Sunday, February 24, 2013

George Petty and the pointe-shoe

A Petty Girl at her best!

This entry: As readers will see this post is not an exhaustive account of the commercial artist George Petty’s work, it’s simply a reminiscence of my first encounter with his art and my love of his skill in which even 60 years after its production for me one of his drawings (above) has lost none of its wonder. It is a glorious and timeless depiction of a playful fantasy ballet dancer.

George Brown Petty IV: (April 27, 1894 – July 21, 1975) was an American pin-up artist. His pin-up art appeared primarily in Esquire and Fawcett Publication’s True but was also in calendars marketed by Esquire, True and Ridgid Tool Company. Petty's Esquire gatefolds originated and popularized the magazine device of centerfold spreads. Reproductions of his work were widely rendered by military artists as nose art decorating warplanes during the Second World War, including the Memphis Belle, known as “Petty Girls” … “Petty is especially known for “the Petty Girl”, a series of pin-up paintings of women done for Esquire from the autumn of 1933 until 1956. Petty frequently depicted these women with the relative lengths of their legs being longer—and the relative sizes of their heads being smaller—than those of his actual models.”(From Petty’s Wikipedia entry)

Shoes in his illustrations: Petty drew women in all sorts of footwear; Sandals, stilettos, sling-backs, peep-toes (with ankle bows), mules, boots, ice-skates and even pointe-shoe ice-skates as well as in hose, body-stockings and occasionally barefoot. But given my background the illustrations I like the most are where the girl is wearing toe-shoes as I think when en pointe it gives the legs a much longer line, emphasizes the calves and tightens the buttocks making the wearer more attractive, which is why some of us wear pointes whenever we can.

While Petty frequently depicted his girls with the relative lengths of their legs being longer—and the relative sizes of their heads being smaller at the same time George Balanchine was developing his ballet company with dancers having what he considered the ideal ballet body; long legs, short trunk, long neck, small head and small breasts. The only place Petty’s and Balanchine’s female fantasies diverged were on breast size. A Petty girl displayed ample breasts. I like to think that Petty studied the body shapes of NYCB dancers

Petty pointes: I first came across a George Petty’s pin-up illustration when I was a child in Southwest, Virginia. There was a very old framed calendar illustration in a place of honor on the wall of the gas station where my father had his car serviced. As I was already taking ballet I was fascinated to see that the girl on that calendar (the same illustration that appears at the top of this entry) was wearing toe-shoes and asked my father if she was a dancer. He mumbled something then asked if I wanted a Dr Pepper.

I never forgot that picture. She looked like she was having such fun playing with one of the ribbons on her shoe. I only came across George Petty’s work again a few years ago when I began collecting memorabilia for one of the dancers I looked up to as a role model when I was young, Cyd Charisse. Petty drew some of the advertising art for MGM’s 1945 production of Ziegfeld Follies in which Cyd had a small part; however she still was listed below the stars. I bought an original poster for the Follies with Cyd’s name on it and a full length illustration of a dancer en pointe by Petty and he was back in my life.

The illustration: I think the illustration at the top of this entry is one of George Petty’s very best! It sets off the woman’s long legs with the back seams of her transparent bodysuit, and displays her relatively small breasts with no bows to hide her slim ankles. The foot of the standing leg is delightfully winged so she is balanced with her weight on the inside corner of the platform and from what we can tell the ribbons on her left shoe are tied correctly. I love the detail of the pleats on the under side of the block of the shoe on her working leg. While the ribbons of her right shoe seem to be wrapped tightly around her ankle the ribbon in her right hand suggests they are not and that by fingering the loose ribbon and with that lovely smile she is inviting the male viewer (this appeared on an Esquire calendar) to remove her shoe and play with her.

Ribbons and vamps: Petty in his calendar art was as likely to have his girls tie their pointe-shoes with bows in front to add a bit more fantasy as to tie them correctly knotting the ribbons and tucking the ends into the hollow behind the inside anklebone. However, from the illustrations I’ve seen where his artwork was for films like Ziegfeld Follies (1945) and The Petty Girl (1950) or an industrial client like Ridgid Tool he seems to have shown the women’s pointe-shoe ribbons tied correctly. Well, almost, since in the Follies artwork the ribbons are just wrapped around the ankles not crossed over the instep or attached to the shoes! But no bows! By the 1950s in his calendars and illustrations for Ridgid tool Co he had some girls wearing pointes with very high square vamps, as though they had sewn vamp extensions on their shoes, though there is no change in color or texture to indicate an extension. So we can probably put the change down to artistic license. It would be fascinating to know if his models posed in pointe shoes for him. My guess is that they did.

Contraception and the Petty Girl: In the U.S. the 1940s and 50s when the Petty Girl illustrations were most popular diaphragms were in use by more than one third of the married couples in the U.S. However, because of “Crimes against Chastity, Decency, Morality and Good Order laws” unmarried women in 26 states were prohibited from legally purchasing diaphragms until Eisenstadt v. Baird legalized birth control for all Americans on March 22, 1972. Even so in the 40s and 50s an unmarried woman wanting to use a barrier method that she controlled could often get a diaphragm through her gynecologist if she was bold enough to ask for one. I just know that the woman in this picture was assertive and confident enough that she would be using a diaphragm as her preferred method of protection.

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Powys , Wales, United Kingdom
I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort