Ben Freeman considers the perils of overt sexual imagery in the fashion industry
The fashion industry is unarguably one of the most sexually charged arenas in the world (trumped only by the steel miners, of course), but does the use of nudity and sexual images cheapen fashion advertising? It is difficult to open a magazine without being confronted with suggestive images, breast and occasionally even (gasp) a penis! Is this liberalisation of imagery a good thing, or are we being desensitised to shocking images?
It is important to note that this trend is not a modern one. The 1970s saw the first sexualisation of fashion as the mods of the 60s had gone the same way as the blondes of the 50s. This new age was the era where sexual beasts dominated the industry in the shape of Janice Dickinson and Gia Carangi. The next generation of supers saw voluptuous beauties such as Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford et al. Who can forget the shot of Claudia Schiffer nude on the beach — sexy and glamorous, still oozing an arty air of class.
Today, nudity in advertising and fashion magazines has progressed, offering a plethora of nude images from the fashion industry, each seeming to raise the shock value bar on the last. Tom Ford is a prime example, using both full frontal female and male nudes to advertise his wears. Established brands such as Chanel use nudity to advertise their jewellery, and the Grand old Dame of fashion Vivienne Westwood sent topless models sashaying down the catwalk at this year’s London Fashion Week.
Although Ford’s images are shocking — and to some, obscene — they do still evoke a form of glamour, separating soft porn from art and summing up the heart of the matter. I don’t really care if I’m looking at nubile bodies engaged in a sexual act or a beautiful suit as long as they are glamorous and are photographed well.
However, how does one judge brands using sexually explicit images that aren’t particularly glam? For me. American Apparel (AA) is in the docks over this issue. Their campaigns feature young girls scantily clad, splayed in compromising positions. But if Gucci or Tom Ford can get away with it then why can’t AA? Well, because AA’s images aren’t beautiful or glamorous. In fact they are kind of seedy. The girls featured — deliberately chosen for their borderline, age-of-consent appearance — often look like drug addicts in a dirty bedsit.
Their pictures create an air of amateur pornography, making adverts that, though apparently devoid of tasteful glamour, succeed in generating a powerfully gritty, sexual image for the brand. That attitude explains why David Beckham’s Armani shots are amazing; he looks H-O-T and the campaign is completely glamorous. And that, my friends, is where the difference lies. The key to credibility is all in the context.