All the naked ladies I have known: appreciating Bettie Page, early Playboy and Vargas girls
It occurred to me after watching Bettie Page Reveals All -- opening this Friday, January 10, at the Sie FilmCenter -- that Bettie Page isn't well known to the masses, certainly not the way I know her. I grew up with more-liberal-than-thou, hippie parents, so art involving nudity has always been a part of my life -- so much so that it has made me a more modest human than most of the people I surround myself with (I'm looking at you, naked roommates). But as I settled in to watch the documentary about Page that I felt I had been waiting my whole life to see, I realized that, prude or not, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of naked women in popular culture.
Let me reiterate my prudiness before I discuss my interest in pre-1970s boudoir photography: I prefer a sex life that is not broadcast to the world or even my friends, especially in an age where being even remotely freaky on the sex front is not only acceptable, but feels as if it is the norm. It often seems that within my social circles, it's not only okay to talk about the weird shit you do in your bedroom, it is almost expected. Not to shame anyone who is into sexual behavior that happens to be off-putting to me; I just think that I am the exception more than the rule when it comes to sexual interactions/preferences in 2014. I also hate watching/being anywhere near most contemporary pornography. But I do like tasteful pictures of naked ladies.
I don't remember when I first encountered Bettie Page's image -- it was definitely sometime in the mid-'90s, when rockabilly style was crossing the multiple musical genres I was into and every No Doubt video was like an homage to Gwen Stefani's swirl of a ponytail and pinup hair curls. Bettie seemed to be everywhere I was -- my car and guitar had Bettie on them, I plastered the walls of my first apartment with her bondage posters, and, after going through many Stefani hair phases, I locked into the "Bettie Page bangs" look for a solid half-decade. She was, and still is, fascinating to me.
It wasn't Page's beautiful body that first caught my eye (I really didn't come to appreciate hers until I got older and saw more than enough misrepresentations of naked bodies elsewhere in pop culture); it was her expressions. Also, the idea that I was looking at something that might have been controversial to some was exciting. But in the small, '50s shoebox of a childhood home I grew up in, the walls were crammed with large, colorful paintings, many of them nudes painted by my uncle; Bettie was hardly my first tasteful nude.
I also remember, at a young age, flipping through a grand coffee-table book of Vargas girls that lived on one of our household's many overstuffed bookshelves. I was fascinated by Alberto Vargas's take on women's shapes: Vargas girls were clothed more often than not, but they wore things that couldn't have been anything but painted on. These were images of women with creamy white and caramel skin almost always draped in sheer pastels (a color scheme I still am attracted to, regardless of the context) -- minty and peachy nightgowns -- with black and blond hair flapping in an invisible wind. Decades after they were introduced, the Vargas girls appeared on album covers by the Cars, which is probably why I skipped my parents' multiple copies of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in favor of Candy-O.