Tucked into her snug, but forgiving wardrobe, the oomphy pinup girl, a pop culture staple circa 1940s and '50s, offers a more realistic approach to the cultivation of sex appeal than today's skinny fashion nymphs and their scanty apparel.
Few women can match the idealized beauty of the starlets the famous glamour artist Alberto Vargas once painted for Esquire and Playboy magazines, but it's still easier to aspire to an image that invites the amply-figured as well as the slender to apply.
"There's something about the cut of a retro-type garment," says Nicole Beckett, founder of Agogo Threads, a line of calendar girl-inspired clothing based in Boulder, Colo. "You will not believe how girls will walk in [to our boutique] at any size and will come out of the dressing room, and you don't know it's the same person. They have a figure hiding behind that boxy top," says Beckett, 26. "It doesn't matter if you're extra large or small. It's about the cut of the clothes that makes the person look fabulous."
"Pinup" refers, of course, to lushly-endowed beauties like Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, who filled their bathing suits, sweaters and tapered skirts to the brim and then some. Today, "pinup" is shorthand for a sensibility that celebrates curves, high heels and the magic of figure-enhancing undergarments. Pencil skirts, flared mermaid skirts, halter-tops, plunging necklines, sparkly accessories, cosmetics (including a new line called Original Bombshell), and retro-flavored swimwear are all elements of the signature pinup look.
"I really like the silhouettes that accentuate the female form; I think that's what vintage does," Beckett says. Her designs, found in boutiques around the country, including Glad Rags in Takoma Park, are based on an hourglass shape with fitted waists and lines that accentuate the bust. And yet, "You keep it a little concealed," Beckett says. The look is "very sexy but understated at the same time."
It is also a versatile look, the young designer says. "You can wear a pencil skirt out at night and look very vampish, or wear it to the office and be respectable."
For those who like to watch as well as wear, a flood of pinup memorabilia awaits shoppers at Hot Topic, funky Fells Point gift shops, and other outlets. Atomic Magazine, ("the essential guide to the retro revival"), lists dozens of Web sites where both vintage and "faux vintage" clothing, accessories, books, CDs, and objets d'art are found.
Not surprisingly, many of those attracted to the pinup principles of glamour were born after feminism's first wave of protest against traditional expectations for women. Crusaders such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem made it safe for later generations of women to wear bullet bras and garters.
"Today's women know they're not just sex objects, even if they dress that way," says Anne Cole, who joined her father's swimwear company, Cole of California, in 1952. She continues to work there as a designer for the Anne Cole Collection.
And yet, the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini crowd might take a page from a pinup pro: "When I started the Anne Cole line, one of my theories was that a woman who was sexy knows she's sexy. She doesn't have to wear something plunged to the navel to know it," says Cole. That theory still holds true, she says.
Kara Mae Harris, a historian of Baltimore burlesque in her 20s, recently started Star & Garter, a magazine devoted to burlesque and its glamorous influence on fashion. "I think there's a revival of clothes that are more feminine and better for more voluptuous body types. That's the reason why I got into it," she says.
"I've been doing it for years," says Cody Brown, 27, who, on a typical day, applies a full complement of makeup, dons stockings, vintage clothing and wears her raven-black hair long with a fringe that recalls pinup icon Bettie Page.
Like other twentysomething women drawn to the era of the pinup, Brown, who lives in Baltimore, was exposed to it at an early age by her antique-dealer parents. "Women in the '40s were a lot classier and a lot sexier," she says. "Every day, they had on gorgeous heels, wore stockings and did their makeup even if they were going food shopping," says Brown. She works at Stikky Fingers in Fells Point, where you can find Bettie Page navel rings, lighters and "naughty nurse" dresses.
Beckett learned to appreciate the 1940s and '50s largely from her grandmother, who taught her to sew and gave her vintage clothing from her youth. "I have always loved that Hollywood style," Beckett says.
Keri Burneston, 29, ponders why the sassy, silly '40s enchants women of her age. "I, of course, have many theories, one of which is that the kids who grew up in the late '70s actually watched a lot of reruns from the '50s ... I grew up watching tons of I Love Lucy, which has affected my style and sense of comedy."
In college, Burneston, a co-founder of the Fluid Movement theater company in Baltimore, found herself distracted from women's studies classes by the Spice Girls. "I could not help myself from really loving them," says Burneston, who also performs as new burlesque star Trixie Little.
Posh and the others taught Burneston a lesson she didn't hear in class: "You can quit apologizing for loving girlie things and for being super feminine. You can revel in it," says the performer, who scours the city's thrift shops for wearable vintage treasures. To dress her tongue-in-cheek burlesque persona, Burneston, with help from her grandmother, sews Lycra costumes with retro flair.
Cole, who remembers when Marilyn Monroe modeled her company's bathing suits, has always been something of a maverick. "Women's liberation had to be invented so I could enjoy life," she says. And yet, Cole realizes that the joy of "being a girl" is not lost on contemporary women. "Femininity is very, very important now," she says. "How blatant you let it be depends on your degree of confidence."
Next season, Cole's signature bathing suit line will offer a nostalgic "overtone" of pinup allure, Cole says. "People yearn for that glamour. I always yearn to see a Rita Hayworth."
How to pull off the pinup look
To go all the way, "you need a bullet bra and you need a girdle," says Leann Trowbridge, co-owner of Meeps, a vintage shop in Washington, D.C.
Once in a while, her store's "huge collection of vintage lingerie" comes out of storage for a sale, Trowbridge says.
Vanessa White, owner of Vanessa Vintage Treasures in Federal Hill, offers a looser route to pinup glitz. A few well-placed accessories can do the trick, she says. For a night out, find a vintage, bias-cut nightgown, dye it jet black and "wear it with long ropes of vintage pearls and long black gloves," White suggests.
Nicole Beckett, founder of Agogo Threads in Colorado, has advice for pinup rookies: "Wear traditionally conservative pieces like a pencil skirt and calendar girl sweater, but wear them a size too small. ... It's not risque and not dowdy all at the same time. Black plastic frame glasses a plus!"
"Fishnet stockings are always good, flowers in your hair, and cat-eye eye liner" help make the pinup look, says Cody Brown, a pinup enthusiast who lives in Baltimore. "For shoes, you want to go for thick heels instead of spike, which are a little more trashy. You're going for class and elegance."
Above all, pinup is a state of mind, says Vivian Needum of Forever Alice, a vintage clothing store in Waverly. "The spirit is awakened from inside of a person" when she dons glamorous threads, she says. "It's that look of Marilyn Monroe, and it will never go away."
Where to find the look
* Atomic Magazine, "the essential guide to the retro revival," has an exhaustive online directory of stores specializing in vintage clothing and other products. Visit www.atomicmag.com.
* Author Daniela Turudich has written numerous books on how to achieve that pinup gloss, including 1940s Hairstyles, (Streamline, 2001, $15.75) and 1950s Hair: Hairstyles from the Atomic Age of Cool (Streamline, April 2004, $15.95.) With Angela Bjork, she has also written Vintage Face: Period Looks from the 20s, 30s, 40s, & 50s (Streamline, 2001, $12.95).
* Baltimore itself is a fount of pinup possibilities. Comb the thrift shops, vintage boutiques and hip clothing and gift shops around the city, and assemble a bombshell look that can be as provocative or as prim as you choose.
-- Stephanie Shapiro