Pretty As A Pin-Up

DSC_0052Meredith Hoffman Writer Laurie Kamens gets make-up advice.

It felt unnatural. I arched my foot backwards, gracefully pointing my toes, pushed out my chest, and forced a cheesy grin. Posing as a pin-up model was proving harder work than the smiling, curly-headed girls of the 1940’s and 50’s made it look.

“If it feels comfortable, you’re doing it wrong,” Bettina May said as we started mugging for the camera.

A professional pin-up model and burlesque dancer, Ms. May has been teaching her Pin-Up Class for the past five years, giving contemporary women a tutorial in vintage make up and hair, complete with a personalized photo shoot at the end.

DSC_0006Bettina May removes curlers.

Popularized by movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, and Rita Hayworth, the classic pin-up look, defined by Ms. May as, “red lips, black eyeliner and a big smile,” is now an iconic image of feminine beauty and sex appeal.

Held at Beauty Bar on 14th Street, the class I attended was intimate, six women including myself. A perfect setting, the converted beauty parlor is decorated with swiveling chairs and display cases holding dusty hairbrushes and expired beauty products. As we settled into the vinyl salon chairs, Buddy Holly playing softly in the background, Ms. May asked why we had signed up for the class and what we hoped to take away from it.

There was Kim, 47, a mother of two, who became interested in pin-up culture through themed events she helped organize. Her enthusiasm reached so far that she brought along a friend, Marcela, 36. Also recommended by a friend was Margaret, 27. Swing dancing since high school, she was looking for a vintage hair and make up style to match her dance moves.

Hailing from Texas, Lorraine, 30, was a one-time hairstylist who was looking to fill a gap in her professional knowledge, as well as make a personal connection; “I’ve recently been looking at pictures of my grandmother and I kind of resemble her,” she said. “I remembered seeing some of her outfits in my dad’s closet. I just want to start presenting myself in a glamorous way.”

Then there was Amy who, though 37, looked as if she was in her early 20’s with a pixie haircut and a bubbly personality to match. After a long-standing fascination with vintage glamour, she was excited to resemble the pin-up girls she had plastered on the walls of her apartment.

As my turn to speak drew closer I realized I didn’t quite know why I was there. Though I’ve always been intrigued by the glamour of pin-ups, I wouldn’t identify myself as overly girly, having no predisposition to wear high heels, let alone make-up, an affront to my morning wake-up-and-run-out-the-door routine. “It doesn’t take a lot of work to do it once you know the tricks. A minimal amount of effort can give you a big look,” insisted Bettina.

“A pin-up look is really simple because it was made in the 40’s when there was war time rationing,” she explained. “People only had a few things in their make up kit that they’d be able to do, but they wanted to look fabulous so they learned how to do a lot for a little.”

We had been asked to bring with us liquid eyeliner, lipstick, eyebrow pencil, blush, foundation and a set of false eyelashes. We watched as from behind her make up mirror Ms. May demonstrated how to properly apply each product, an abridged course in Womanhood 101. Once the make up lesson was over Ms. May introduced what she referred to as the “piece de resistance,” pin up hairstyles. She showed us how to put in Victory rolls and fashion our locks into a flowing wave pattern. Named for the celebratory move pilots perform after shooting down an enemy plane, Victory rolls are a typical pin up style where the hair is rolled tightly into a large curl and anchored to either side of the head. To achieve these looks we used hot rollers, curling our tresses in to a perfect coiffe.

With our hair set we began to apply our own make up per Bettina’s instructions. I glued false eyelashes on top of my own, feeling their foreign weight on my lid, applied blush to my cheekbones until they glowed pink, and painted my lips a bold red. Once the face had been applied the only thing left to complete the makeover was an outfit.

Lorraine and Margaret looked as if they had walked out a 1940’s air hanger with a knee length navy pencil skirts and fitted blouses neatly tucked in on top. Kim wore a petite hat pinned to the side of her head and a tight-fitting black dress that let itself out into pleats at the bottom, Marcela a red dress with black polka dots and Kim, a simple black dress with a flower in her hair. I had brought with me a white letterman’s cardigan, white shorts, lace thigh-high stockings and peep-toed heels.

DSC_0066The class transformed. Laurie is back row, far right.

As I emerged from the bathroom, I heard the girls squeal, “Oh you look so cute!” Bettina joined in, narrating in a flirtatious voice, “Just waiting at the local soda shop for Jimmy. Getting ready for the big sports game.”

I laughed, but the illusion felt more than transitory. Fully costumed and made up I felt transformed, sexy, feminine – confident. It is this feeling that Ms. May hopes all her pupils come away with, “It’s not about being a perfect size two, or having a totally symmetric face. Its almost all about self confidence. It makes me sad to see people who don’t feel they’re confident enough to smile or aren’t happy with themselves in some way, and if I could get them a little more happy with how to present themselves, I’ll have done my job.”

“And hey,” she added, “If these hairstyles helped win the war and bring the men home safely then they can’t be all wrong, right?”