Brett Allen Photography

Liminal Experience of Becoming Pinup

Behind-the-scenes ritual of becoming a pin-up. Transformative event. They are braver than I am.

The experience of Becoming pinup is a memorable time. The vintage & pinup community is a unique group of everyday people from all walks of life. On special occasions, men and women break the everyday order of lived time to immerse themselves in the culture of the 1950s and 60s. From hairstyles to fashion, they embrace a bygone era. Some women sacrifice their everyday persona through performance rituals to become known as a pinup.

This ritual process is similar to Michael Houseman’s account of performance as an initiatory rite in The Red and the Black Experiment (Houseman 2004). Like Houseman’s students, pinup initiates, observers, and initiators are part of the same community. A community that regularly attends festivals such as vintage car shows. However, pinups are set apart from the crowd. These women (and sometimes men) have transgressed the boundaries of the everyday to become sacred persona (Jones 2001) and part of the essence of the vintage community. Becoming pinup will become part of who they are.

The Victorian Pinup Pageant is an annual celebration that has run for many years. Even with a name change, the event has altered little over time, including the emotional intensity. Unlike Houseman’s experiment, where he intentionally builds the emotion, pageants naturally build excitement, fear and anxiety. The shared emotional experience brings the initiates ‘together into a single sequence of action features drawn from a wide variety of domains’ (Houseman 2004:76).

In this case, friendships, social media content, ceremony, and performance are motivated by the sense of community. The ritual of the pinup pageant is far from an everyday event. The performance is an affirmation of identity while also being statements of differences. There are even displays of authority and subordination between the initiators and the initiates (Houseman 2004:76). The ritual begins as the initiators call the initiates to the green-room.

The secrets of the green-room and the space behind the curtains are only for the initiates to experience. A space where ‘secrets are simultaneously dissimulated and revealed’ (Houseman 2004:67). The green-room is for the liminal personae where the initiate and those who have been ‘inoculated, against them, through having been themselves initiated into the same state’ (Turner 2004:97). Intimate and secret experiences begin in this liminal space.

Once separated from the population, the individual is no longer an everyday community member. Houseman’s male initiates were similarly separated and made to stand in the hallway. The initiates have begun their transformation and become ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner 2004:97) the everyday and the pinup. 

The construct of Becoming pinup is a bricolage of spatial, temporal and cultural constituents. The everyday is sacrificed, deconstructed and reconstructed (Kapferer 2013) through the rite of the pageant. Once reconstructed, the initiate’s physical appearance is altered, and they adopt a persona name, for example, Miss Absolutely Alice. In this space, the modern era is very matter-out-of-place (Douglas 1966) within the green-room. However, smartphones seem to have a magical ability to exist in this space.

In Houseman’s experiment, he prepares the class through a choreographed sequence of warm-up exercises (Houseman 2004:81). The initiates will rehearse some of their moves in the green-room, stretching and striking the all-important pose. These “cheesecake” poses are reminiscent of the post-war era calendar girls drawn by artists such as Gil Elvgren (Tribby 1998). These illustrations are symbolic of the vintage era pinup of the 1950s and 60s (Hamid & Nucifera 2019). When the time comes, the initiates burst free of the green-room and moved to the backstage area to await their performance. 

Pinup Performance

The historic Mechanics Institute Hall in Ballarat provides the ritual space for this year’s initiates. Similar ritual performances may be held in marquees or even on the back of a flatbed truck at a car show. Houseman conducted his experiment in the confines of a classroom.

Regardless of the place, the structure of the space is critical to the ritual. The pageant has a similar structure to the Red and the Black Experiment. The initiates are separated backstage from the audience or observers.

The latter take their place in the hall, facing the initiates. Previous initiates have come to participate amongst the observers, often in their favourite pinup regalia. Similar to the way that earlier participants in the Houseman’s experiment would dress in red and black (Houseman 2004:78).

These participants will also be the loudest of the observers, cheering, clapping, and stomping their feet to encourage the newcomers. Setting the tone for the entire audience to follow (Houseman 2004:88). With the peak of anxiety and emotion, the initiates take to the stage, one by one.

