She was an exhibitionist, proud of her assets — or in another view, she was under pressure to exploit her physical charms, regardless of pride or joy.
She wanted to be an actress, a showgirl; maybe even a star. In real life, she might never have made it past dime-a-dance.
by Susie Bright, from the exhibition catalog for "Alberto Vargas: The Esquire Pinups," Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, curated by Maria Elena Buszek and Stephen Goddard
But something happened to the pin-up girl — she got religion, which in the case of the American WWII effort, was nothing but riotously devout patriotism. Whatever a soldier wanted or needed to fight the Nazis became sacrament. If he wanted pictures of beautiful babes to masturbate and pray to, by God, who wouldn’t support democracy?
The pin-up girl put on a uniform, and she hitched it up good and tight. She showed that she was not only a tiger in the sack, but a hellion on a missile, a bombardier Amazon. Her sexual charisma was just part of her winning attitude, and with her inspiring image, a warrior could feel like nothing would defeat him. She had arrived.
Today, if you travel America, you'll find many little boys (and others!) playing soldier, not with plastic army men, but with video games. In each fight-to-the-death scenario, they must pick who their “character” will be — the persona they both identify with, and who they give combat instructions to.
The kids might not know who pin-up artist Vargas was; they weren’t even born during his pin-up heyday. But the favorite role model in their joystick universe could be an überfemme who'd be blissfully at home in any 1940’s Varga Girl gatefold— say, Lara Croft, “Tomb Raider” heroine and kick-ass sex symbol superstar.
Vargas’ girls, his wartime divas, set the course for modern pin-up girls which liberated their image from bordello advertising and transformed them into All-American Girls. They made their most memorable mark in monthly centerfolds in Esquire magazine, the leading men's magazine of its day.
Yet their wholesomeness and mainstream acceptance came at an ironic cost: the pin-up girl lost quite a bit of her devoted femininity.
Vargas’ women may have floated about in bits of diaphanous lingerie, but many of them were built like boy soldiers with bosoms. They wear lots of makeup, and they have lots of attitude— but they also have no hips, and no intention of fainting. Sure, there’d been tough girls in our feminine imagery before, but they weren’t glorious like this — triumphant, winning without breaking a nail.
Today there is no sexual heroine on the horizon who isn’t a diva warrior. Soldiers like Princess Xena are warriors first, and lovers later, if you’re among the lucky chosen. Sure, they live to inspire, but for all the erections they promote, they also lend an air of invincibility. You not only want to seduce these Valkyries, you want to become them, and that’s as true for little boys as it is for little girls.
My interest in the Vargas pin-up collection, (now collected at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas), comes from my curiosity about the moment in time when “the girl in the picture” became sexually assertive, transgressing the indolent feminine caricatures that once defined the erotic female portrait.
This post-war, post-corset pin-up girl is not round, she is not propped up with pillows, she is not waiting for something to happen to her. She expresses her lust and humor with unladylike independence— she even broods without apology. By Laura Croft’s standards, the Varga Girl is just a slip of a thing; but then, Miss Croft’s caricature has never been emblazoned on a A-bomb either, so maybe she still has something to learn.
In looking over this Vargas exhibition, the likenesses that stand out the most to my transgression-seeking eye are the ones where Vargas’ Girls turn boyish — in male costume, physique, pose, and expression.
Most of these are not the famous peep-through-the-nightie portraits that became so ubiquitous in Vargas’ Playboy era, but are rather his strongest patriotic expressions of the war period— as well as expressing his cosmopolitan fantasy life, playing footsie with American puritanism.
In the May 1941 Esquire gatefold, we see a striking example of the latter: a Thanksgiving-style pilgrim, smoking her cigarette in a see-through black gown, apparently giving a line to a Spanish maja, clad in white lace and looking rather unconcerned in her own private daydream.
