Bettie Page: the Pin-up Sensation That Shocked a Nation
Bettie Page was a pin-up model who became famous in the 1950s. Variously known as the ‘Queen of Curves’, the ‘Dark Angel’ and the ‘Tease from Tennessee’, Bettie was instrumental in relaxing sexual mores and creating images of femininity that were not solely about male desire. The subject of a cult revival that has gained momentum since the 1980s, Bettie Page is now regarded as the high priestess of Fifties kitsch. Bettie Page is known for her famous hairstyle, the distinctive bangs that have been widely imitated ever since. The style was influenced by the image of Cleopatra in countless Hollywood productions, particularly the version starring Claudette Colbert. The hairstyle gave Bettie Page a dark mystique, positioning her as the shadowy counterpart to the sun-kissed glamour of Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe was the most celebrated icon of female beauty in the 1950s. However, Marilyn was a figure of the mainstream. Bettie Page inhabited the clandestine world of under-the-counter glamour photography, and as such the meanings of her images were much more subversive and far-reaching. Sex and sexuality were taboo subjects in the repressive climate of the 1950s. However, Kinsey’s investigations revealed that sexuality was more complex and mysterious than traditional notions of family and marriage acknowledged. Bettie Page ushered in a wave of sexual liberation, anticipating the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. The Bettie persona flirted with the darker side of sexuality, encompassing bondage and fetishism. The images seem tame by today’s standards, but in the conservative 1950s they were shocking.
Life and career
Betty Mae Page was born on 22 April 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee. As a teenager, she tried different makeup styles and hairdos, imitating her favourite film stars. These skills proved useful in later years for her pin-up photography. Bettie was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ at Hume-Fogg High School, where she was a good student and a member of debating team. Page graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class with a scholarship and enrolled at George Peabody College with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying acting, hoping to become an actress. Page graduated from Peabody College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944.
Page moved to New York City, where she hoped to find work. In 1950, while walking along the beach at Coney Island, she met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer with an interest in photography. Tibbs photographed Bettie and put together her first pinup portfolio. In the late 1940s, camera clubs were formed as a means of circumventing legal restrictions on the production of nude photos. Ostensibly, these clubs promoted artistic photography, but many were merely fronts for pornography. Bettie entered the field of glamour photography as a camera club model. She was uninhibited in front of the camera, which made her highly popular. Her name and image became quickly known in the glamour industry and her image appeared in men's magazines with coy names like Wink, Titter and Beauty Parade.
Between 1952 and 1957, Bettie posed for photographer Irving Klaw for mail-order photographs with pin-up, bondage or sadomasochistic themes, making her the first famous bondage model. Klaw also used Page in dozens of short black-and-white films or ‘loops’ which catered to specific requests from his clientele. These silent featurettes showed women clad in lingerie and high heels acting out fetishistic scenarios of abduction, domination, and bondage. Page alternated between playing a stern dominatrix and a helpless victim. These underground features had a crude style and clandestine distribution, but never featured nudity or explicit sexual content. Bettie also acted and danced in the feature-length burlesque film Striporama, directed by Jerald Intrator. She then appeared in two burlesque films by Irving Klaw: Teaserama and Varietease.
In 1954, during a vacation to Miami, Florida, Bettie met the photographer Bunny Yeager, who signed Page for a photo session at the wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida. The Jungle Bettie photographs from this shoot are among her most celebrated. Yeager sent shots of Page to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who selected one to use as the Playmate of the Month centerfold in the January 1955 issue of the magazine. The famous photo shows Bettie in a Santa hat, kneeling before a Christmas tree holding an ornament and playfully winking at the camera.
Bettie Page with Bunny Yeager
In 1955, Bettie won the title ‘Miss Pinup Girl of the World’. While pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957. Bettie disappeared into obscurity for several decades and little is known about this period in her life, although it has been addressed in several publications.
During the 1980s, a cult following was built around Bettie Page. The revival was based on the kitsch appeal of 1950s pop culture, along with early rock and roll, Googie design and B-movies. The young comic book artist Dave Stevens produced a graphic novel entitled The Rocketeer, which was set in the 1930s and fuelled by nostalgia for a vanished era. The comic is drawn with an Art Deco sheen. The character of Betty, the hero’s glamour-model partner, is based on Bettie Page. As the author and Bettie Page fan Harlan Ellison wrote in his introduction to the volume, ‘the shadow of Bettie Page lives in those lines.’
Dave Stevens' vision of Bettie
In 1987, Greg Theakston founded a fanzine called The Betty Pages. The magazine sparked a worldwide interest in Page. Women dyed their hair and cut it into bangs in an attempt to emulate the Dark Angel look. Jim Silke produced a comic featuring Bettie’s likeness, and Dark Horse Comics published a comic based on her fictional adventures in the 1990s. Eros Comics published several Bettie Page titles, the most popular being the tongue-in-cheek Tor Love Bettie which suggested a romance between Page and Tor Johnson, a former wrestler who appeared in several films by B-movie director Edward D. Wood Jr. This renewed attention was focused on her pinup and lingerie modeling rather than those depicting bondage, and Bettie gained popular status as an icon of erotica from a bygone era.
In 2005, feminist director Mary Harron produced a biographical film, The Notorious Bettie Page, which follows Bettie'r life from the mid-1930s through the late-1950s. The lead role was played by Gretchen Mol in a stunning performance. Bettie has had a profound influence on the current vogue for burlesque entertainment. According to MTV, Uma Thurman’s hairstyle in Pulp Fiction and the entire career of Dita Von Teese would not have been possible without Bettie Page.
Gretchen Mol as Bettie
Bettie has an ambiguous status. Her image was constructed largely by male photographers for a male audience, but she has also been hailed as a feminist icon – a woman confident with her body and sexuality, not merely a passive object of male desire, but an active participant. In her photos, she adopted a range of personae – oscillating between the binary opposition of dominatrix and victim, but encompassing a range of feminine roles in between. These images reveal sexuality as a complex spectrum, and sexual identity as a mode of performance or masquerade. Undeniably, her body was posed, lit and manipulated for the pleasure of the male viewer. However, in many of her most celebrated shots, the image was in fact created by women. Irving Klaw’s wife Paula participated in the filming of the silent film loops, and Bunny Yeager captured many of Bettie’s most iconic images. Bettie herself exerted considerable control over her image – styling her own hair, designing and making her own costumes, and maintaining her body via a strict diet and exercise regime.
A multitude of young women have exploited and been exploited by the pin-up industry, and most have disappeared into obscurity. Bettie Page transcends this murky netherworld. There is something special about Bettie Page: she had a natural vivacity, radiance and optimism, and always looked comfortable and confident, regardless of the low-rent setting in which she appeared.