French designer Thierry Mugler’s trompe l’oeil thong jeans, as seen on A-list model Bella Hadid during his Spring/Summer ’21 runway show, is proof alone that jeans have drastically veered from their workwear roots. Originally developed as a solution for miners who needed reinforced pockets to hold their tools and withstand harsh working conditions, jeans have become a favorite among supermodels and fashion aficionados whose sex appeal directly correlates to their edgy denim choices. Denim brands have leaned on this notion to sell their collections, using scantily clad models and racy imagery in their advertisements for decades.
So how did a miner’s uniform become a sex symbol’s favorite garment?
Like many fashion trends’ origin stories, celebrities played a major role. Early Hollywood—namely, Marilyn Monroe—helped make jeans a popular look for women. Considered a 1950s “bombshell,” Monroe was one of the first women to wear jeans on-screen as Kay Weston in the 1954 film “River of No Return.” The high-waisted pair she famously wore while adventuring through a forest in the film became a classic scene that set the tone for future film wardrobes—and positioned jeans as a sexy women’s garment.
“By wearing what was traditionally men’s workwear jeans, Marilyn represented a symbol of power, strength and most importantly, gender equality,” said denim consultant Salli Deighton. “There aren’t many moments in history (apart from the suffragettes) which trigger such a shift to female empowerment and gender equality. Marilyn gave women the confidence to dress as they wanted to and feel sexy, strong and independent.”
And it wasn’t just women who felt denim’s sexually charged energy. Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean were just a handful of the ’50s “bad boys” who often dressed in denim to exude a rebellious attitude. According to John Bartlett, director of the fashion program at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire” was pivotal to men’s sexy denim.
“[Brando’s character in the film] had a look that every guy wanted to emulate and every woman wanted to be around,” he said. “Legend has it that the costume designer wet Brando’s jeans down first so that they would conform to his body, thereby changing the vibe of denim forever.”
Ever since, denim brands have satiated consumers’ desires with jeans advertisements centered on the garment’s sex appeal.
The sexy standard
Some of the earliest “sexy” denim campaigns might not seem risqué at all today, but created a crucial foundation for denim’s rebrand. Wrangler, which historically channeled the spirit of the American cowboy, debuted ads in the ’60s showcasing illustrations of women in tight jeans with the message: “You have to look for the ‘W.’” In the image, women were shown glancing at one another’s back pockets where the Wrangler “W” was located.
Years later in the ’90s, Wrangler strayed further away from its roots with a famous “Crosstown traffic” commercial following an attractive male cab driver adorned in denim passing various groups of people in New York City. Eventually, the driver abandons his car for the subway, and viewers are left with the slogan “Be more than just a number.”
According to Deighton, this was another defining moment for the brand’s use of edgy advertising. “Wrangler broke away from the classic cowboy look diversifying into edgy, rebellious advertising,” she said. “The same old Texas jeans your dad wore became cool.”
Similarly, Levi’s 501 jeans—the first jeans ever invented—were forever rebranded in 1985 when the heritage label ran a racy commercial featuring the late model Nick Kamen at a laundromat. He’s shown slowly undressing while others watch, and ultimately removes his jeans and takes a seat.
A household denim brand of the ’80s, Jordache targeted customers with more overtly sexual messaging. It famously published an ad with the headline “The Jordache Look,” featuring a woman propped up by two men, all of whom were photographed wearing nothing more than their dark-wash Jordache jeans.
“When the brand first debuted in 1978, it was a time where models ruled the world and we knew how to capitalize on it in a strategic way,” said Liz Berlinger, president at Jordache. “Since then, the brand evolved with our consumers in many ways. We have done this by incorporating social media, tapping into influencers, creatives and more that are making big noise.”
But one of the most famous—and controversial—denim advertisements to-date was Calvin Klein’s iconic 1980 campaign with then-teenage model Brooke Shields. Shown in body-hugging dark-wash jeans and an open button-down shirt, Shields told viewers that “nothing” came between her and her Calvins.
