It seems crazy to me now but it’s been 7 years since I began dressing pinup. That term, of course, technically refers to the models whose mass produced pictures were pinned up as posters back in the last early to mid-century. These days though, for those of us within the vintage style community it’s just so much easier to say ‘Oh I dress pinup’ than ‘I love the fashion and beauty aesthetics of X decade(s) so I dress that way daily/part-time/for special occasions.’ Plus, there’s the fact that for many of us vintage-style lovers owning actual vintage is impractical, inaccessible, or too expensive, thus adding in the additional complicating factor that the word ‘vintage’ has a genuine descriptive meaning that may not technically apply to the modern reproduction clothing hanging in our wardrobes.
So, for many of us, saying ‘Oh I dress pinup’ or ‘Oh I always wear vintage clothes’ is just the easiest shorthand we give to the strangers, vague acquaintances or new co-workers we meet for the first time who give us quizzical looks or ask delightedly confused questions like ‘Oh, you look amazing, are you going to a costume party after this?’
Over the years I’ve had a lot of well-meaning but bemused people enquire about my dress or hair or makeup, but it’s just a part of dressing this way that I’ve become used to. If you’ve been debating embracing a vintage aesthetic for the first time but hearing that alarms you, please don’t be scared; I’ve never once, thankfully, had a single mean comment or sneer, in all 7 years, yet complete strangers have approached me on the street or in the supermarket to tell me that my dress was just like one they had as a 20 year old and seeing it had made their day, or that I was a sight for sore eyes on a morning they really didn’t want to have to run their errands. There’s a lot of love and appreciation both for and within our vintage community, and the strangest part of it all, for me, is that I ended up as part of it almost completely by accident. What, how? you may be wondering. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Before I was a pinup, I was a curly-haired early 20-something who struggled with her weight and was trying to decide what style felt like ‘me.’ I’d spent my teenaged years feeling too awkward to dress ‘girly’ but too feminine to embrace tomboy-hood, as it would’ve been considered at the time. My makeup experience as a teenager was only as extensive as applying a single coat of brown Rimmel mascara (not lengthening or volumising even) and maybe, maybe, some fine shimmer shadow that exactly matched my skintone. As I tiptoed into my 20s I began to get to grips with the contents of a well-rounded makeup bag, discovering beauty YouTube and slowly learning about primers and how on earth I was supposed to apply eye liner, a skill that almost entirely eluded me. Hopefully that gives you hope now if you struggle with makeup, because God knows now I am a winged liner addict and feel naked made up without one.
Hair-wise at that time I was passionately and proudly sporting a massive mane of natural curls, volumised and styled only to the extent of applying some Frizz Ease curl cream before scrunching it upside down with a hairdryer, without the aid of a diffuser because somehow my loosely cupped fingers always did a better job. I lost some weight, which meant I swapped my jeans, trainers and stomach-hiding empire tops that were genuinely in fashion at the time (man oh man, remember boho ‘chic’, you guys?) for the short skater dresses that were becoming trendy. I was, back then, the style equivalent of mixing Boohoo.com with Hagrid’s hair, and I was very into it. Sometimes I would use a curling wand to give myself looser, sleeker curls for special occasions, but it was my lion’s mane I loved the most.
Which is why it was an accident that within the next year I would become a full fledged pinup, because I didn’t just decide one day that the short skirts were too short and, for that matter, also not nearly as voluminous as I’d like. I didn’t even decide I wanted to go for a sleeker, more classic hairstyle. What happened that changed almost everything for me, literally, is that I asked for a pair of wet-2-straighteners for my birthday in 2012, which a) shouldn’t have fucking existed because they were awful and b) is insane because I loved my wild hair and I don’t even know why I wanted straighteners, since I knew straight hair didn’t suit me. But, still, I asked for them, I got them, and I used them, just once, before going out for my early birthday celebration with my friends. And that was it, that was all it took. Everything would change.
My hair was ruined. It was so heat damaged it could no longer form my natural curl, let alone the volumised, ringlety mass I so loved to wear. I’d had curly hair my entire life, had grown up being told by my parents that if I ate the crusts on my bread I would grow strong and have curls, and I did. It was an ingrained part of my identity, and probably not just a little bit because my secondary school career involved the craze for GHDs and straight hair in general that meant if you didn’t have pin straight, perfectly sleek locks even for a school day you weren’t really cool. No, my curls were gone, and in their place was a lank, dull mess. Nothing I did with my hair looked nice, it snapped off if I even so much as got it caught underneath the strap of the bag I had slung over my shoulder. I was (as stupid as it may sound) devastated.
What followed that summer, without any correlation, was an even more devastating break-up from my first love, and months of oscillating anger and misery as years worth of lies unravelled. By the start of 2013 I was the most confident and determined a woman as I had ever been, but my hair was still shit and one of my best friend’s was hosting a charity ball through her workplace in the spring that I was really looking forward to. I knew heat styling was not an option for achieving a glamorous look that night but I was desperate to find a way to achieve curls, any kind of curl, somehow. And that’s where it really began. I googled heat-free ways to curl hair and found myself falling down a rabbit hole of pincurling. I began to experiment with wet-setting, practising how to hand roll pincurls purely with the goal in mind of having nice hair for the ball.
For 2 months, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, every a week or so, struggling to roll the perfect, neat pincurl, trying to get a nice brush out from the results. It was a process, a skill set I wanted to acquire; it involved buying special combs and brushes, and setting lotions (the traditional kind you got in Superdrug wasn’t going to cut it, I learned,) it involved learning to sleep with a headscarf on and pins sticking into your ear if you set it at just the wrong angle for a side-sleeper. But it worked. I loved being able to have my curls back, and as my hair healed I occasionally experimented carefully with hot roller sets too, adoring the voluminous, glamorous results. My winter months of experimenting led to me occasionally adopting, come spring, other aspects of the vintage style. I began testing my hand at expanding my makeup skills, especially for creating winged eye liner looks. I bought some head scarves, some capri pants, the basic vintage-inspired items you can find on the high street that feel pretty ‘safe’ and unobtrusive for most people.
For the ball in May I found a red leopard print swing dress on eBay. It had a sweetheart-neckline and a full circle skirt, and I thought it was the coolest and sexiest dress I had seen in a long time. I wore it with seamed stockings but no petticoat. Now, looking back, I don’t remember specifically even deciding I was going to go for a full 1950s look that night. Maybe I decided a swing dress was the best notion I had of a fun, glamorous dress at that time, or maybe I thought it would just look best with the hairstyle I was going for. Either way, I loved that dress, and I leaned into the 50s look, not fully, not enough to wear red lipstick or a petticoat. But enough, just enough for me to realise, for the kernel of an intention to form–it was possible, dressing this way. It was a thing that I could do and looked good on me. It was a real option.
That notion had always been missing for me, because looking back, all throughout my teenaged years, to those early twenties even, my love for the style had always been there. When I walked through a clothing store it was the dresses that were most vintage-inspired, the most like a swing dress, that I would reach out a hand for, my fingers skimming the fabric of the skirt as I thought ‘Oh I love that.’ Before my hand dropped, I turned, drifting off towards other safer, less interesting clothes, automatically, without even needing to silently add to myself ‘except I’m too fat for it’ or ‘but it’s too bright so everyone would look’ or ‘but it would look stupid with a cardigan and there’s no way I’m getting my arms out.’ All thoughts that were quiet and deep in me, a long held self-consciousness I didn’t even have to process as full thoughts, because they were just forever present feelings, like a whispering breeze. Those clothes were not real, for me. It didn’t matter if I was entranced by bejewelled sweetheart necklines on a shelf busted dress in a period movie I was watching, or that I thought the most glamorous a woman could ever look was with her hair styled in loose, long Hollywood waves. That aesthetic wasn’t an option, wasn’t reality; not really for anyone, I thought, except actresses on a red carpet, but most certainly not for me.
So it was an accident, really, that I ended up crafting a 1950s look for the charity ball (the term term ball was being used rather loosely, I’m sure you’ve ascertained.) It was an accident that the way my dress and my hair made me look that night was, ultimately, untouchable. It, I, was definitive, fully and glamorously evolved. I had not meant to look and feel more luminous and confident than I had ever been in my life, and yet it had happened. And so I leaned into it.
My hair experimentation continued–I learned, very early on (although not early enough for my present-day liking, cringe) that victory rolls are not a vintage necessity nor are they suited to me, which is a small blessing really because I still can’t do them properly. Over time I learned that finding the right setting lotion can make all the difference in the softness, hold and ease of brushing out a wetset (Motions At Home Foaming Wrap is what I use, in case you’re wondering.) I learned a smoothing brush is crucial in achieving a sleek, smooth brush out, so grab yourself a Denman bristle brush. I learned that hand-rolling pincurls doesn’t make you a better pinup than someone who uses foam rollers, but they probably do give you a different result and most pinups will find the one thing they like and stick to it.
