If you thought the last Bettie Page post was long, get a load of this one! With her 100th birthday fast approaching in April, you can expect even more fun Bettie posts than usual for the next few months. Today, let’s tackle Bettie’s notorious bondage work. Clearly, there’s a lot to say about it, and an abundance of (NSFW) photographic accompaniment, too.
Bettie Page’s ascension to pinup Queendom in the 1950s happened during the age of moral panic over sexual deviance and other perceived self-abuses of the body, mind, and soul. This was the decade in which one of the truly original American art forms—the comic book—was practically decimated by wild accusations of a psychiatrist who wrote a book condemning comics as immoral. The author was Frederick Werthan, and his book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), charged comics with turning children into juvenile delinquents and worse. Senate subcommittee hearings were called and the result was tragic for the comic book industry and its professionals, many of whom never worked in the field again. It took years for the medium to overcome the stigma of the 1950s.
That’s a story for another day, though. The point is that’s just one example of the extreme moral panic that occurred in the United States at that time. The camera clubs where Bettie Page became a star were a reaction to the overly strict moralizing of the fifties. These were places where patrons and photographers could go to satisfy their interests in looking at and taking pictures of gorgeous women, respectively. They also provided an outlet for the models to express themselves freely in ways deemed too lurid for mainstream society. These taboo photos, of Bettie and other models posing in sexy lingerie and play-acting fetish and bondage scenarios, sold like hot cakes. They were also very much underground, sold surreptitiously via mail-order to a devoted audience that couldn’t get enough—especially when it came to Bettie.
Yet even as this thriving underground industry worked back channels, there were rich, powerful men who were not only well aware of these bondage shoots, but were offering the camera clubs large sums of money for specific, kinky scenarios starring Bettie. If it had been widely known that these influential men—some of whom worked in state and federal governments—were paying for “dirty” photos, it could’ve tanked their careers. Therein lies the hypocrisy inherent in any historical moral panic—it’s almost always done for show, a craven effort to garner votes, money, or both.
These days, Bettie’s sexy BDSM-style sessions seem positively tame compared to the absolute onslaught of hardcore smut that began in the 1970s and then went nuclear once internet access was widely available. Compared to porn, Bettie in lingerie being tied up and pretend-whipped by another lingerie-clad woman now seems quaint! Healthy! Wholesome!
Back then it seemed the moral majority wanted to link these camera club photos to porn, which was an absolutely false equivalency. The only thing they shared in common was nudity. Yet the stigma stuck, in certain circles. There are still people today who frown at by Bettie’s fetish work. For most of us though, these photos—many of which Bettie took at the Movie Star News studio of siblings Paula and Irving Klaw—are fun, sexy, and silly, and usually all three at the same time. Most importantly, they showcase how fabulous Bettie was at acting.
Bettie could mug for the camera for hours on end, with arms tied behind her back, legs bound at the ankles, and a ball gag in her mouth and still be more expressive than most Hollywood actresses of her era, or any era since. Bettie was absurdly popular because she threw herself into fetish work with as much artistry as she did for more straightforward modeling. She was such a force because she knew precisely how to accentuate her already spectacular female form for maximum appeal—she devised a lot of her poses, both in and out of bondage. She was as equally talented at playing the startled, hapless victim as she was doling out punishment in her scowling, Dark Angel dominatrix persona. Photographers who worked with her routinely praised her instincts and noted that she hardly ever needed much, if any, direction. In other words, she was a natural born performer who also worked incredibly hard at her craft.
Modeling for the Klaws meant a certain amount of sessions were going to be bondage work—the demand for the stuff was high, after all—and Bettie never complained. Instead, she just went to work and made the best, most erotic fetish photos she could. Working for as many hours and years as they did together, Bettie and the Klaws became like family. The shoots were often lighthearted and fun. The Klaws treated Bettie with great care. Not only was Paula the photographer, but also the only one allowed to tie Bettie up or gently maneuver her body into a new position. After these fun but arduous sessions, the Klaws often took Bettie out to dinner. Her star power made their business. She was the reason they sold photos, films, and books in droves, and it seems they showed her how appreciative they were for that.
Eventually, fifties moral panic set its sights on the Klaws and other New York City Camera Clubs. The same 1957 Senate subcommittee hearings that impugned the comic book industry branded Klaw a “pornographer” and destroyed his and Paula’s mail-order empire. Bettie was even summoned to testify at the hearings, but was never called to the stand. She retired from modeling soon after, then disappeared from the public eye for decades. It was a sad end to what was a fun and profitable several years for Bettie and the Klaws.
Thankfully, their work was eventually reevaluated and today receives plenty of long-overdue respect. Fittingly it was members of the comic book community in the 1980s, including artists like Dave Stevens and Greg Theakston, who spearheaded Bettie’s reemergence and eventual dominance of popular culture. It took one maligned community of artists to recognize and champion the work of another marginalized artist, because that’s what artists do.
What is it about Bettie bound that people enjoy so much? Is it the deviance? Yes, mostly likely. Bettie’s more salacious work also happens to be fun and flirty, with no real sense of menace or danger whatsoever. It’s very clearly done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Bettie’s panicked reactions to being strapped backwards over an ottoman make us laugh while her exquisite physical assets titillate. Nearly every bondage photo of Bettie packs that intoxicating one-two punch of fun and flirty, just like her regular modeling does.
Today, we can buy merchandise with Bettie fit to be tied, gagged, and spanked. That was unthinkable in the 1950s. Time has a way of being kind to true artists though, and Bettie’s artistry is undeniable. Eventually, her unique artistry as a performer elevated her to cultural icon status. That’s how it should go and, even if took decades, that’s how it eventually went for Bettie.
For visual proof of her artistry, here’s a massive gallery of Bettie’s bondage, fetish, and other similar modeling work, much of it done with the Klaws. I’ve tried to break it down into categories, just for fun. A quick note, first. Bondage photos of the sort the internet is famous for are often disturbingly real, but Bettie’s work is always clearly an act. They’re sexy and silly because the photo shoots were meant to be sexy and silly, and because Bettie is so adept at always being sexy and silly for the camera. I realize there may be people who find these photographs offensive or demeaning. Bondage stuff is not the typical blog content here, so I completely understand if this post seems a bit out of left field, but it’s really not. Since I began exploring various aspects of Bettie’s career during the last year, it was inevitable that I would eventually explore her fetish modeling. After all, it is an enormous part of her career and lasting legacy.
Just a heads-up: as tame as these pics are, they probably fall under the NSFW category. Okay, enough chatter, on with the Bettie Show!
Bettie in Charge
Bettie Taking Her Lumps
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