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40's Poster Girls: Sex Symbols of WW2

Updated on June 16, 2013

Famous Pin-Ups

Poster girls or pin-up girls represent a feminine ideal in the popular culture of a particular period. Although the practice of selling blown-pictures of attractive women dates back to to the 1890's, it really reached it's zenith in the 1940s during WW2 when soldiers, separated from their wives and girlfriends desired some female company and would pin the posters inside their lockers or on the walls of the barracks.

Propelled by Hollywood and the star system, the pin up industry served the dual purpose of making money and promoting individual female stars.Two of the most popular from this period were Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, both essences of a type and hugely appealing to a wide spectrum of males. These were the girls who drove the boys crazy...

Betty Grable

Betty Grable had a wholesome but sexy appeal; she wasn't too aloof or remote...she was the girl most guys thought they could get, given half a chance. Early photographs of Betty reveal a sweet faced innocent but as her career developed the innocence was replaced with a more provocative, sex bomb image. Her style was bright and perky with a side dish of knowing wisecracks. Without a doubt she was the most popular poster girl of the 1940's.

Betty Grable
Betty Grable
Betty Grable
Betty Grable

"I'm a song and dance girl. I can sing and I can dance but that's about the limits of my talents"~ Betty Grable

Betty Grable made several films with 20th century Fox and in the 40's she was the studio's top star but after years of battles with studio heads, she eventually tore up her contract and stormed out on Darryl F Zanuck. Post war, she did the Vegas route and forged a career in intelevision. The 40's icon died in 1973 from lung cancer, having been a smoker for most of her adult life.

Betty in Bathers

Betty's classic bathing suit shot (below) made it onto Life Magazines list of 100 Photos That Changed the World -it was the ideal pose for her, as she was noted for her particularly long, beautiful legs, which her studio famously insured with Loyds of London for one million dollars. If nothing else, it was a great publicity stunt.

Betty Grable
Betty Grable

Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth's early photographs suggest a wistful romantic, though she too was later marketed as an alluring sex siren. Her iconic pin-ups set a new benchmark for sensuous images of female beauty and sexuality. Rita's look was more sophisticated than Betty Grable and her overall vibe more dangerous than homespun. Unlike Betty she provoked an "out of my league" response but that didn't stop hoards of young men from longing and yearning. Next to Betty, she was the second most popular pin-up girl of the 1940s, although she was of course much more than this. Rita Hayworth is listed as one of the American Film Institute's Greatest Stars of All Time.

Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth


The 1946 classic Gilda, in which she played a hypersexualised knockout seductress, was Rita Hayworth's defining film, yet it also ensnared her and she became in a sense, a victim of her own image. As she said herself, "Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda... and woke up with me".

Born in 1918, as Margarita Carmen Cansino, Rita Hayworth began her career as a dancer and made her movie debut in 1935.While it lasted, Rita's career in Hollywood was stellar and she was a big box office draw all throughout the 1940s. Although she retained her star power through the 1950s, many critics believe her talents were wasted on lesser films during this decade.

Many Marriages

Reputedly shy and submissive, Rita was described by her step-son (from her marriage to Orson Welles) Chris Welles Feder, as possessing a "quiet dignity" and even in her provocative, sexualised photographs, it comes through.The marriage to Welles did not last, although he always spoke very highly of her and she of him. Hayworth was married five times, once to Prince Aly Khan but that marriage ended on the rocks also. Although she failed to find lasting happiness in her relationships, she did maintain her career for many years, until illness forced her to retreat from acting.

When Rita's trademark beauty began to fade, so too did her acting opportunities, although she did make a few solid pictures in the 50's and 60's; most notably, the film version of the Terrence Rattigan play, Separate Tables. Eventually illness forced her out of the industry completely. Rita Hayworth died in her New York apartment in 1987, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for many years. Sadly, at the end, she did not even recognize her own family.

Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth


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    • Ella Quirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Ella Quirk 

      8 years ago

      They were gorgeous. Thanks Simone.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh gosh, '40s pin-up girls had the cutest style! I wish people still dressed like that. Great Hub!


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