The decidedly uncontrite Puritan is smirking and flicking her ash. In my imagination, I could hear the Pilgrim Witch delivering a punchline to the Papist Babe about some poor sucker she just put through the wringer. What we have to be thankful for, indeed!
In this image, unlike any other , the model is slouched, smoking, hiding her eyes, not in shyness but in private sulking. Her cold shoulder overwhelms her Vargas bust-line for once, both figuratively and literally. Her hair is not immaculate; it's unkempt and falling down, curling around her strong upper arm.
Below the knees, however, we see a strangely different woman — lower legs posed on command (“porno toes,” I call them), with the model flexing the arch of her feet to achieve Barbiesque high heels.
When I first contemplated this particular Varga Girl, I was visiting her on my Internet browser, and due to the size of my screen, I could only view the upper half of her body without scrolling. I was so struck by her internal point of view, her “I-don’t-give-a-damn” posture, that it was many minutes before I scrolled down to her paper-doll legs— which at that point, looked like an aberration.
Vargas clearly took a risk with this internal, rebellious portrayal; and for some reason, through lack of craft or determination, he didn’t pursue her body language down to the floor. I prefer to contemplate her personality as it is most forcefully expressed in her face and upper body.
What makes this Varga redhead so sexy by today’s standards is that she captures the current erotic principles of rebellion, melancholy, and self-centeredness. These qualities are the very spirit of everything in hip titillation, from Rebel Without A Cause to rock‘n’roll itself.
Today’s sex symbols are not wholesome or well-scrubbed — and neither is this little witch. She seems to be unavailable not because she’s too good for you, but because she’s too bad for her own bad self.
Like any MTV siren of today, she is not so terrifying to others as she is potentially self-destructive. Our modern culture has a sexual ache for an Achilles heel, and that’s exactly what we should have seen at the bottom of this angel’s limbs, instead of a perky pedicure.
Vargas had either a schizophrenic or a lackadaisical attitude toward rendering a holistic, complete female figure. On many other occasions his pin-ups seem to lose their resolve half-way through their expression that they remind me of ancient rediscovered statues who are missing an arm.
Take the Esquire gatefold from December 1942, for example, an adorable Santa Claus specialty, with a full-cheeked, robust redhead laughing gaily at her holiday surprise. Her arm looks like she works on a farm, or drives a big rig — you almost expect to see her CB handle in a caption underneath. From the bust up, this gal is strong, with some weight to both her chuckle and her physique.
Below that proud bosom however, her body is taken over by something else — a wasp waist, an invisible bottom, and the template legs that we saw facing the other direction in September ‘47. What were the forces that spun Vargas in two directions — were they as banal as a lack of skill or time, or a tempest of wills between artist and publisher?
The feminine ass is something that has to be considered further in Vargas’ pin-ups. In some, though not all of his paintings, the women simply haven’t achieved that secondary feminine characteristic — their buttocks are that of a fabulous boy. He created these images long before Twiggy, anorexia, or Kate Moss; so we can’t blame it on the trends of the time, which favored a more womanly, hip-centric view.
The most shocking and transparent example of this “boy with boobs,” the Varga’s pin-up in drag, is the June 1942 gatefold, which features a muscular, broad-shouldered blond, nude except for a ridiculous sun hat hiding his/her slim hips. Take away the bonnet and the profile of the breast, and you have a dead ringer for one of George Platt Lynes' sailor boys photographed from the back.
February 1942’s calendar page, a court jester in red, is another boy/girl whose feminine attributes disappear as you step away from it — or in my case, when when I simply take off my glasses and everything goes fuzzy. The breasts and stomach are curiously “stuck” in the middle of the figure, and seem to have no effect on the silhouette. Is she getting ready to play a gender trick on the court with her magic mandolin?
Vargas’ girls explore a full closet of male costume: the jester, sailor, weight lifter, soldier, hunter, classical composer, cowboy with six shooters, and the father of our county.
