Long before Dita Von Teese donned Lucite heels and stripped down to her bejeweled, barely there underthings, there was Bettie Page: the former secretary from Tennessee — black bangs cut short, lips painted matte red — popped up in lad mags and pinup posters in 1951, her bustier-and-whip ensembles becoming a symbol of the era’s sexual repression and a major influence on fashion, underpinnings and otherwise.
This story first appeared in the December 15, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Page, who died Thursday at 85, started out covering up her curves — modeling furs, that is — but became a locker-door standard by shimmying into bondage gear for the brother-and-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw. Clad in black bustiers, often brandishing a whip, Page was both fierce and demure, a happy dominatrix whose appeal was in her ability to seem both utterly unattainable and girl-next-door sweet (if the girl-next-door wore six-inch stilettos and a sheer red chiffon bathrobe, as Page did in one infamous shot).
Throughout the early Fifties, she shot dozens of short films and hundreds of saucy centerfolds, many for magazines with names like “Wink” and “Eyeful” (according to Von Teese’s book “Fetish and the Art of the Teese,” Page “holds a title for more magazine appearances than Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford combined.”) There were the “Jungle Bettie” photos, in which Page posed with zebras and hung from a tree wearing a one-shouldered leopard-print bodysuit, fingers curled into a claw; the 1954 movie “Varietease,” in which she was poured into a sequin halter bra and filmy harem pants; Page on the beach, wearing a white bikini trimmed with black embroidery. Many of Page’s costumes were surprisingly chic in their simplicity, but her fame was cemented by a 1955 Playboy centerfold — she was one of its earliest Playmates — in which she wore nothing at all (save for a little red Santa cap).
Page abruptly quit the modeling business in 1957, moved to Florida and went through two divorces before landing in Southern California, where she lived up until her death (rarely appearing in public and refusing to be photographed). While she no doubt influenced lingerie designers during her heyday — she frequently wore a structured bullet bra with seamed stockings, a combo both elegant and titillating — her impact on fashion was truly made in the last few decades. In the early Eighties, comic book illustrator Dave Stevens invoked Page and her retro glamour in “The Rocketeer” (the hero’s girlfriend is based on Page), fan clubs sprouted around her cult cheesecake films, and pop stars and actresses began to take on her signature look (a recent burst of attention came courtesy of Mary Harron’s 2006 biopic “The Notorious Bettie Page,” starring Gretchen Mol). Certainly Madonna, whose 1992 book, “Sex,” shot by Steven Meisel, featured the singer high-heeled and all tied up, owes a thing or two to Miss Page; likewise late-Nineties Gwen Stefani, with her bikini tops and trimmed bangs; so, too, the revived rockabilly music movement of the late Eighties, whose followers snapped up cinched-waist dresses and bustiers from every resale bin around. Katy Perry is practically a dead ringer for the pinup, with her curled jet-black coif and short-shorts. And the aforementioned Von Teese, who, with her Swarovski-studded push-up bras, has made a career treading the naughty-but-nice territory that Page forged.
Designers, of course, have also sought inspiration in the star’s brief but image-rich career, from Dolce & Gabbana and Vivienne Westwood to Agent Provocateur. There’s even a Bettie Page Clothing collection, featuring nipped-waist, full-skirted dresses with names like “Party Time” (the line’s flagship is, not surprisingly, in Las Vegas). “It’s a sad day, but business is very good,” Tatyana Khomyakova, the company’s founder, said on Friday. “The retro look is popular right now, and girls, they like to look elegant but also very sexy, and Bettie represented that. Even if she is more famous without the clothes.”