top of page

Is there a place for sexualised fashion advertising in 2020?

In recent years, there’s been a noticeable decline in hyper-sexualised fashion marketing media. The likes of Tom Ford, YSL and Calvin Klein employed sexualisation as a core marketing technique throughout the 90s and 00s. So why this shift towards the demure? And what are the implications for brand revenues?

A Brief History of Sexualised Advertising

Humans are inherently sexual creatures. One of our base instincts is to reproduce. Our desire to be attractive and seek attractive people fundamentally comes down to finding a mate. Psychologically, our evolution has programmed us to feel an emotional connection to attractive, sexualised imagery.

Fashion products are intimately connected to our bodies and sense of self, both physically and emotionally. So, it’s no wonder marketing teams have sought to tap into this base instinct to lead us to purchase.

Historically, Pearl Tobacco’s 1871 “maiden” packaging is considered the first advert to feature blatantly sexualised imagery. Later, a 1914 campaign from Woodbury’s Facial Soap caused a stir in the US. The brand used a series of images showing suited men embracing loosely clothed women, accompanied by the strapline “A Skin You Love To Touch.”

When we look to modern popular culture, the themes harnessed by Pearl Tobacco and Woodbury’s infamous campaigns have remained consistent. We’re surrounded by hyper-sexualised media. In fact, a 2012 study by professors at Evolutionary Psychology found that 92% of the 174 songs in Billboard’s 2009 Top 10 lists contained “reproductive messages.”

So, sex most definitely sells – and it has been used to promote everything. From tobacco and soap, to salad dressing, Eurostar trains and vegetarianism.

90s – 00s Peak and Pushing Limits

Of course, ahead of all of these other industries, sexualised advertising has infiltrated fashion most heavily. Since Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 nude photoshoot for his namesake fragrance, contemporary fashion and beauty advertising has harnessed the shock value of sexualised images.

The 1990s and 2000s can certainly be considered the peak of sexualised fashion advertising. With Calvin Klein, YSL and Tom Ford (who took the helm of Gucci in 1994) at the forefront of controversy. With particular regard to Ford, Harper’s Bazaar noted his “unabashedly rebellious and incredibly sensual” approach. This saw sales at Gucci increase by 90% between 1995 to 1996.

Gucci’s changing fortunes allowed a newly established ‘Gucci Group’ to acquire a portfolio of luxury brands, starting with Yves Saint Laurent. Here, Ford took on the role of creative director and reportedly had “similar ambitions” in the way of ‘sexing up’ the label.

“Ford’s image of YSL was decidedly more revealing than the designer’s Parisian women,” writes Joshua Glass. And it shows. With YSL’s fragrance lines in particular generating some of the most hyper-sexualised and revealing marketing material in fashion.

Troublingly, whilst explicit fashion advertising whipped up a storm of controversy and revenue, the use of models who appeared (or were) underage was rife during this 90s – 00s surge in sexualised ads.

Shoots for Calvin Klein jeans repeatedly featured teenage models in suggestive poses. They wore Klein’s jeans and little else. The earliest example caused a sensation when in 1980 a 15-year-old Brooke Shields was featured in a series of “steamy” videos. These were later banned by CBS and ABC.

Furthermore, Kate Moss revealed how her topless 1992 Calvin Klein shoot caused a “nervous breakdown”, after featuring in the campaign at only 17-years-old.

Changing Times

Controversies like those faced by Klein began to stack up, but by the mid 2000s high fashion was still releasing campaign-after-campaign of overtly sexual marketing material. In 2007 Dolce & Gabbana’s S/S campaign depicted a female model being restrained, whilst a group of male models look on. Embodying the very concept of the ‘male gaze’.

Interestingly, the image resurfaced in 2015, facing a much higher level of uproar than upon its original release. Perhaps a sign that in the intervening eight years an intolerance of misogyny in fashion had greatly evolved.

High-street favourite American Apparel expressed a similar attitude to female models, with scandalous campaigns contributing to its very public demise. This saw the ousting of its founder Dov Charney, two bankruptcy filings, and a number of sexual harassment lawsuits. Its use of overt sexuality ran to the very core of the brand, with a 2004 feature in Jane Magazine noting Charney’s habit of “lusting after his young employees.”

By 2006, its ad campaigns principally depicted young models in suggestive poses and next-to-nothing outfits. Sheer bodysuits, underwear and barely-there skirts became the brand’s “aesthetic calling card.”

However, its fall from grace saw a toning-down of the brand’s ads under a new CEO, Paula Schneider. American Apparel’s new marketing direction needn’t be overtly sexual, Schneider said. She argued the brand could still tell its story without being offensive.

Changing Attitudes & Impacts on Revenues

The fall of American Apparel has coincided with an evolution in attitudes amongst Western consumers, amid a social climate of protest and feminism. Movements including Time’s Up and the Pussyhat Project represent a feeling of resistance which has infiltrated all media, including fashion and marketing.

Advertising Standards regulations have been updated in line with the social responsibility of big brands, with recent rulings around objectification and explicit content. Sue Todd, CEO at Magnetic, argues that magazine content is reflecting a change, and an emerging appetite for issue-led content and activism.

Crucially, though, Todd recognises that the portrayal of women within magazines will always be reflective of an audience’s most culturally important issues, which can range from politics to beauty.

Essentially, fashion marketers will forever aim to create worlds we want to buy into. But this aspirational narrative can exist without objectifying the advert’s human subjects. Gucci’s move to a more demure artistic direction is worlds apart from its early 2000s aesthetic. And it is reaping the benefits – with a 2019 value of £7.8 billion, compared to £4.1 billion just three years prior.

The Future

With the advancement of social media and targeted advertising, we continue to face exposure to gratuitous sexualisation in fashion. However, we’ve certainly moved away from the explicit material of the 90s and 00s.

Our recollection of those infamous YSL and Gucci ads over twenty years on shows they clearly had their desired impact. Sophie Dahl’s 2000 campaign is one of the British ASA’s most-complained about in history. Yet Opium is one of YSL’s best-selling fragrances.

Overall, the sensibilities of modern fashion consumers now demand much more from brands in the way of ethics. Perhaps a fashion advert depicting a naked woman isn’t necessarily the issue, so long as it comes with a sense of empowerment.


bottom of page