“Porno Chic” or "Porno Cheap"?

“Porno Chic”, much like it’s predecessor “Heroine Chic”, has swept the fashion industry with it’s ability to shock and hold audiences’ attention. Flick through the fragrance ads in any fashion magazine and you’ll likely be greeted with a tsunami of models in varying states of undress. In this article we’ll explore the ramifications of hypersexualised fashion advertising, particularly for feminism.

From sophisticated to scandalous

“Luxury is not the contrary of poverty but of vulgarity”

—  Coco Chanel

This well known Coco Chanel quote reflects the standards upon which luxury brands are typically built. Historically, luxury fashion houses and labels sought to build themselves a prestiged and elegant persona.

At the turn of the century, however, the fashion industry became flooded with hypersexualised campaign imagery, nudity and innuendos. Is this phenomenon, dubbed “porno chic”, harmless and to be expected today? Or do some in this industry need a dressing down for their advertising antics?

In March 2017, Yves Saint Laurent came under fire after the release of their fall campaign. The advertisement; which featured half dressed models in a series of provocative poses, was branded sexist and degrading. France’s advertising authority, authoritié de Régulation Professionnelle de la Publicité, received over 100 complaints before calling for the campaign to be pulled.

The birth of “porno chic”

This was certainly not YSL’s first rodeo; having established a reputation for their provocative campaigns of the early 2000s – when “Porno Chic” began to make it’s mark. With Tom Ford taking the reins, and Carine Roitfeld at his side, YSL famously featured full frontal male nudity in their 2002 campaign for the M7 fragrance.

While the advertisement ran in magazines, only a cropped edit of the image was approved for use on posters. Under Ford’s influence, the brand also released another controversial nude campaign; this time featuring model Sophie Dahl, for their Opium fragrance in 2000. This ad made quite the stir, receiving over 1000 complaints and subsequently pulled from billboards. It made it into the Advertising Standards Authority’s 10 most controversial campaigns list.

At the helm of Gucci, Tom Ford continued to make a name for himself with a barrage of provocative campaigns. Perhaps the most notable of these came in 2003, featuring a woman with Gucci branded pubic hair. While Ford’s campaigns were met with their fair share of controversy, they have seemingly done little to tarnish his image. In fact, Ford is a revered fashion icon; famed for his tongue in cheek humour and sexually charged persona.

When asked about how his campaigns affect modern feminist ideals, Ford replied “I always think about feminism…I’ve been criticised for objecitifying women. But I’m an equal opportunity objectifier – I’m just as happy to objectify men”. Rather than viewing the female nudity in his campaigns as exploitary, Ford noted “I don’t think expressing what nature intended you to be is anything but powerful. My women are not sitting there waiting for someone, they’re taking charge”

Is ‘porno chic’ provocative or offensive?

Perhaps this is where the divide between empowerment and degradation lies. While Gucci’s previous campaigns certainly raised a few eyebrows on account of their high degree of nudity, YSL’s 2017 campaign hit a nerve for a different reason.

The models in this particular campaign, while scantily clad, were by no means nude. It was the model’s submissive poses; bent over stools, faces obscured, legs spread, that lead the head of the ARPP, Stéphane Martin, to brand the images as detrimental to the “dignity and respect in the representation of the person”. The ARPP also received numerous complaints from people who saw the images as “incitement to rape”.

The controversy surrounding the campaign is reminiscent of the outrage caused by Dolce and Gabbana’s infamous 2007 “gang rape” advert. The shot featured a woman being pinned to the ground by a man, while other men circle them. Unsurprisingly, the advert was banned in Italy on account of the helpless position of the woman, and the implicit tones of abuse and violence. This departure from eroticism to misogyny and violence, perfectly illustrates when sexuality is taken too far in fashion advertising. 

Upholding ethical advertising

The reality is that “porn chic”, whether you love it or hate it, is not on it’s way out anytime soon. Sex does indeed sell, a fact that fashion giants such as Alexander Wang, Dior, Moschino and Yeezy are well aware of; boldly taking up Tom Ford’s torch.

The oversexualised portrayal of women and men alike in fashion campaigns is, of course, old hat in this day and age. But as Ford pointed out himself, these images could also be considered as empowering displays of strength and pride. Whether you view these provocative projections of women and men as brave, offensive or just crass, they have continued to stand the test of time.

Where the real danger lies is when sexual imagery is taken a step too far and becomes implicitly violent or reminiscent of abuse, as can be seen in YSL and D&G’s controversial campaigns.

Fortunately, advertising standards bodies remain vigilant – as do we. We can all make a difference by reporting campaigns that bear the marks of violent imagery. Social media is just another way to start these kinds of conversations. It was on Twitter in 2015 where D&G’s 2007 advert resurfaced and sparked debate on this very issue. So gird your loins and keep your eye on the ball. 

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