You, Madam, Are No Bettie Page

As a few articles from the weekend prove, women who fancy themselves “Modern Pin-Ups” often ignore the realities of the 1950s. (But, yes, the hair was great!)

I get it, I do. I love pinup fashion and hourglass silhouettes and classic glamor and the appeal isn’t lost on me. But a lot of “modern pinup” culture seems based on a very idealized idea of the 1950s, of what women like Bettie Page actually lived through and were made of. Postmodernism is one thing; historical misrepresentation? Quite another. Take Veronica Orso-Flores, a lovely Texas denizen and self-described modern pinup who describes her life of 50s-style cheesecake modeling to the Houston Chronicle as “all dress-up.”

For “Miss V,” being a pinup means being a lady: well-groomed, well-mannered, impeccably outfitted.”I don’t think people know how to be a lady these days, how to carry yourself, when to hold your tongue,” Orso-Flores said at her home recently, as she served a guest cupcakes and lemon water.

The article describes her brand of kittenish appeal as a nice alternative to our culture’s overt sexualization. But that’s presuming that we have no alternative to some form of sexualization, right?

It’s a strange dichotomy, this mixing of the 50s housewife ideal and the pin-up ideal, both of which require a lot of, well, idealization. Bettie Page stood out because she maintained an aura of wholesomeness in a decidedly seedy world, and the gloss of camp conspired to idealize what was hardly the lifestyle of the average “lady.” Pinups did not generally make cupcakes; housewives did not pose for calendars. This seems to be the same paradox at work with those “Time-Warp Wives” who live an idealized 50’s life: these women are drawn to the rigidity of the era’s roles and mores, but don’t seem to recognize that choosing these same roles is totally antithetical to the spirit of the age they idealize.

What Miss V is promoting is the next phase of mid-90’s rockabilly and swing, which coopted the pinup aesthetic but was tinged with a well-inked outsider’s rebellion, a conscious adoption of the era’s more outre subcultures and subversion of mid-century primness. “The Modern Pinup” seems, in its postmodern obliviousness, to take what it wanted of the era and conveniently forget the rest. Was Bettie Page iconic in her look, her style, her attitude? Sure – but her appeal lay in the contrast and in part, the dark realities of her past. Like other women of her era, Page didn’t have choices and seems admirable today because she managed to preserve some of herself in spit of what was some pretty frank exploitation. What someone like Miss V is doing is, in fact, whitewashing. And that’s not a sin, but it’s important to remember that, while we may love civility and cinched waists, it came at a heavy cost.

This reality is further borne out by a piece in today’s Times about the last surviving Ziegfeld Girl, 105-year-old Doris Eaton Travis, a true emissary from another time. As a child, she and six of her siblings went into vaudeville; later, under an assumed name, she became the youngest of Flo Ziegfeld’s famed showgirls. However glamorous the life – and the Ziegfeld Follies were the very embodiment of manufactured beauty – this was not an existence for the faint of heart.

She was a child star in Washington, exchanging waves from the stage with President Wilson in his theater box. In 1918, she wangled an audition at the Follies by tagging along with her older sister, Mary, taking a stage name to disguise her youth. She danced opposite Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, introduced the song “Singing in the Rain” long before Gene Kelly, and at a booze-friendly salon on West 54th Street played host to Gershwin, Lindbergh, the Warner brothers (Jack and Sam) and Fred Astaire. After the Depression started, she ended up running 18 Arthur Murray dance studios in Michigan. At 88, she got her bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Oklahoma – and she is planning to go for a master’s.

Women who “made it” in the first half of the 20th Century, the ones who we remember and revere and have achieved iconic status, didn’t do so purely on the strength of civility, but by levels of grit and ambition that defied expectations. If we’re going to draw from the example of earlier eras, let’s keep this reality firmly in mind – fashions are one thing, But Miss V wouldn’t be able to choose a retro-perfect career of paradoxes if it hadn’t been for the steel underlying the girdles.

Retro Glam [Houston Chronicle]

Still Kicking Up Her Heels On 42nd Street
[NY Times]

Related: “Time Warp Wives” Opt To Re-Enact Depression, War

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