a whole range of men's magazines; Eyeful, Whisper, Titter, Wink and Flirt, the contents of which became increasingly explicit and pornographic, eventually moving into the world of fetish and bondage as Harrison pushed the boundaries ever further. The infamous Miss Betty Page, already well known on the 'camera club' circuit, as New York's underground pornography scene was known, did her first professional photo shoots for Eyeful.
Regardless of the content, Driben's images graced the covers. Peter Driben had studied art at the Sorbonne in 1925 and perfected his talents sketching the performers of the Moulin Rouge. He was a successful pin up artist throughout the Thirties, providing cover girl images for pulp fiction and gossipy magazines. A close friend of Harrison, his association with the publisher ensured that he was one of the most prolific of the pin up greats. Harrison's magazines began to fall out of favour with the emergence in 1953 of Hugh Hefner's Playboy. With its celebrity content, (Marilyn Monroe famously posing as the first centre-fold) and willingness to push the boundaries with full nudity, Playboy spelled the end for Harrison's stable of saucy titles. Instead he turned to celebrity exposes with the launch of his scandal-rag Confidential. Things became rather mirky as the magazine blackmailed celebrities to keep their sex scandals out of its pages and outed suspected communists at the height of McCarthyism. Buried in litigation, the magazine went bust in 1956. As for Driben, he retired to Miami, where he died in 1968.
Alberto Vargas joined Playboy in 1960
Aside from men's magazines, the other great outlet for pin up art was the calendar market. King of the pin up calendar girl was Gil Elvgren, who is perhaps the best known of all the pin up artists of the golden age. Elvgren's girls are still everywhere today and their popularity remains huge. Elvgren's art, like Driben's, is more naturalistic than the perfect fantasy girls of Petty and Vargas and his subjects more down to earth. The Elvgren girl is the girl next door, captured in the midst of some task in a momentarily compromising situation as her skirt is caught by the wind or trapped in a door; a cheeky expression of mock alarm on her face.
An unexpected lift by Gil Elvgren
A final mention must go to another of Sundblom's protégés, Art Frahm, whose most reproduced work can be found in the cereal aisle of every supermarket, as he created the Quaker whose image still appears on Quaker Oats packages. His best known pin up works, created for Brown and Bigelow in the 1950's, feature young ladies whose panties have fallen around their ankles at an inopportune moment in a flutter of pink silk. Frahm's subjects were often depicted carrying shopping which, in a signature touch, invariably included some celery. This has led to some suggestions that celery can cause underwear failure, although this remains unproven.
The effects of celery on 1950's underwear are not fully understood
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