Photography in Fashion Advertising since 1970

Paul Jobling


DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA163


Photography began to make inroads into advertising—including fashion publicity—by the start of the twentieth century following the evolution of the halftone process in the 1880s. By the 1930s the shift toward photographic methods became more pronounced in advertising, though in fashion publicity line illustrations remained the preferred medium. These could be reproduced more easily (especially when it came to color) but also, given that the visual quality of halftones on newsprint could be somewhat soft-edged, they were crisper and cleaner in recording the fine details of garments. A paradigm shift occurred from the late 1950s, however, when advertisers in Britain, Europe, and the United States began to exploit high-speed web-offset for cheaper monochrome and color printing in periodicals such as the Sunday Times Magazine (1962–present) and Town (1962–1968) in Britain, Twen (1963–1967) in Germany, and Esquire (1950–present) in the United States. From the 1960s onward, in advertising for retailers such as Burton in the UK and synthetic textiles such as Terylene internationally, we also witness a more acute concern with youth culture and a concomitant sensitivity toward style and lifestyle. Since then, photographic representation has become the norm in print publicity for fashion and the cathexis on being and looking young has intensified exponentially. As there is such a critical mass of source material to deal with, in this short essay I want to concentrate in particular on how fashion and art photographers have been involved with international fashion advertising campaigns in the West since the 1970s, its nexus to sex and gender identities, and concomitant issues concerning spectatorial pleasure, pornography, and censorship.

Undressing Men

A turning point in the nexus between art and fashion publicity came in the early 1980s with the involvement of Bruce Weber in the launch of Calvin Klein underwear. These included a notorious 55-foot-high billboard of bronzed, buff athlete Tom Hintnaus, wearing nothing but underpants, which was displayed in New York’s Times Square in 1983. Weber had made his professional debut in 1973 when he was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to take a portrait of Ralph Lauren and his family. Subsequently, he went on to produce fashion spreads for the U.S. and British editions of Vogue, but began to garner a reputation for representing the male body as a form of erotic spectacle with his portraits of Jeff Aquilon in U.S. GQ in 1978, affirming in an interview with journalist Michael Gross: “They were really frightened of seeing men’s skin, pushing up the sleeves was an amazing adventure.”

The CK underwear ads were not the first to use photographic images of semi-clad male bodies. For instance, in “What the Best Undressed Men Are Wearing” for Lyle and Scott (Sunday Times Magazine, 1972) we observe a man, wearing only colored underpants and slippers, standing in an art deco-styled living room as he reads a newspaper. Nonetheless, he is portrayed as being comfortable in his own skin as he is in the underpants he wears, while any sexual ambiguity concerning the display of the seminude male body is dispelled by the female shoes and garments that have been casually discarded around the place to suggest either a pre- or postcoital conquest. But the CK billboard differed from such precedents on two significant counts. Shot on the Greek island of Thera, the ad traded on the classical ideal of the phallic statue body that, alongside the sculptural men and women in subsequent publicity for Calvin Klein’s cologne Obsession, was controversially interpreted by some critics as a postmodern and fetishistic restitution of “Fascist chic.” It also removed the wearing of underwear from any situational context, thereby celebrating the narcissistic male body in its own right as a highly visible, if self-absorbed, sex object. Until the early twenty-first century, the trope of the pumped, phallic peacock has prevailed in men’s underwear advertising across Europe and the United States for designer label brands from CK to Emporio Armani, and mass-market brands from Jockey to Sloggi, often through associating commodities with celebrities. This includes Steven Meisel’s infamous 1992 image of rapper/actor Marky Mark clutching at the legs of his CK stretch trunks to emphasize his genitals. Since 1988, American photographer Meisel has shot every cover of Vogue Italia and has also worked on campaigns for Prada (2004), Belstaff (2008), Juicy Couture, and Louis Vuitton (2010). And in 2008 Armani signed up soccer player David Beckham for a three-year publicity deal worth over $15 million to promote tight briefs in moody press and billboard photographs by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott that lionized his phallic prowess and caused his wife, Victoria, to comment she was “proud to see his penis 25 ft. tall. It’s enormous. Massive.”

