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Happy Birthday George Petty – Father of the ‘Petty Girl’

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Memphis Belle

Along with Alberto Vargas, no other artist defined the boundary points of what has come to be known as the Pin-Up Girl style more clearly than George Petty.  Born on this day in 1894, in Abbeville, in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, Petty studied first in France before settling with his family in Chicago in 1916.  There, Petty first found work as a commercial artist:  designing posters, advertisements and calendars in relative obscurity.  However, this anonymity was not to last as soon after Petty found both his forte and fame in the pages of Esquire magazine.

Initially hired as a cartoonist, though he had no experience in illustration, and using his trademark airbrush and – bizarrely enough – his own daughter Marjorie Jule as a model, Petty’s risqué work proved an overnight success:  sending sales of Esquire skyrocketing.  Before Esquire’s debut year (1933) was out, Petty’s name was forever linked to his coquettish creations as they quickly became known as Petty Girls.

Popular throughout the Depression years, Petty’s work would likely not be nearly as famous today had it – like Vargas’ ‘Varga Girls’ – not provided the inspiration for thousands of American servicemen who recreated Petty’s Girls on the noses of their aircraft and the backs of their flight jackets.  Though there were many memorable military adaptations of Petty’s style, perhaps none is more famous than that of the B-17 Flying Fortress known today by her Petty Girl illustration as ‘The Memphis Belle.’

This post by Collin Makamson, Red Ball Express Coordinator @ The National WWII Museum

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