The Gucci Pubic Hair Ad Might Be More Controversial 15 Years Later
Is pubic hair the last fashion faux pas?
Photograph by Mario Testino.
If provocation was the point (and it was), Tom Ford’s Spring 2003 Gucci advertising campaign was an immeasurable success. The Mario Testino-shot photos, styled by French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld, featured an image of model Carmen Kass against a wall with a male model kneeling fully clothed in front of her, tugging at her briefs to expose pubic hair shaved in the shape of Gucci’s logo. In a pre-social media era, it drew considerable backlash: it was deemed “extremely harmful” by media watchdogs, and was even banned in the UK. Ask someone in fashion to name a seminal ad campaign—this image will almost assuredly be on their list.
According to the Guardian, Gucci said the ad was “intended to be the ultimate ironic pun for a sexy brand in a logo-led age,” calling it “playful” and noting its subversion of traditional sexual roles: a man on his knees before a woman. Writing in the Independent in 2008, Testino said that in the ’90s, “Advertising campaigns became more exciting than editorial. When I started doing Gucci with Tom Ford, he pushed me to new heights…Before we were restricted because of the concerns around the world: you can't have nudity in some countries; a man cannot be touching a woman... there were lots of different things. [Ford] really changed things [with overtly sexual advertising].”
(Testino, it should be noted, has been accused by 13 male assistants and models of “sexual advances that in some cases included groping and masturbation” dating back to the mid-1990s, according to a New York Times investigation from January.)
James Scully, who handled casting for Ford’s Gucci from day one (though did not cast this campaign), agrees. “Tom Ford really did bring sex back,” Scully says. “The ostentation of the ’80s was gone, the stock market crashed and we went to the Gulf War. The moment in the world was the gospel of Faith Popcorn ‘cocooning,’ where you sat in your cozy home and watched Friends on your white shabby chic sofa. That was the moment of fashion minimalism, with Jil Sander and Calvin Klein. Everyone was very aware that your clothes would not represent any of the ostentation and brashness of the ‘80s, and everyone was sad. And Tom Ford’s whole motivation at that time was, ‘Fuck this. I want sex.’”
Despite only appearing in magazines that Gucci claimed were for "modern, fashion-conscious and sophisticated adults,” the campaign—much like the exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple at the 2004 Super Bowl shortly thereafter—caused an uproar that, in retrospect, was perhaps unwarranted, and perhaps a sign of what was to come.
In the Daily Mail, English journalist Bel Mooney called the ad “predictable, exploitative, upmarket sleaze”; John Beyer, director of Mediawatch UK, called it “damaging to society.” The easily offended were scandalized. A woman’s exposed pubic hair! What’s next, equal pay for all? Even Ford’s own successor, Frida Giannini, took issue with the ad, calling it “wrongheaded” in a 2006 interview with Cathy Horyn. "To be honest, what Gucci had become—well, a footballer's wife is not the customer of my dreams,” she said.
But despite the media coverage claiming that “countless complaints” were lobbed at the Advertising Standards Authority, the true number was 16. And so, one has to ask: Was this ad really controversial? Overtly sexual advertising was decades old at this point, thanks largely to Calvin Klein’s 1980s campaigns and Yves Saint Laurent. Or, was the (perhaps calculated) centering of the tempered outrage part of what made the ad—considered, and even prized as, one of fashion’s most controversial—canonical fashion fodder some 15 years later?
“It was indecent yet inventive; today, we say it’s iconic,” says Pierre A. M’pelé, editor-in-chief of SCRNSHT. “It took branding to the the extreme. It was targeted towards fashion magazines because it couldn’t have been on billboards. My parents probably don’t know about this campaign—even though I had printed a poster of it and stuck it in my teenage bedroom. So one had to look for it, or stumble across it.”
It’s not as though sexually explicit ads have dried up. Over the last decade, major houses like Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu have had their campaigns banned for supposedly explicit content, often more innuendo-driven than outright hedonistic. In a league all their own is Eckhaus Latta, whose 2017 campaign, shot by photographer Heji Shin, featured a diverse set of couples having real sex (their private parts were blurred). But are those images seared in our brains?
“I vividly remember the Gucci campaign—especially how much I loved the silk kimonos,” The Lingerie Addict’s Cora Harrington recalls, saying she believes this ad would be considered just as controversial today, if not more so. “If this campaign were to come out today, I believe there would be boycott petitions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram within the hour. Speaking as someone who's in a sex-adjacent industry, I feel we've had a significant regression these last couple of years, a return to conservatism, essentially. And while we usually talk about conservatism in terms of the rise of neo-Nazis or racist incidents or restricting women’s rights, it also appears in the kind of advertising we see and what people deem ‘acceptable.’”
M’pelé says that society has become more puritanical. “Showing a nipple has become the utmost indecency according to Instagram,” he says. Per Instagram’s community guidelines: “We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples.”
And then there’s the prickly subject of pubic hair. A season two episode of Broad City featuring Ilana (Ilana Glazer) shaving her pubic hair featured darkened pixels, something that had to be fought for. “The pixels, they wanted them to be Ilana's skin tone,” co-creator and co-star Abbi Jacobson told Jimmy Kimmel. “I got a baby vagina? I'm an adult. I have pubes!” Glazer added. Still, there are reports from as recently as May of this year of some Instagram users (including professional photographers) have had their work removed from the platform for displaying pubic hair. This of course hasn’t stopped women: spa treatments at businesses like New York’s VSpot Medi Spa have even been born in efforts to help normalize—and stylize—the growing trend of prominent and proud pubic hair.
“It's so bizarre to me,” Harrington says of our culture’s fear of body hair. “Women have hair. That is our natural state. And for it be deemed ‘disgusting’ if you're a woman but acceptable if you're a man is peak double standard. Of course, people should shave or not shave as they choose, but we have to recognize that there is nothing wrong or dirty or inappropriate or unhygienic about women having body hair. It simply is.”
It’s not that the ad and by proxy pubic hair are in any way profane so much as it is that our society continues to be uncomfortable with nudity, particularly when it involves women’s bodies. Perhaps the ad endures not just as of one of fashion’s most controversial moments, but as an artifact of a time when sex was both in fashion and in vogue.