For decades, suggestive and sexualised images have saturated fashion campaigns, as designer companies compete to produce arresting advertising content. The level of eroticism in fashion imagery has fluctuated over the past 40 years, coinciding with developments in Western society’s perceptions of sex, gender, and pornography. But when does eroticism go from the provocative to the obscene? Is there any way to ascertain when the dark underbelly of porn-chic represents moral disorder?
Most sociologists identify the period of the 1960s and 1970s as the advent of sexual awakening and liberation. Fashion, often acutely reflecting societal developments, was quick to absorb this change. One of the most iconic renditions of the sexual and social revolution during this period is Helmut Newton’s campaign of YSL’s Le Smoking. Launched in French Vogue in 1975, the advert featured a hyper-eroticised woman, dressed in the iconic tuxedo, assuming masculine sexual dominance in juxtaposition with the passive figure of a naked woman, reflecting the new assertion women were gaining in sex at the time. From a solo portrait of Le Smoking staring straight into the lens of Newton’s camera and directly engaging with the reader, to the image of a submissive naked woman, to the symbolic climax, when the women’s bodies are intertwined and pressed together, the viewer is no longer only engaged with their seduction, but a voyeur of the culmination of their sexual interaction.
With the advent of the VCR and television in the 1980s, there came a new age of voyeurism in filmed pornography. The explosive growth of the sex industry has led to a new relationship between fashion, pornography, deviance, and eroticism, which is simultaneously unnerving and intriguing.
One of the foremost artists to exploit this relationship has been the highly controversial Terry Richardson, famed for his sexually explicit, wild, almost trashy aesthetic. From 1999 to 2008, the famous clothing brand Sisley hired Terry Richardson, the so-called soft porn photographer, to shoot its new advertising campaigns. The result of this meeting of porn and fashion was rather unexpected: in a first image, a model wearing Sisley underpants is masturbating in front of Richardson's camera; in a second image, a girl is sticking out her tongue to receive cow's milk in her mouth while the clothes are hardly noticeable; in another image, a girl is wearing no clothing on her lower half and is kneeling on her hands and knees. Richardson’s work is undeniably intended to shock and antagonise the viewer, yet there is a sinister undertone to this fixation with the explicit. The sexual subordination and objectification of women and men alike should never be “iconic,” since it forms a subversive undercurrent that manipulates gender and sexual freedom to create shocking imagery.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf traces the trajectory of female sexuality in the media, describing how the 1960s provided sexual liberation for women, allowing them unprecedented engagement in the public discourse on sexuality and morality. However, Wolf argues that a form of retaliation ensued after the sexual revolution in the 1960s, allowing “beauty pornography and beauty sadomasochism to put the guilt, shame, and pain back into women’s experience of sex.” Paradoxically, as western culture began to permit women greater sexual freedom, women themselves were increasingly sexualised and objectified. Wolf’s argument does not apply only to women, but as alternative genders are embraced and championed in many developed societies, hyper-sexualised, hyper-pornographic imagery in fashion has the potential to undermine these sexual and gender-related advances.
Words: Flora Walsh
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu