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Varga Girl

Varga Girl

During World War II, the Varga Girl pinup, with her long legs, narrow waist, and "sumptuous" figure, was a major military morale booster. As Jamie Malanowski notes, her image "hung in billets and on bulkheads, was unfolded in foxholes, and was lovingly imitated on fuselages throughout Europe and the Pacific." Above all, the "Varga Girl" was timely. Her success derived from the confluence of a World War, the coming of age of "mass culture," and changing sexual mores. Drawn by Alberto Vargas, she was part of a new set of myths, which Leo Lowenthal of the Frankfurt School called a byproduct of twentieth century capitalism. Mass culture, according to Lowenthal, was manufactured in assembly line style by agents of mass media communication and was widely distributed.

Thousands of servicemen treasured the Varga Girl pinup. They were the pleased consumers of a product ingeniously distributed by Esquire magazine, which along with Life and Reader's Digest had been designated as wartime "morale boosters." The upbeat image of the Varga Girl provided a counter to the unpleasantness of the war and the loneliness of the trenches. One letter written to the pinup's artist Alberto Vargas by a serviceman suggested that regardless of what "the girl back home" looked like, "we can see her in each of your drawings." As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, "The American male's capacity to make do with imaginary women gave our military forces a logistical advantage I have never seen acknowledged anywhere."

The Varga Girl and her predecessor, the Petty Girl, evolved from the more modestly clad Gibson Girl. Both "girls" were also directly related to the women drawn by Raphael Kirchner for the turn-of-the-century avant-garde publication, Le Parisienne. The airbrush technique used by George Petty and Vargas allowed the impression of flawless women, suggestively clad and sultry-looking. In 1940, after Petty objected to the high-handed manner of Esquire's publisher David Smart, he was replaced by Vargas. The Varga Girl (a name suggested as more "euphonious" by Smart) became a monthly staple in Esquire and in the popular "Varga Calendar" and other spinoff products.

Although appreciated by a significant portion of the U.S. male population, the pinup stirred up controversy in the areas of sexuality, gender exploitation, cultural representation, mass (popular) culture, and consumerism. According to Jeanne Meyerowitz, "The proliferation in the mass media of sexual representations of women is arguably among the most important developments in twentieth century popular culture." Meyerowitz further notes that the genres of "cheesecake" (suggestive) and "borderline" (more than suggestive) material "arose in the confluence of rising consumerism, burgeoning mass production, and changing sexual mores." There was strong resistance to these cultural changes. In 1943, the U.S. Post Office brought charges of obscenity against Esquire, specifically citing a number of Varga Girl illustrations. At the trial, one female witness asserted that the pinups and other cartoons in the magazine exploited and demeaned women, while another female witness argued that the Varga images "beautifully portrayed" the female form. Esquire won the suit and a lot of free publicity. Into the late 1990s, the debate about whether erotic representations of women celebrate or degrade women is part of the discourse of feminists, lesbians, sexual libertarians, and anti-pornography and free speech advocates.

The Varga Girl was the work of Peruvian-born illustrator Alberto Vargas (1896-1982). Educated in Europe, Vargas was influenced by the work of Ingres and Kirchner. When he arrived in New York in 1916, Vargas was struck by the confident, vivacious women he saw. For a time he worked for producer Florenz Ziegfeld and once said that from Ziegfeld he learned the difference between "nudes and lewds." He later worked as an illustrator and set designer for several major Hollywood studios. In 1939, after Vargas walked out in solidarity with union advocates at Warner Brothers, he was blacklisted. A year later, David Smart hired Vargas for a pittance, and without the right to royalties for his own work. Like Petty, Vargas was eventually driven to sue Smart. Vargas lost on appeal (he maintained that the judge was bribed), and he was enjoined from using the trademark name "Varga."

In the mid-1950s, Hugh Hefner hired Vargas to resurrect the Varga Girl under the artist's own name. The Vargas Girl appeared in Playboy on a monthly basis into the 1970s, until it was eclipsed by more prurient fare. Playboy pushed the envelope by using photography to convey a new image of the desirable woman. According to writer Hugh Merrill, whereas Esquire's images had been "grounded" in burlesque shows patronized by the upper classes, Playboy had its cultural roots in the movies, an art form accessible to the masses. Photos of actress Marylyn Monroe graced the first issue Playboy. Eventually Vargas' idealized depictions gave way to centerfold photography that left nothing to the imagination. Yet according to Merrill, Vargas' work had helped set the stage for this change. In the 1940s the center of glamour had moved from New York City (the stage) to Hollywood (the movies). The "new cinematic standard of beauty of the 1950s did not come from nowhere. It was a real-life extension of the imaginary women in the Vargas paintings of the 1940s." Some of these paintings had even been showcased in the film, Dubarry Was a Lady.

Personally, Vargas was quite different from the sexually heady atmosphere he worked in. He was an unassuming, courtly gentleman, born during the Victorian era, who was devoted to his wife, Anna Mae. His primary (some say, naive) desire was to "immortalize the American girl." In his time, he succeeded. One admirer described his monthly pinup calendar as "an icon of popular culture," while another described him as "the finest watercolorist of the female form." Vargas' girls remain embedded in the collective psyche of the generations of the 1940s and 1950s, and they also remain as one of the cultural signifiers of those eras.

—Yolanda Retter

Further Reading:

Malanowski, Jamie. "Vivat, Vivat, Varga Girl!" Esquire. November1994, 102-107.

Merrill, Hugh. Esky: The Early Years at Esquire. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Meyerowitz, Jeanne. "Women, Cheesecake and Borderline Material:Responses to Girlie Pictures in the Mid-Twentieth Century U.S." Journal of Women's History. Fall 1996, 9-35.

"Vargas." http://www.vargasgirl.com/artists/vargas/index.html.March 1999.

Vargas, Alberto, and Reid Austin. Vargas. New York, Harmony Books, 1978.

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