The Golden Age Of The Pin-Up Poster

Remembering the heyday of classic bedroom wall decor.

If you see a film or TV scene set in a teenager’s bedroom, you can guarantee that it will be one festooned with posters – and little does more to ruin the authenticity of a scene than the lack of understanding from filmmakers and art directors who were never as cool or rebellious as their characters. You know what I mean – those walls covered in posters for bands that not only have little musically in common with the supposed tastes of the teen rebel but also seem to come from different eras – and while I don’t doubt that some kids have a retro music taste (I did myself, after all) it often feels either contrived – let’s get a few band names that the viewer will recognise and so take as shorthand for the misunderstood teen’s taste – or, more often, a case of someone just gathering together a bunch of posters from an archive and plastering them around the set.

It’s worse when these films are set in the 1970s or 1980s because then a director can go to town wallowing in their own nostalgia. But all those cool gig posters that you see on the walls of some rural teen’s bedroom wall scream inauthenticity because gig posters – I’m talking about the ones flyposted on walls to promote the event, not the official merch – were pretty hard to come by back then. Desperate fans would painstakingly try to peel them off walls, they were so scarce. I’m not saying that it was impossible for a small-town teenager to have a great collection of ultra-cool band tour posters… but it’s unlikely.

In truth, most teenage bedrooms were not festooned with tour and movie posters, but rather with the fold-outs from poster magazines and the glossy pin-ups that you might buy in record stores, branches of Woolworths, souvenir shops and – in later years – chains like Athena. Displayed in racks, sold rolled and featuring a mix of popular celebrities, sexy glamour girls, raunchy humour, fast cars and life-affirming slogans – sometimes all at the same time – these were the go-to decoration for teenager’s bedrooms, college dorms and workplaces. They provided an instant way to make your space your own – just like everyone else’s.

The 1970s saw an explosion in these pin-ups, and certain ones became iconic – every bit as representative of the Seventies as anything else you might think of. The legendary Farrah Fawcett poster created by Mike and Ted Trikilis of Pro Arts Inc – one of the leading poster companies – sold something like five million copies and made the actor more money than her Charlie’s Angels role had. the pose – sexy yet wholesome, with just the hint of nipple beneath her red swimsuit (a touch of ice applied pre-shoot, known as ‘nippling’ became an industry-standard move to help sell posters) ensured that the poster was innocent enough for parents to approve of yet hot enough to ensure many a teenage boy’s furtive fantasies.

Pro Arts would go on to dominate the celebrity pin-up market. Their poster of the Fonz from Happy Days sold a quarter of a million copies; the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders poster of 1977 outsold Farrah for a while, becoming a global phenomenon even in places where the Dallas Cowboys were essentially unknown. They had Cheryl Tiegs, Lynda Carter and others, and only a long and costly legal battle with Elvis Presley’s estate over the rights to use his image (which Pro Arts eventually won) brought them down. But by that time, the poster industry was huge.

There were several iconic posters of the era. The poster of Bruce Lee, holding nunchuks, teenage boy’s walls across the UK even as the scene itself was cut from Enter the Dragon. The iconic Che Guevera poster was a staple part of any student bedroom, as was the notorious ‘Tennis Girl’. And then there was the endless stream of glamorous female celebrities – models, TV stars and athletes.  As well as ‘nippling’, these posters often featured celebrity signatures to act as a sign of authenticity.

The heyday of the poster as a cultural icon was undoubtedly between the mid-1970s and the 1990s when the Athena stores – selling all sorts of stationary but noted mostly for their posters – reached a peak of 165 stores in the UK before a spectacular fall; the chain’s final shop closed in 2014, by that time almost forgotten. Of course, the market for posters remains buoyant, if now mostly online – but despite the rise in celebrity culture, there has arguably not been a truly iconic poster since L’Enfant in 1987, which featured a shirtless man and a baby, and sold bucketloads to the female audience. The image, of model Adam Perry, seemed to represent the idea of the sexy but emotionally sensitive New Man and sold millions. In contrast to the touchy-feely nature of the image, Perry used his fame as the star to sleep with over three thousand women and photographer Spencer Rowell used his profits from 10% of the proceeds to buy a private plane and develop a cocaine habit.

Of course, wall posters are inherently disposable – few people framed these images and most were pinned to the wall, eventually being torn, faded by sunlight and thrown away. While some of the most famous posters remain in print – or have been revived for nostalgists – others are long lost.

Here are a few classics…

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