Body Parts

The fetishistic depiction of Beckham’s genitals echoes Mary Ann Doane’s argument that, “The effective operation of the commodity system requires the breakdown of the body into parts,” and this applies to how women appeared in underwear publicity as well. In 1994, for example, TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie launched its “Hello Boys” billboard campaign for Playtex’s rehabilitation of Wonderbra, with a close-cropped photograph of Eva Herzigova by Ellen von Unwerth. In the ad, Herzigova smiles as she looks down admiringly at her breasts (or “boys”), while the headline puns simultaneously on her own pleasure as she does so and that of the male spectators it interpolates. The fact that she was represented by a female photographer as an independent woman, seemingly in charge of her own desire, is archetypal of the commodity feminism, or postfeminism, that postulates female power can be asserted through the sexualization of the body. A photograph by Mario Testino for a 2003 Gucci advertising campaign plied this message in a more challenging way. In it, the male model kneels in front of the female model, pulling down her pants, ostensibly to perform cunnilingus. But her pubic hair has also been shaved into the shape of the company’s “G” logotype and thus brands her as just another passive (sex) object. Accordingly, media studies academics Dee Amy-Chinn and Rosalind Gill have argued the ambiguous humor and sex connoted in these fashion ads do not just celebrate women as autonomous agents but also co-opt femininity and, thereby, postfeminism itself ironically promotes what Imelda Whelehan calls “retrosexism,” not female empowerment. Indeed, many fashion brands have persisted in pushing the envelope when it comes to traducing sexual objectification and erotic pleasure in their publicity. For instance, in 2010 an ad for Calvin Klein, shot by Alas and Piggott, depicted Lara Stone held down by a group of male models and traded on the fantasy of group sex, if not gang rape. While in the same year, a similar scenario was compounded in Steven Klein’s photographs for Dolce & Gabbana advertising—but with a homoerotic spin: in one of them, a supine naked male model, who caresses his own body, is ogled by two other men as he does so.

Porno Chic and the Ethics of Representation

These ads exemplify what Roland Barthes calls the text of bliss or jouissance, whereby one’s body “pursues its own ideas” and, indeed, advertisers assume that such hypersexualization and objectification of bodies is what Generation Y—a market classification that refers to those aged between ten and twenty-one years old with estimated spending power of $150 billion gross per annum—expects or desires. But this tendency has not gone without official and public opposition. Thus on several occasions Calvin Klein advertising has caused moral outrage, twice facing accusations of child pornography; to wit, a 1981 campaign for his jeans shot by Richard Avedon in which a sixteen-year-old Brooke Shields bends over and pouts provocatively, and another in 1995 shot by Steven Klein that mimicked centerfold poses. In one ad, a blonde teenage female model wearing a denim miniskirt lies on her back and parts her legs to reveal her panties while chewing a lock of hair, and in another, an ephebic male model wears cropped denim shorts that reveal his underwear. The Shields campaign was not censored, as complainants had conflated it with her appearance as a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s controversial film Pretty Baby (1978), which had not been banned. But public opposition to the 1995 campaign, coordinated by the Catholic League and American Family Association, forced Calvin Klein to drop it.

Just as notorious on this level are the many advertising campaigns photographed by Terry Richardson, and those for American Apparel, which trade on the uninhibited aesthetics of porno chic and hipster sleaze but were not banned in the process. In 1995 Richardson shot a campaign for Katharine Hamnett representing women in short skirts that revealed their pubic hair and since then has garnered a reputation for sexually explicit fashion advertising with a portfolio of promotions for Tom Ford, Diesel, and Sisley (2007), Jimmy Choo (2008), and H&M and Valentino (2013). In one print ad for Sisley (2004), he represents himself fellating a baguette, posing in such a way to suggest it is his own penis, while in another, a female model sits in a bullring with her legs apart and licks her lips, as she invites a bull to mount her like some latterday Pasiphae. More controversial is Richardson’s reputation as “Uncle Terry,” based on female model Jamie Peck’s revelation that as a nineteen-year-old, when she was menstruating on one shoot, he wanted to remove her tampon and play with it.

