It’s been more than 40 years since the debut of Calvin Klein’s iconic commercial starring a then-15-year-old Brooke Shields, but the ad and its notorious messaging that “nothing” comes between her and her Calvins remains a fixture in denim history.
The commercial, filmed by Richard Avedon, sparked outrage among many who viewed the campaign as an overtly sexual reference to what the teen may or may not have been wearing under her jeans. In an interview with Vogue last week, the model and actress looked back on the ad and its cultural influence and said she was unprepared for the backlash at the time, citing that she was unaware of the script’s sexual undertones as a self-described “sheltered” teenager. Even still, she added that “sex has been sold since the dawn of time”—and it’s been a main theme carried throughout denim advertising’s storied history.
Jeans first showed signs of shifting away from their workwear roots in the 1954 film “River of No Return” in which Marilyn Monroe famously wore a pair while adventuring through a forest. It was one of the first times a woman wore jeans on the big screen. Around that same time, “bad boys” Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean often dressed in denim to amplify their rebellious reputation. Ever since, brands have tapped into denim’s sex appeal to sell jeans, with iconic campaigns from Guess, Wrangler, Levi’s, Jordache and others that pushed the envelope for consumers.
In fact, just last month month Khloe Kardashian’s Good American brand caught flack for its campaign, “Find the One,” which was rejected by television networks that considered the spot too racy for TV.
Shield’s work with Calvin Klein was just one of the brand’s many controversial ads. The model told Vogue that her commercial was a launching pad both for her career as well as the brand, which quickly garnered a reputation for being a sexually charged label.
In 1995, Calvin Klein tapped director Steven Meisel to film a series of one-on-one interviews with models in which he asked questions like “do you work out?” and “have you made love in a film?” The campaign sparked backlash from child welfare authorities and others who compared it to amateur porn and alleged that the models looked younger than the legal age of consent. Though those accusations died down when it was determined that the models were adults, the brand quickly withdrew its ads.
Today, Shields says there’s now an “assimilation” of sexuality, likely referring to the hordes of scantily clad models and obvious sexual messaging that remains in the media. However, the way in which brands are using sexuality to sell jeans has shifted significantly, with body positivity and inclusivity at their core.
Launched in February, Diesel’s “When Together” campaign showcased a series of denim-clad couples of different backgrounds, sexual orientations and ages celebrating their love after being deprived of in-person connection for so long. Much of the denim included in the campaign was loose-fitting and otherwise modest, proving that today’s sexuality—and denim’s subsequent expression—is all about self-assurance.
Still, Shields explained that sexuality’s presence in advertising is nuanced, and campaigns of today and decades past all carry their own set of problems.
“On the one hand, I don’t think you could get away with a lot of what I did in the ’80s now, but by the same token, so much more is done now than we would have ever dreamt of doing [at that time],” she said. “Now, I see my teenagers with different body images and different fears and insecurities. We were pretty protected from a lot of that back then.”