Probably the most popular pinup artist of the era, Alberto
Vargas was already a successful magazine and poster artist
when he signed a contract with Esquire magazine to produce
monthly pinup art in 1940. He worked with Esquire for five
years, during which time millions of magazines were sent free
to World War II troops. Vargas received piles of fan mail from
servicemen, often with requests to paint ‘mascot’ girls, which
he is said to have never turned down.
Unlike Gil Elvgren’s pinup work, Vargas’ female figures were
always shown on a featureless plain white background. While
Vargas Girls were clothed for the most part, their very thinly-
veiled eroticism made Vargas and Esquire magazine the target
of censors later in the war.
Pinup drawings were not just limited to planes: many of the
most popular pinups of the time were produced by commercial
artists. ‘Elvgren girls’ was the nickname given to pinups drawn
by artist Gil Elvgren. He began his focus on pinup art in 1937,
but his long career also involved advertisements for Coca Cola
and General Electric.
Elvgren was well-known for painting his pinup subjects in
imaginative situations: water skiing, climbing trees, doing yard
work, even skeet shooting. Many pictures featured a young
woman in a situation that accidentally revealed her stock-
ing tops and garters. Rather than overtly titillating imagery,
Elvgren seemed to go more for personality and even humor.
The prize for the most popular piece of pinup art during WWII
went to Betty Grable, who posed in a white bathing suit and
high heels, looking over her shoulder. Betty’s studio, Twen-
tieth Century Fox, provided five million copies of this iconic
picture to distribute to troops. And her success outlasted the
conflict: after the war, Grable became not only the top female
box office draw, but the most highly paid woman in America,
earning about $300,000 a year.
Betty’s legs, prominently featured in her famous photograph,
were famously insured by her studio at a million dollars each
– and that’s in 1940 dollars. Whether this was actually consid-
ered a wise investment, or was simply a publicity move by her
studio, is still up for debate.