Like Richardson, Dov Charney, who founded American Apparel in 1989, has been charged with allegations that he coerced some of the models who appeared in the company’s publicity to have sex with him and in June 2014 was fired for sexual misconduct in the workplace. Based in Los Angeles, American Apparel prides itself on being a brand with ethical credentials and eschews manufacture of its clothing in Third World sweatshops. Yet its risqué online advertising presence, masterminded in-house by director of marketing Ryan Holiday, undermines this ethos. It features teenaged females rather than well-known models, often girls who work in their stores, handpicked by Charney himself, in sexually compromising positions. Thus an ad captioned “Now Open” (2012) represents a young woman wearing a black, V-neck bodysuit with her legs splayed and arms behind her head while she looks diffidently at the photographer and, by extension, spectator.

As media studies academic Janice Winship appositely contends, the kind of sexuality depicted in this kind of publicity is distanced from reproduction; rather, “It is sexuality for its own sake, although contradictorily contained within patriarchal relations.” As if to underscore this point, a series of spoof ads were produced by Swedish clothing company PM in 2013 to contest the blatant sexism and hypersexualization of fashion publicity by putting its founder, Petter Lindqvist, in the same compromising poses adopted by the young women in the American Apparel ads. And yet, fashion advertising has not been criticized solely because of sexism or for causing sexual offence. In 1991, for instance, a series of images for a multinational Benetton campaign masterminded by Oliviero Toscani (creative director of their ads since 1984) and handled by J. Walter Thomson was banned on the grounds of decency and taste in the UK after the Advertising Standards Authority had received 2,500 public complaints about them. The most high-profile ads represented a newborn baby smeared with blood and mucus, still attached to an umbilical cord, while several others manipulated existing news photographs, such as a man shot dead by the Mafia. In 2000, however, Toscani courted controversy to the extent that his portraits of criminals on death row led to his dismissal from the company. Of course, the shock tactics of such publicity have little or nothing to do with Benetton per se, whose exploitative production methods have themselves been subject to moral scrutiny, and it is debatable whether they draw more attention to the company rather than raising awareness of the issues with which they purport to be concerned. Nonetheless, Benetton advertising remains at the cutting edge artistically and ideologically, and not least in the way that it has encouraged other fashion advertisers to deal with the ambiguities of sexual and racial identities.

Race and Mimicry

Even though Benetton has used white and nonwhite people in its “United Colors” campaigns since 1985 to symbolize racial harmony, and high-profile black models like Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford have appeared in ads for Ralph Lauren Polo Sport (1997), the wider representation of ethnically diverse people is still absent from fashion publicity. For instance, the Glasgow University Media Group found that between June and August 1997, 90 percent of people in television ads in Britain were white and a mere 5 percent black. However, there have been some campaigns that have attempted to represent black subjects uncompromisingly on their own terms, or at least, as described by critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha to mobilize mimicry “as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge,” such as “Hush Puppies Used to Be Worn by Fathers. Now They’re Worn by Mothers” (1997). One of a series of ads in a £1 million campaign by Delaney Fletcher Bozell, it was a blatant attempt by the ad agency to transcend the staid identity that the brand, founded in 1958, had gained for its comfortable suede crepe-soled casuals. With copy by Pete Kew and documentary-style photography by Jake Chessum, the ads represented cool young Americans wearing shoes in different colors in urban settings. In this instance, we observe an insouciant black youth sitting on the steps of a tenement block wearing a pair of red Hush Puppies and copy that sublates the pejorative slang of American black culture—“mothers” being shorthand here for “motherfuckers,” a term that literally refers to the Oedipal taboo of incest but which is a broader metaphorical form of abuse, used frequently as a putdown by black actor Samuel L. Jackson in the film Pulp Fiction (1994) and rapper Snoop Dogg in his song “Down 4 My Niggas.”


