The world was going along in more or less tolerable fashion until 1980, when Calvin Klein decided he wanted to increase the sale of tight blue jeans to the young people of America. Now it is well known that America’s youth will buy almost anything so long as it promises to obliterate consciousness or incite the libido, and since Klein could not offer a line of designer hallucinogens without risking grave consequences, he had little choice but to traffic in sex.
Accordingly, he hired the nation’s reigning nymphette and, for advertising purposes, coaxed her into a pair of jeans so narrowly tailored that poor Brooke Shields must have heard her corpuscles beg for mercy. “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she asked a disbelieving television audience more accustomed to little old ladies selling decaffeinated coffee. Before anyone could say a word, Ms. Shields divulged her secret: “Nothing.”
In the old days people regarded jeans as tough and versatile duds that could be worn while roping a steer, changing motor oil or, when we were fortunate enough to be fighting a war against a primitive Third World nation, marching to Washington and advising the President that he was a lunatic. Times they were a-changin’, though, and jeans assumed a new and far more vital purpose. That is, they became the means by which young women alerted young men, and vice versa, that no matter what the liberation crazies might be interpreted as saying, there was a considerable difference in respective anatomies. Look, the jeans seemed to say, look here and look there and consider all the really fun possibilities.
Kids, being clever in such ways, seemed to absorb the message immediately, but Klein and his photographer, Bruce Weber, were taking no chances. They kept producing ad after ad until the material at last neared kindling temperature. A Weber photo of recent vintage shows two young males and one female lying on a hillside. The males, wearing dark clothes, are on top of one another. The female, naked, is between them. Together, the models look for all the world like an avantgarde dance team doing the finale of a number called Leftover Chicken on Rye. Accompanying this profound visual statement were the words “Calvin Klein Sport.”
Having struck so soundly on a good idea, Klein found himself imitated by other manufacturers who wanted their fair share of the adolescent market. A magazine ad for Guess clothing reveals a melancholy blonde of tender years sulking in a cattle pen—nothing subliminal here, you see—as though awaiting the return of Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid or, perhaps, the return of Butch and Sundance both. In another photo, our heroine is lying down and a male hand is shown fiddling with the buttons on milady’s denim shirt. Pearly cleavage is exposed. The blonde gazes toward her suitor with a look of dreamy expectation. Need we Guess what happens next?
There is not much mystery why ads are sizzling. We have managed to numb ourselves to just about anything short of nuclear attack, and the children, in-
We have numbed ourselves to anything short of nuclear attack, and children are in no mood for contemplative matter
tellects melted by Madonna music videos, are in no mood for contemplative viewing matter. You think it’s easy holding their attention, talk to any high school teacher. One diligent fellow in New York recalls leaping on his desk and performing an impromptu tap dance when it seemed his business math students were surrendering to narcolepsy. “Ads are sexually explicit now because consumers are bored,” explained graphic designer Milton Glaser to a magazine reporter. Upon how sensibilities have been dulled to the point that ordinary ads now look like interludes on the Playboy Channel, the interview did not reflect.
Indeed, most of the damage done by the hawkers of blue jeans is not to the circulatory systems of their clientele or even to the teenage notion of sexual behavior, whatever that may entail. Jeopardized by the sort of inane material pushed by Klein and company— and, to be sure, by the makers of beer, autos, cologne and men’s hair pieces too—is nothing less than the capacity of our kids to acquire and use information; in short, to read and think.
Oh, true, anyone who depends for a livelihood on the printed word is bound, every so often, to deliver stirring sermons on the necessity of reading in a democratic society, but, personal finances aside, isn’t a little teeth-grinding in order? It seemed so, at least, to a high school librarian in New England who quit her job when it became clear that students lacked an interest in books. Boys and girls wanted only to be left alone in the stacks, there to study, as they deemed most appropriate, the intricacies of reproductive biology. “It was,” says the former librarian, “just unbelievable.” And yet it really is not unbelievable at all that Americans, young and old, find the printed word tedious. Television, that wondrous toy, has put us at the mercy of the image-masters—clever chaps in advertising and programming whose quick visual hits chase the intelligence into hibernation. On the tube, content is slave to color and form. Air has more weight than TV’s standard editorial matter. Most of the advertising registers even less.
Even at the once-revered CBS, the situation is alarming. Debate over the question of Sap versus Substance has plunged the network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite into corporate warfare. Having so long set the industry standard for excellence, CBS News is being pressured by the entertainment side and, according to many, entertainment has the advantage. CBS commentator Bill Moyers complained recently that stories of importance suddenly had to compete with nonsense about three-legged sheep—“and the three-legged sheep won.”
In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, critic Neil Postman laments the nation’s “descent into a vast triviality” and says television, for all its astounding technology, has performed minimal public service. “Its form excludes the content,” Postman says. Animal oddities and teenage vamps in denim bodices, then, may be entirely appropriate media images for the 1980s. Still, the pre-eminent agents of antithink—people such as Klein and Weber and the rest of the snug seat crowd—must be held accountable. When we dress for that final slide toward triviality, let’s make certain our slacks flap like Old Glory and are cut exclusively from polyester.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.