Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 5)

Pin-up of Ada Isaacs Menken

Well, now we've heard Audre Lorde's perspective on the erotic as a social and personal power for change, it's time to talk about how pin-ups got started in the first place. I'm taking my facts from Maria Elena Buszek's Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture (but also from my prior knowledge), so all the quotes will be from there. It took me something like 10 months to read this book, but you're gonna get what I consider the essentials of it here in my blog, with, of course, my snazzy commentary. Aren't you excited? Let's get started...

Just Where Did Pin-Ups Come From Anyway?
Back in the day of corsets and hidden ankles, high class and middle class ladies would go visiting, often leaving a personal card if they found their friend not at home. With the development of photography, this went from being a business card-sized card with one's name to the slightly larger carte de visite, which was a photograph.

For decades after their invention, cartes de visite of bourgeois female subjects followed the earliest precedents set by its aristocratic sitters... Empress Eugenie, [exemplified] the era's feminine ideal in photographic portraiture. A carte de visite of 1860 is highly representational of her photographic portraiture of the period (see above). The empress stands, arms crossed in a stiffly "casual" pose, against the back of a thronelike armchair. She wears a fashionably modest, full-skirted, dark satin dress with minimal and monochromatic ruffled edging and embroidery, and she gazes off-camera with a look of dreamy repose in a tilted, three-quarter profile. A model of quietly virtuous, contemporary womanhood, Eugenie's cartes de visite also reflect the extent to which middle-to-upper-class female subjects were influenced by fashion plates of the period -- popular illustrations in, among other sources, ladies' journals -- with photographic subjects imitating the sweet and courtly illustrated ideal... The passive and unengaged demeanor of the fashion plate, reflected in popular images such as Empress Eugenie's, came to be the ideal for women across Europe and United States... [C]arte-de-visite photography strove to represent women as representational subjects whose personality (like their photographed demeanor) was constant and indexical.
But there were more women in the United States and Europe than just the high class ones, and we're going to talk about some of the racier women now. Before 1860 in the US, burlesque shows were staffed by prostitutes and any woman who so much as walked across a stage "was associated with the same display and commercial 'exchange' of the prostitute, a profession in which many women in the theater dabbled, if not took on as a primary source of income."

Laura Keene, a playwright and theater manager, worked to change this impression in order to draw a broader audience, including 'proper' ladies.
On the one hand, Keene was among many of the period's theatrical managers who sought to establish a space in which live performance could be 'elevated' as a virtuous and viable entertainment for a middle-class audience... On the other hand, Keene's theater sought to cultivate a unique niche within the middle-class market in that it had no bar (a staple at even the most expensive locales) and courted the patronage of not just female audiences, but in particular the very 'true woman' of genteel society whose unwillingness to participate in such popular entertainments had been a sign of their virtue.
Keene wrote female-centered plays that showed "sympathetic (and often contemporary) female lead characters" for the ladies, but a "hundred miscellaneous legs in flesh-colored tights" for the men. Her career helped to elevate the stage and ushered in "a flood of ballet- and burlesque-basked performance." Many of the more popular shows made use of flesh-colored costumes and costume pieces to titillate the audience.
[F]or many social critics of the late nineteenth century, women's ability to provoke sexual desire was an unfortunate fact of their existence, inevitably hindering women's ability to function in the public sphere. However, for women to actually invite, control, and relish the same was another, more dangerous issue entirely. It was also an issue that many burlesque actresses sought to explore and idealize in their professional and personal lives alike. Blurring the borders between character and actress, performance and reality, the birth of burlesque had created an unusual new role for its already unusual female performers: not just a charismatic public ideal for women, but an openly sexualized idea of... modern women very much aware.
Their awareness was captured in the photographic self-promotion in the form of cartes de visite. And so the pin-up was born!

Adah Isaacs Menken, a sexually-precocious performer and poet who wore her hair short in an homage to Byron, smoked cigarettes and "sought to capitalize on these transgressive qualities by constructing herself, in carte-de-visite pin-ups, as on the stage, as a new and wildly paradoxical model of contemporary womanhood." Menken set the standard for other female performers, "blurring the line between life and performance, Menken circulated imagery of herself in both stage and street clothes, performing her "real" identities with the same dramatic flourish and plurality as her theatrical characters." She also demanded control over her own poses and costumes as well as the sales from her photographs, which were available at each of her performances.


The impact of this new style of photography can perhaps only be understood by imagining the general public's conception of it at the time. According to Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a famous doctor, poet and essayist, "the picture tells no lie" and many of his contemporaries believed the same. "Photography was as easily manipulated as the stage performances... yet photographs were scrutinized by the public as scientific and objective proof of one's essential personality." Essentially, the public's minds made the visual performance of photography real.
When the pin-up genre was born through the residual visual imagery of...theatrical identities, a medium was found through which their unstable, yet desirable, constructions could be further controlled by their subjects and witnessed by audiences both within and outside of the theatrical world. In other words, the pin-up genre developed as part of a theatrical discourse in which the onstage identities that emerged and oscillated between the period's binary of domestic/public womanhood found a way to exist beyond the confines of the theater, assisting in a discursive expansion of the broader extratheatrical identities that these images suggested were possible.
So now you know how the pin-up was born! Were you surprised that it developed through photography and not drawing and was female-perpetuated? It seems like most people assume Vargas invented the whole pin-up thing. I know it was quite the revelation for me. This history also made me realize just how little things have changed in the way that society views "decent" v. "undecent" women. What did you think?

Next time I'll be examining more about the pin-up as it developed through time and the ways in which it shaped and responded to ideas about womanhood in the 1900s. Don't miss it!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up, Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4
Retro Sexuality (NSFW)
Self-Definition

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