We celebrate Bettie Page's iconic style, and trace her journey from Attends Hume-Fog High School’s “girl most likely to succeed”, to young divorcee, bored secretary and then cult superstar...
A living incarnation of sunny 1950s American optimism, who also hinted at the radical socio-sexual shake-ups that the following decade would usher in, Bettie Mae Page from Nashville Tennessee, went from Attends Hume-Fog High School’s promising “girl most likely to succeed”, to young divorcee, bored secretary and then cult superstar. In a modelling career that lasted just shy of a decade, Page became the face of the pin-up and fetish scene, then plunged back into obscurity, affording her life story a mythical quality.
Following a divorce from her teenage sweetheart, Page left the south for New York, in 1951, where she worked as a secretary. She quit the 40-hour-a-week grind when she began modelling for underground “camera clubs” where she was filmed and photographed in erotic poses. Page would wear leopard-print bodies, stockings with all the regalia that came with hosiery of that era, satin full-cup brassieres and black patent French fetish heels, and sometimes nothing but a pair of elbow-length gloves and sheer briefs – her outfit for an unseen film reel Another Man’s editor Ben Cobb happened upon in London’s Portobello market. “In today's world of hardcore porn available at the click of a button, it's a peculiarly charming time capsule from an era when smut didn't have to mean dirty,” he said.
It was at a camera club Page met the photographer Irving Klaw who, along with his sister Paula, created some of the most iconic and highest-selling images of Page – some raunchy shots similar to the “stag” films of the day, others subtle erotic shots that have a Helmut Newton aspect. As well as being the only photographers who produced bondage images of Page, because Paula was the only one who Page would allow to tie her up, the pair were also responsible for the bombshell’s characteristic blunt fringe.
They made a living selling the cheeky photographs mail order. Due to a law banning nude or sexually explicit images being mailed, this meant the models always had to have their modesty covered, and could never be engaged in explicitly sexual acts – in even the most extreme images of Page, where she is bound, gagged, and suspended in the air, she is often wearing two layers of underwear, full-lit as not to leave any shadowy suggestion.
Page’s notoriety spread on the underground via photographs to order, or girlie top-shelf magazines such as Beauty Parade, and an early edition of Playboy – she was January 1952’s Playmate of the Month, which became one of the most sought after and collectible editions ever printed. Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner said: “Exactly what captures the imagination of people in terms of popular culture is something hard to define.”
At the end of the 50s Page fell off the radar – a brief FBI investigation into “obscene images” in 1957 fuelling conspiracy theorists' imaginations. Page had in fact become a born again Christian and was totally oblivious to the cult following she had amassed thanks to a series of books publishing her image in the 70s. In an interview with her official biographers in 1995, Page explains how she reconciled her risqué past with her newfound religion:
“. . . I threw out all my pin-up costumes and stockings and everything having to do with modelling. I thought God disapproved of all that once I had turned my life over to the Lord - I never felt that way before. And I was getting all of this out of my life. I wish I had still kept some of my bikinis; I just would have liked to have them as souvenirs. I used to make all of my own bikinis. But I felt God would look down on me and so would other Christians if was doing God's work and continued to do any modelling or even talk about it, so nobody ever knew that I had ever been a pin-up and figure model when I was going to the Bible school.” – Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend by Karen Essex, James L. Swanson
Bettie Mae Page died aged 85 in 2008, yet her work continues to influence erotic imagery and fashion tastes.
Text by Laura Havlin