The performance area is an elevated stage with large black velvet curtains hanging on either side. These serve to hide those who have transitioned throughout the ritual, like Houseman’s curtain in the classroom corner (Houseman 2004:78). With their backs to the audience, five judges, or initiators, sit in silence right in front of the stage. The initiators often include past and present pinup royalty and previous initiates. The initiators also dressed as their pinup personas, wait for the performance to begin. Just as Houseman’s wears red underwear as a commitment to the ritual itself (Houseman 2004:94). 

The detail of the performance is not essential to the ritual. However, in virtuality or performance (Bastin 2013), there are several expectations or rules in becoming pinup. The rules of the ritual encourage audience engagement, similar to loudly announcing “Le rouge et le noir” (Houseman 2004:85) with the audience cheering or laughing in response. Initiates must also hold their poses for no less than three seconds.

The act elicits a response from the observers in a way that is not dissimilar to Houseman’s initiates grasping the cactus. Houseman was surprised by how the performance could ‘accommodate blunders and variations’ (Houseman 2004: 90). Here the blunders are celebrated. The stage itself is a substitute for Houseman’s black box. The initiate does not just sacrifice a hand to the unknown slime (Houseman 2004:79). A pinup initiate sacrifices their persona to the performance. As the initiates complete their performance, they gather behind side curtains. 

Behind the scnes at Becoming pinup

Once all the performances are complete, one of the initiators takes to the stage and faces the audience. The now transformed initiates are presented to the community to more cheering. The initiates are then sent into the community to mingle with the observers (Houseman 2004:87). Houseman used this time for the initiates and the observers to interact.

Like the anthropology students, the pinup initiates are celebrated and questioned on their experience (Houseman 2004:90). While the pinups mingle, the initiators meet in secret to decide which initiate will join pinup royalty. Once the decision has been made, initiates are recalled to the stage. This phase departs from Houseman’s experimental structure. Assembled on stage again, the initiators announce their judgement of the winner of the pageant.

With a standing ovation by the observers, a large satin sash emblazoned with Miss Victorian Pinup Pageant 2022 is draped over the initiate. Then importantly, the previous year’s matriarch crowns the new queen with a large tiara. An ouroboros moment of death and rebirth. Here is the death of the last matriarch’s title and the birth of the new. A renewal of the sovereignty of the pinups within the vintage community.

The ritual of becoming pinup within a pageant, provides a liminal space for the sharing of emotional experiences with other community initiates. In the process, a teacher, business owner, mother or nurse can transcend the boundary of the everyday to be held sacred by their community. The event is a temporal fold in time, breaking the rhythm of the everyday so that the individual or community can erupt through the boundaries as something new. Transcendent and sacred.

The pinup becomes a complex polysemic symbol presented in a simple form (Bastin n.d.). Now initiated into the community, the pinup can freely transgress the boundaries of the everyday and without challenge. By donning the symbolic sash and tiara, the pinup persona’s place in the community becomes stated. With this newfound place, they will attend other social events, be a mentor to newcomers and importantly become an initiator herself to start the process anew. 

Becoming Pinup
Becoming Pinup – 2022 Ballarat on Stage

Becoming Pinup Reference List

Bastin R (2013) ‘The politics of virtuality’, Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 4: 21-31.

— (n.d.) Sacrifice, Sovereignty and the Dynamics of Structure and Anti-Structure, Deakin University.

Collins M & Elvgren D (1998) Elvgren: His Life & Art, Collectors Press, Oregon.

Houseman M (2004) ‘The Red and the Black: A Practical Experiment for Thinking about Ritual’, Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, Berghahn Press, 48(2):75–97.

Douglas M (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, Routledge classics, Routledge.

Hamid F & Nucifera Z (2019) ‘The Vintage Lifestyle as a Group Identity (Study in Alfred Schutz Phenomenology on Indonesian Pinups Community)’, International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science, 4(4):1013-1017.

Jones,S (2001) ‘Durkheim and Bataille: constraint, transgression and the concept of the sacred’, Durkheimian Studies / Études Durkheimiennes, 7: 53–63.

Kapferer B (2013) ‘Ritual practice and anthropological theory, Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 4:3-40.

Turner V (1967) ‘Betwixt and between: the liminal period in rites de passage’, The forest of symbols; aspects of Ndembu ritual, Cornell University Press, New York.

Liminal Place of Becoming Pinup Copyright 2022 Brett Allen, All rights Reserved.

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