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What I Learned in Pinup School

Big eyes, red lips, can’t lose.

Pinup school
@alyrosevintage by Lucy La Riot
Lucy La Riot

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Pinup school is serious. It takes me two minutes of class to realize this. I bop in just before class begins to meet Renee DiDio and Anna Patin hovering over a model; her hair is up in rollers, and they’re decked out in back-seamed nylons and dresses plucked from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Lessons takes place at Anna's studio, Lucy La Riot, where there's an enormous table full of makeup and racks and racks of cherry print skirts and pink gauze baby dolls and leopard bras. I think vintage is the bees knees and I have a growing collection of swing dresses and circle skirts, but lately I've invested in more important pieces — a cropped angora sweater from the early ‘50s, a ‘60s-era slip — that deserve to be worn the way they were intended, with the hair and makeup of someone more sophisticated than a dead hoofer like me. And so here I am.

Pinup 101 class is broken down into three eras — the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s — with a major focus on makeup and hair. Going in chronological order, a period-appropriate model takes her place at the front of the room for Renee to do her magic on her face, from foundation to lip gloss. Then Anna replaces her to uncurl, brush out, and coif the models, giving step-by-step details the entire time. Their historical knowledge is impressive; they breeze through explaining the origin of the dramatic ‘50s cat eye and bold lip (a celebration after the scarcity of wartimes — and Revlon is still making some of the same reds it made originally) and the more-is-more ethos of the’ 60s, with its big Priscilla Presley hair and beyond-smoky eyes. We are encouraged to ask questions, photograph, and discuss, but it's still intimidating. Me, with my moderate knowledge of vintage clothing and the historical references of these eras? I pale in comparison to the in-the-know ladies of this class, who wrap themselves in the restricting lingerie from the times and know how to tie a hair scarf with one eye closed.

The last portion of the class is devoted to the clothing looks of this period: the shapes, styles and outfits that would be most appropriate should you want to dive into the pinup lifestyle. Renee, who owns SlapBack, a boutique just a few minutes away from the studio, is a fountain of knowledge on both deadstock and reproductions, which companies are the cat’s meow, which to skip, and who to glean inspiration from. And though it's a lot of information to soak up all at once, there are a few key points I have underlined twice in my retro NASA notebook that I take to heart, both specific (you should NOT see through proper victory rolls!) and more general, as I leave the Brooklyn studio.

For everyone:

Good brows never go out of style.

In each era, a strong brow was required to hold the look together. The models in our class were all blessed with full arches perched atop their faces and yet Renee still filled them in with the Besame brow kit. Like today, a brow transforms your face.

Only liquid eyeliner will give you wings.

If you want the blackest black cat eye, go with liquid liner, and stay away from the waterproof stuff and pencils. Surprisingly, Elf and Sephora make the best liquids out there, for not a lot of lettuce.

Invest in solid makeup brushes.

With any stylized look, your brushes are extremely important. Invest in a set that has the tools you need, and pay particular attention to blender brushes.

For those looking to channel their inner Bettie Page:

The ‘40s are a great place to start.

Of all the looks, the ‘40s is lowest maintenance, with simple eyes and a slight emphasis on a deep cherry lip; because lipstick was a simple way to look beautiful when rations were scarce at wartime, this is when that bright red lip truly became a staple (Jeni Retro’s liquid lipsticks are a good place to start). With a 1/2 half-inch curler and duck pins, separating hair into dozens of curls and brushing them all out together, you can achieve the iconic ‘40s brush-out, too.

A little teasing make a lot of difference.

Even the thickest, longest hair can appreciate a tiny bit of teasing at the scalp. Use a comb (any teasing comb you find at your local beauty supply should do the trick) and start at the base of your hair, and don’t forget a good patina of hairspray afterwards. It goes a long way in giving you volume and making your hair more pliable when it comes to a difficult style. If you condition and brush out carefully, your hair will survive the tease. Some products to get you started? Check out anything by Kenra or Sauvecita.

Lay a lingerie foundation.

As I said above, real vintage deserves a strong foundation. Many of the forms created by these original lingerie shapes help the clothes lay on your body as intended. If you're adventurous, try out a merrywidow, the toughest base item to put on — and you’ll have to find it vintage, as they aren’t widely made anymore. Or, a longline bra will smooth your torso down to your waist for a smooth pencil skirt-wearing experience (I like Rago’s version). And there is, of course, the corset, if you want to train your waist to cinch-in smaller and if you’re not particularly fond of taking deep breaths, but it's recommended to go slow with cinching if you're new to the game. Oh, and those infamous ‘50s bullet bras? Costumey and soppy, but a lot of fun; check out Secrets In Lace or What Katie Did if you want to give it a try.

Nylons are serious business.

Don’t mix up your eras. For ‘40s, go nude seam. For ‘50s, get a little bolder with darker seams and heels (Cuban, Havana, and French). In the ‘60s, more colorful tights were all the rage under shorter hemlines. Leg Avenue is a great place to start if you’re unsure and monetarily tapped out.

And if you want to fill up your closet and look spivvy? Brands like Voodoo Vixen and Miss Candyfloss carry ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s reproductions, as do Hellbunny and Emily and Fin. Of course, you could always start out with era-appropriate shoe reproductions from Miss Royal Vintage, Miss L Fire, Chelsea Crew, or BAIT if you really want to start small, and from the ground up.