As I continued to dedicate myself to my hair transformation the rest of my style followed; I began to seek out the clothes. At first I began to add small vintage elements to my ‘normal’ outfits, like a hair flower or head scarf added to my brush out. For a couple of months that was enough. By July I was trying to dress pinup for every social occasion I had, cobbling together outfits that felt more vintage than not from clothes that were definitely not. I bought my first circle skirts from a cheap dancewear company because I was so used to shopping in Primark that the notion of spending £40 on a skirt, let alone more, seemed insane to me, and I cheaped out. I learned to put together outfits from modern stores that felt vintage, then I began wearing petticoats and seamed tights. I eventually did discover all the modern reproduction companies producing the clothes I actually wanted, and realised the price tag was there for a reason, and that fast fashion came at a greater price than it appeared.
The last thing that I attempted, weirdly, my final missing piece, was red lipstick. Somehow that was the finishing touch that felt like I was fully committing, and because I worried so much about the idea of lipstick smudging or getting it on my teeth, that was the thing I was most scared to commit to. But I did, of course I did. I fell in love with red lipstick, became obsessed with buying the perfect one for me, and eventually moved onto matte liquid lipsticks, the formula type that has held my heart ever since.
The moment I felt like a true, complete pinup came in the winter of 2013, that same year I had first begun to set my hair. It had taken several tentative months of practising, researching and experimenting before I achieved the top-to-toe look that I hadn’t actually been aiming for, except it turns out that I had. Finally, by the start of December, I had curated a style that felt like ‘me,’ and the craziest part of it all was that it didn’t just change how I looked but it also changed a dozen aspects of my life.
I didn’t go out thrifting or to rockabilly weekenders, I wasn’t a part of the vintage scene or community out in the wide world, for the most part, and yet being apart of the community on Instagram in those early days when the platform was slowly building into the behemoth it is today meant that I made a ton of friends that I otherwise never would have. Friends in America and Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Some that I’ve since lost contact with, but plenty of others that I talk to daily or weekly, a couple I even flew to America to meet, or who flew to London to meet me. I’ve modelled for small companies that lead me to becoming friends with the owners, the other models, the photographers. I’ve been recognised from this blog in the Bobbi Brown section in Oxford Street’s House of Fraser…as well as in the ladies’ toilets in my local train station while waiting to dry my hands. Fucking up my hair one day 7 years ago led to a plethora of experiences, events and people that I never would have enjoyed without embracing red lipsticks and petticoats. It’s a bit insane to think of it like that, but it’s true.
But the other truth is that my pinup journey wasn’t just a journey towards adopting that style, but one that continues on even now. I don’t dress the same now as I did back at the end of 2013 when I felt like I had finally become the woman I had secretly always wanted to be. My style and the version of myself I want to be has and will continue to change over the years.
There are dozens of things I do now that I didn’t back when I felt I had finally cracked my ‘perfect’ pinup look. I wear vintage inspired shoes, which I used to think looked unbearably frumpy. I use a Tangle Teezer to brush out my sets because, actually, they produce an even smoother result than my Denman smoothing brush, thanks to how easily my hair type knots and tangles. I wear massive, dramatic false eyelashes, and mascara on my lower lash line, which I used to think made my eyes look small and my face too long. I do everything I can to avoid wearing a headscarf out of the house. I only set my hair once a week or less, because even though it’s in great condition now I’ve learned that vintage styling is just always going to damage it because it breaks too easily and my hair shouldn’t really be brushed at all (curly girls know what’s up.) So I wear wigs and clip in hair pieces just as often as I make the effort to do a set because it’s more important to me to protect my hair than to style it authentically all the time. And, speaking of, I don’t buy things for the sake of trying to be ‘authentic’ or ‘fit in.’
I dress this way because it makes me feel comfortable and happy, and yes, it’s based on a look that existed in a particular era, but that doesn’t mean I need to achieve it exactly to be allowed to wear my petticoats–I’m not making a damn historical movie. I can wear modern jewellery and shoes with a 1950s inspired repro dress, while carrying a vintage handbag but also with neon yellow painted nails if I bloody well want to, and that doesn’t make me any less worthy of the style or my space in this community than someone who thrifts every weekend and repairs vintage dresses.
For most of us, the point in dressing this way isn’t actually about achieving an authentic era-devoted look–it’s about feeling confident and proud. You can pick and choose whatever you want from decades past when it comes to your style. At the end of the day, you don’t have to answer to anyone else to be worthy. Yes, if you’re new to this you’ll probably need to practise your hair styling and your winged liner technique, but even those of us who have been doing this for years occasionally find a new product or a new way to do those things that works better, and not one of us got it right on our first try. It’s a journey, not a goal, so you can commit to adopting as many or as few aspects of it as you want in order to find what’s right for you. Just enjoy yourself.