In pre-WWII America, images of Black beauty and glamour were few and far between. A racist culture that deemed Blackness as unattractive was the order of the day, plus cameras and the art of photography were basically a luxury for most Americans of all colors due to the expense of developing film. But a new generation of enthusiasts has been working steadily to collect and share photographs that set the historical record straight, even as models, performers and fans keep forgotten aspects of African-American culture alive.
On January 17, 2011, writer Nichelle Gainer launched a Tumblr called “Vintage Black Glamour” with a picture of Josephine Baker applying pancake make-up. The image, and Gainer’s blog, instantly went viral.
Featuring archival imagery of Black entertainers and activists in addition to little known glamour girls, the photo driven blog has since spawned a Facebook page that boasts over 200,000 Likes. That number should climb with Gainer’s upcoming coffee table book set for a May 2014 release.
For Gainer, it was about reminding people of the Black women and men who have been omitted from the annals of American pop culture. “You see the coffee table books with the old Hollywood divas,” she says listing a few of the most commonly associated with the era. “Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo or…Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, and I was just stunned there was no Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge or Eartha Kitt or Josephine Baker.”
Her passion goes beyond celebrity. “I’m also interested in the history of the people…who are not well known, but also had an impact.”
Like Gainer, KC Washington was so intrigued by the everyday African-American women of the ‘20s through the mid-century—particularly the ways they expressed their sexuality—that she started a Black pin up themed gift company called Noir a-Go Go.
“You look at those fashions, and they were fitted, but there was no breasts bared everywhere. Nothing was short. Everything was mid-calf,” she points out. “Then, obviously, there’s the bathing suit component.”
Washington finds inspiration in the subtle and the more overtly sexy images from the time period. “The whole pin up genre is based off a curvier woman,” she notes, citing “body empowerment” as one benefit.
With 20 years of traditional modeling on her resume, Angelique Noire began posing as a pin up in 2011, because of its power to challenge the standard of beauty.
“I started doing pin up because there was an extreme lack of Black pin ups to refer to. Black women (especially those with dark skin), were rarely celebrated or praised in the media for their beauty during the 1940s-50s (as well as many decades preceding and following this decade),” she explained via email. “This lack, reinforced the mindset that in order to fit the standard of beauty, you had to be Caucasian (or look as close to Caucasians as possible).”
But when it comes specifically to pin ups, many Black women do not find photographs of scantily clad or nude Black women empowering, no matter what the time period. Washington says she finds herself being careful not to step into “‘Ooh, that’s too explicit. Now, everybody’s gonna think we’re hoes.’” territory when writing copy for her cards, magnets or bags.
“My Christmas cards said ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’,” she explains, “and I had a woman say, ‘Oh, I love the card so much, but I know that some of my friends [might take offense.]” Washington says her Caucasian counterparts in pin up novelty have more freedom to be humorous. “We’re always battling history in this country, you know?”
Jim Linderman, a former librarian who was Grammy nominated for his work collecting vintage images of river baptisms for a CD repackaging old Gospel songs and sermons, acknowledges the complexity of the history. In his self-published book The Secret History of the Black Pin up: Women of Color from Pin up to Porn, he includes photographs, advertisements, and covers of bygone magazines like Tan ‘n’ Terrific, Bronze Thrills, Sepia Sirens and Jive that range from tame to hard core. He muses in the book that one particularly disturbing ad of a Black woman covering her face with her skirt hiked up was likely stylized to “appeal [to] potential buyers of ‘authentic’ and taboo African-American pornography.”
Over email, he added that not all pin up photography was taken to portray glamour. “One article from Jet in 1952 laments young negro chorus girls lured into shoddy studios where nude photographs were taken to exploit them.” He adds, “Not only that, the first pioneers (though to call them that is wrong) who did publish Black models happened to come from the fetish community…to whom African-American models were seen by some as ‘exotic’ or simply different. Others were published by members of organized crime who had little glamor on their minds.”
Though Gainer’s book doesn’t focus on pin ups, she reflects, “In those days, if you were a model, or if you were an actress… a dancer and it’s 1930s and ‘40s, you don’t have certain rights as a human being in this country, and you are deciding for whatever reason to make your living as a burlesque performer or as a dancer. It’s not the easiest road to take. So you have to kind of give them credit."
Either way, from traditional glamour shots to the more risqué, the images represent a found history that has captured the imaginations of many modern day fans. Angelique Noire says she often receives requests from Black women asking her to show them how to replicate pin up hairstyles for natural hair, which she obliges on YouTube. Meanwhile the Brooklyn-based Brown Girls Burlesque revue enjoys a national cult following and has spawned a weekly workout inspired by the performance art. And then there are the myriad Pinterest boards and blogs inspired by this glamorous slice of African-American nostalgia.
Gainer welcomes the interest and looks forward to the exhaustive exploration they could produce. “There’s so much in our history, Black history,” she says, “that is worthy of study.”