Alongside the other publicity addressed in this essay, the Hush Puppies campaign demonstrates how fashion advertising generally mobilizes the idea of social scripting, which deals with identities as something that can be acquired and maintained through cultural scenarios such as social relationships (for instance, Benetton); interpersonal scripting—how we negotiate identities in one-to-one contexts (the myriad hypersexualized campaigns shot by Terry Richardson); and intrapsychic scripting—the internal or mental rehearsal of who we want to be on an individual level (campaigns for Calvin Klein, Wonderbra, American Apparel, and Hush Puppies). Accordingly, much fashion publicity negotiates who we think we are or want to be through a series of exclusions or oppositions—male/female, straight/gay, white/black, young/old—such that, as Jacques Derrida maintains, “One of the two terms governs … the other, or has the upper hand.” And yet, at the same time, fashion advertising also frequently subverts and contests such binaries of identity. An egregious example is the “Cloth for Men” campaign for Dormeuil (1968–1975), produced by Michael Robinson Associates, in which German model Veruschka von Lehndorff appears as both male and female subjects in Alec Murray’s retro-styled photographs. As this and transgressive campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci remind us: whose desire is it that is being addressed? For, if there is a social script, what is also being suggested by a lot of fashion advertising since 1970 is that we should “mash it up” or, in the words of a 1986 poster campaign for the upmarket French leisurewear brand Le Coq Sportif, “Just. Be. Somebody.”

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Adams Tim. ““Cost of a Killer Image”.” The Observer , 20 February 2000: 21 .

Find in Library Amy-Chinn Dee. ““This Is Just for Me(n): How the Regulation of Post-Feminist Lingerie Advertising Perpetuates Woman As Object”.” Journal of Consumer Culture 6, no. 2 (2006): 155–175 .

Find in Library Barthes Roland. The Pleasure of the Text . Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Find in Library Bhabha Homi K. ““Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”.” October 28 (spring 1984): 125–133 .

Find in Library Carlson Rae. ““Studies in Script Theory”.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40 (1981): 501–510 .

Find in Library Dawson John. The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words . Port Townsend, WA : Feral House, 2009.

Find in Library Derrida Jacques. Positions . Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Find in Library Doane Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s . Basingstoke : Macmillan, 1988.

Find in Library Falk Pasi. “The Benetton-Toscani Effect: Testing the Limits of Conventional Advertising.” In Buy this Book! Advertising and Consumption , edited by M. Nava et al., pp.64–86. London and New York : Routledge, 1997 .

Find in Library Fisher Alice. ““Beckham Factor Boosts Briefs as Men Tighten Up”.” The Observer , 6 July 2008: 16 .

Find in Library Furuki Tina. ““Why Ask Y?”” American Advertising 15, no. 4 (1999): 11–14 .

Find in Library Gill Rosalind. ““From Sexual Objectification to Sexual Subjectification: The Resexualization of Women’s Bodies in the Media”.” Feminist Media Studies 3, no. 1 (2003): 100–106 .

Find in Library Goldman Robert. Reading Ads Socially . London and New York : Routledge, 1992.

Find in Library Gross Michael. ““Camera Chameleon”.” Vanity Fair , June 1986: 100–106; 116–118 .

Hartmann Margaret. “American Apparel Ousts CEO Dov Charney.”, 19 June 2014.

Find in Library Hatfield Stefano. ““When They Don’t Just Add Up”.” The Guardian , 21 August 1995: 11 .

Find in Library Jobling Paul. Man Appeal: Advertising, Modernism and Menswear . Oxford and New York : Berg, 2005.

Find in Library Jobling Paul. Advertising Menswear: Masculinity and Fashion in the British Media Since 1945 . London and New York : Bloomsbury, 2014.

Find in Library Norman Philip. ““The Shock of the Neo”.” Guardian Weekend , 30–31 May 1992: 4–5 .

Find in Library Philo Greg. Message Received: Glasgow Media Group Research, 1993–1998 . Harlow : Longman, 1999.

Sauers Jenna. “Meet Terry Richardson, the World’s Most F-ked Up Fashion Photographer.”, 16 March 2010. Accessed 13 October 2014.

Find in Library Winship Janice. Advertising in Women’s Magazines 1956–74 . Birmingham : Centre for Cultural Studies, 1980.

Find in Library Winship Janice. ““Women Outdoors: Advertising, Controversy and Disputing Feminism in the 1990s”.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 31, no. 1 (2000): 27–55 .