Fahreda Mahzar Spyropolos and naughty DVDs

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With Thailand’s constabulary hot on the trail of naughty DVD’s, just in case the unsuspecting tourist thinks that the horizontal high jinks might have been filmed here, that reminded me of photography’s part to play in the naughty picture market.

Fahreda Mahzar Spyropolos is hardly a household name these days, but the redoubtable Miss Fahreda was the star of the Chicago Fair of 1893, where she showed her navel to a disbelieving public, amid outcries from assorted horrified clerics.

Miss Fahreda is also better remembered by her stage name of Little Egypt.  In fact, her anatomical bits managed to change the fair from downright flop to financial success.  That, and the calls for her to be shut down for her lewd antics, brought millions of people to the fair.

The media also knew that ‘sex sells’ even way back then.  The New York Police Gazette (now there’s a catchy title – sorry about the pun!) began publishing illustrated supplements of actresses and dancers in the 1890’s and even offered “cabinet-sized finished photographs” described as the snappiest of all girl pictures.

And then there was “Photo Bits” – an English magazine started in 1898, which became Photo Fun in 1908 to run double page pin-ups, copies of which could be purchased for nine pence (including postage) and were advertised as being suitable for billiard or smoking rooms.

However, it was the “feelthy postcards” that really brought the pin-up to pride of place on the locker room wall.  It was the French who did all the running.  Seeing the success of postcard pictures of the Eiffel Tower, enterprising photographers began in earnest that most noble of artistic pursuits – persuading young ladies to pose in their pink one-buttons.

In the years before WWI, the ideal females to parade in front of the photographer’s lens were big hunks of women with large bellies and legs that looked as if they would hold up billiard tables.  Strong and well rounded, to say the least.  However, although the modesty was starting to disappear, the neck to knee flesh colored “tights” were still ‘de rigeur’ for anything other than the true ‘nude study’ which was called ‘art’.  A bit of chiffon and a rose was all that was needed to elevate the naughty nude to an artistic study, incidentally, both being props still in use today!

Burlesque shows were also getting racier, with some naked bosoms appearing at the Ziegfeld Follies and then some even more revealing strippers were making their way on to the stages.  In their wake, pin-ups of the performers were sold at the intermission, but again they were very unrevealing.  If you thought that these burlesque shows were just a minor part of life in those days, think again.  As many as 15,000 applicants each year would come and parade before Florenz Ziegfeld hoping to become a part of the Ziegfeld Follies.  That is more than the numbers of young ladies on Walking Street.

Similar to Little Egypt forty years previously, Sally Rand and her Fan Dance excited the visitors to the 1933 Chicago Exposition, and she was very much photographed, but even those with a magnifying glass were foiled by her multitude of ostrich feathers.  But as before, the shows brought the wrath of the clerics from their pulpits of purity.

By the mid ‘30’s the movie industry was in full swing with thousands of hopeful starlets, each ready to display a little more for the camera lens, in order to catch the eye of a producer.  But even these pin-up shots were still undergoing censorship.  Theda Bara, one of the stars of the day being photographed covered in pearls – but having no belly button!  Navels were taboo.  No wonder Little Egypt had been such a success!  The burlesque girls even wore little umbilicus protectors, as well as nipple pasties and G strings.

The next leap forward was yet another war (when will they ever learn, as Peter, Paul and Mary were to sing).  WWII did bring the pin-ups for the soldier far from home, and this in turn produced Hugh Hefner and the centerfold, and the age of the ‘serious’ glamour photographers was upon us.  Is it your turn next?