My favorite of these drag portraits is August 1942, the defiant George Washington! This time Vargas delivers a completely feminine physique who takes over the presidency and dares you to do anything about it. Her swagger and her cape thrown to one side give the air of a pirate crossed with the Marquis de Sade. She’s a dominatrix, she WANTS YOU to serve her AND your country with equal obedience.
In general, however, Vargas in drag leans more towards Peter Pan than the magnificent Daddy/Diva-ness of the George Washington centerfold.
In the October 1941 calendar, we see an archer, bracing her bow into the sky, with her impressive aim and strength somewhat diminished by the silly pair of elf shoes at her feet.
Whether posing with weapons or laughing on the floor while she counts her push-ups, the Varga girl was an Olympian — jockeying for position, laughing at risk, sporting unflappable confidence.
Aside from the phenomenon of Babe Didrikson Zaharis, the female athletic giants of Vargas’ heyday simply didn’t appear on the American pop culture map. If they ever made an appearance, they were sure to be called lesbians.
Marie Elena Buszek, a Vargas scholar, has written that “Vargas’ anatomical exaggerations of the female figure would have been downright monstrous on a real woman.”
But if you picked the right night in Hollywood, Vargas’ Girls would not so much have been sci-fi apparitions as they would have been dyke-baited — or better yet, recruited as she-male porn stars. By today’s standards, Varga Girls are gender-benders.
Among Vargas’ curious gender-benders, none is more romantic and female-sympathetic than that of his July 1943 gatefold of a bridal kiss, between a groom in uniform and his veiled beloved.
This soldier groom has not one whisker on his cheeks. His lids are darkened, with eyelashes as thick as a girl’s. His face recalls no one so much as Elizabeth Taylor, at the moment she kissed Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.
In that famous still from George Cukor’s film, Taylor’s eyes were also downcast, her lips yearning for the reckoning that can be viewed just as clearly in the Vargas bridal portrait. The only difference is that Montgomery Clift, young and fair as he was, was still a hundred times more masculine than the groom in Vargas’ chapel.
My first reaction to this wedding-day gatefold was that it was the perfect retro-bliss poster to promote same-sex marriages, in this case of an exquisite butch/femme lesbian couple. Indeed, the blonde femme in this portrait is the one with the more determined jaw, her mouth suggesting a hint of sadness or even cruelty. Her ambivalence, with her mouth still not accepting her lover’s, creates even more dissonance and attraction.
The contemporary craze for pin-up girls and their subversive possibilities began in the 80s, when rebellious feminists, particularly lesbians and bisexual women, looked for visual role models who seemed to offer transgressive potential.
If Bettie Page could be a simultaneous athlete, bathing beauty, and Bondage Princess — if Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo could vamp it up in slacks and a devil-may-care attitude — these images offered a catalyst of fantasy material to adventurous women who wanted all the sexual power they could afford.
In the 1980s, Vargas’ pin-ups were re-imagined by a popular artist, Olivia de Bernardinis, whose line of prints, greeting cards and calendars all deified the conquering femme with a direct line to the Vargas gatefold imagery.
This time, however, there was no patriotism involved, just sheer sex. This time, a female artist held the brush. As someone who was involved in the retail end of “wimmin’s” culture at the time, I can well recall the stampede of women eager to collect every image of de Bernardinis’ work.
Men coveted them as well; but this time, women were the new audience, not simply looking to imitate the model’s clothes, but to cherish her eroticism, to be aroused and inspired by the knowledge that a woman was the author of these fantasies.
What would Vargas think today of Olivia de Bernardinis, or photographers Del La Grace, Annie Sprinkle, Cathy Opie, Phyllis Christopher, — or the host of radical women artists who have taken the pin-up to new heights of queer romance and genderfuck distinctions?
How would Vargas cope with Lara Croft, raiding the identities of boys and men alike on a small-screen battleground? Would he hide behind a polka-dot sun hat, shying away from the spotlight of the new sexual authenticity? Or would he face us down, like George Washington with tits and ass, defying us ever to diminish his legend?