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Home History of Pin-up A History of the Pinup Part 1: From Burlesque to the Gibson...

The Pinup has become iconic. Whenever anyone mentions the word pinup, you think of beautiful women in gorgeous poses, either in vintage fashion, stylised costuming or lingerie.

Whilst the term was first coined in 1941, due to the popularity of art created to be pinned on walls, pinups have been seen in posters and photographs as far back as 1890. The word is now used to include not only paintings, but photographs, lithographs, and now more recently, digital artwork.

Where I want to start with in this series of articles is way before the “traditional” idea of a pinup began – before they were painted on planes, and before artists such as Elvgren and Vargas perfected that distinctive cheesecake smile.

The first pinups that we know of are seen in the late 1800s, where photos were used to promote burlesque performers. Burlesque artists were quick to use this new medium to entice the male audience to their shows.

You can see some of the incredible photographs taken in this particular era of burlesque below. You can see that the modern pinups that we see today still use some of these provocative poses – although updated a bit for modern audiences! The photos below are taken from the collection of Charles H. McCaghy.


Photos similar to these would often be used as business cards, left in public bathrooms and cheekily pinned up in clubs and bars. These women created a fantasy for men who came to the shows and saw their images. The fact that they were part of a burlesque troupe meant that men felt that they were much more approachable, and that they could connect with these women, both in photos and on stage.

Some of the graphic artwork that was produced to promote shows in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century also used sex appeal to sell their productions. If you take a look at Jules Cheret’s “Fleur de Lotus” poster you can see how women were used to promote the cabaret show, and how venues were capitalising on the idea of sexuality and sensuality.

Many of the Art Nouveau artists who created graphic art for print used the power of the beautiful woman. Alphonse Mucha was a graphic artist in the late 1800s, producing posters of beautiful women which made his work widely available to the public. He was used to promote events, products and even created books of his work. The women he created were idealised and beautiful, with long flowing hair and sensual clothing. His work was incredibly romantic, and while he is not classed as a pinup artist I think you can definitely see the beginnings of pinup art within his work.


1895 was the rise of the Gibson Girl, Created by Charles Dana Gibson, who was an illustrator for Life Magazine. Gibson created illustrations of women’s fashion, showing women with “hourglass torsos, dark piles of hair and full, luscious lips.” Gibson’s illustration style became incredibly popular, and the character that he created essentially became the first “dream girl” – the first woman who you could only attain by putting her photo up on your wall.


What do you think of the first pinup girls? Do you think you have been influenced by any of these artists in your work? Let me know in the comments below!

In the next article, I will take you through the roaring twenties to the glamour and “traditional” pinup art of the forties and fifties – hold on to your hats folks, it’s going to be an action packed ride!

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