The campaign was just the beginning of Calvin Klein’s penchant for sexuality. In the ’90s, the brand pushed boundaries with images of top models Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg adorned in barely-there denim and provocatively positioned on top of each other. Runway shows famously featured a shirtless Wahlberg in slouchy jeans with fully exposed boxer briefs and a backward hat to channel the bad boy in denim look celebrated for decades.
Some felt the brand went too far with a 1995 campaign directed by Steven Meisel, who filmed 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 a 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.
Old habits die hard. As recently as 2016, the brand drew criticism for a racy ad centering on model Klara Kristin, shown in one image exposing her bare bottom and in another with her hands in her underwear. The ad also featured a shot of her underwear as seen from below her skirt with the phrase “I flash in #mycalvins.” Critics considered the ad problematic for its unsettling similarities to the predatory act of “upskirting,” and once again questioned the model’s age.
“Calvin Klein holds the crown for selling provocative ads,” Deighton said. “The brand always pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, including airing same-sex commercials at a time when being gay was just starting to be accepted. The brand rocked the ’90s and to this day they remain pioneers of influential change.”
Sexy denim was also the crux of the Guess girl phenomenon, which spawned a series of partnerships centering on famous women embodying the brand’s glamorous Hollywood attitude. Though it began in 1986 with French model Estelle Lefebure, the campaign has only gotten stronger with celebrity buy-in from Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, Camila Cabello, Gigi Hadid and others. The campaign’s longevity was recently underscored by Guess’ 2021 capsule collection nodding to Barrymore’s memorable ’90s campaign shot by photographer Wayne Maser.
Today, while some brands still use sex to sell denim, their approach has evolved significantly. Los Angeles denim brand Good American got ahead of the shift by launching in 2016 with body-positive marketing and sexy designs available for sizes 00-24—an offering that was unique at the time. Its e-commerce site provides customers with the option of viewing a garment on different models to get a sense of how it will look on a body type similar to their own.
Diesel has also redefined what’s sexy with its post-pandemic “When Together” campaign, which 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.
Brands that fail to offer extended sizing or launch marketing campaigns that appeal to diverse audiences risk irrelevance. Not even Victoria’s Secret—which at one time was the pinnacle of sexy—could survive without a massive rebrand. Known for its cast of models with a similarly tall, thin frame clad in barely-there lingerie, the company has done a complete 180 in terms of its marketing. In June, it launched a campaign that replaced its signature “angels” with famous activists like refugee and model Adet Akuch, “Quantico” actor Priyanka Chopras Jonas and transgender model Valentina Sampaio.
Other brands are evolving out of using sex as a sales strategy entirely—a shift largely attributed to the younger demographics, who prioritize elements like gender fluidity and size inclusivity over explicit sexuality. Just a few months ago, Gen Z took down skinny jeans’ decades-long dominance with a viral Tik-Tok trend that promoted looser denim fits.
“Sex appeal is tied to confidence and authenticity, and that is at the heart of the gender-inclusive movement,” Bartlett said. “Loose fits require swagger and a certain attitude to work, and can still exude sex appeal but in a more subtle and ethereal way.”
Levi’s recent “Beauty of Becoming” campaign highlighted 15 artists, actors and change makers to star in dedicated videos highlighting their “paths to greatness” and self-discovery. Though the campaign also includes elements of sexuality—it features artist and filmmaker Oge Egbuonu wearing nothing but denim and a flower in her jean’s front pocket strategically covering her breast—the focus is on the individual and their personal journey.
“In recent seasons, we have experienced a decisive revolution in our lifestyle,” said Lucia Rosin, founder of denim consultancy Meidea. “There is a lot of space to reinterpret the story of jeans thanks to these profound changes. I would say that there is more room for creativity and sexuality—but in a different way, with intelligence and confidence in one’s own body.”