Saturday, 19 December 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 5: The Third Opium War

Such was the moral panic that surrounded YSL’s 2000 campaign for Opium featuring Sophie Dahl, the image – which ultimately attracted more than 900 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, was ordered to be removed from billboards on the grounds that it was ‘sexually suggestive’ and ‘likely to cause widespread offence’. The ASA however, did not uphold the three complaints made against the same advert as appearing in magazines.
According to Tom Ford, the then newly appointed Creative Director at YSL, Steven Meisel's shot was conceived as a ‘tasteful nude in the tradition of high art’ (The Age, Dec. 2000). In particular, Ford is said to have drawn inspiration from Delacroix’s painting La Femme aux Bas Blancs (1825). The established codes of western Art are represented in Dahl’s reclining, glabrous, alabaster figure and the jewels that adorn her body serve to emphasise her nakedness. In this way, Ford’s image does recall several of Delacroix’s works, including La Femme Caressant un Perroquet (1827). Interestingly, this same group of paintings also provided the likely foundation for Baudelaire’s Les Bijoux (1857), which poem was similarly banned for being an outrage to public morality:

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n'avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores…

My adored was nude and, knowing my heart,
Wore only her sonorous jewels…

Yet, it is important to note that Dahl is no passive Odalisque and much of the visual language of the advert can be traced more immediately to the 1977 publicity for Opium that featured Jerry Hall. From the flaming red accents suggestive of poppies to the ‘hungrily parted legs’ (quoting Libby Brooks in The Guardian, Dec., 2000; note also the 'Y' shape), these juxtaposed symbols of death and sex have become recurrent in the perfume’s campaigns.

(Jerry Hall for Opium)

Like Hall, Dahl’s significance was as a model and the advert further draws on the codes of fashion (YSL is, after all, a fashion house). When sandwiched between the glossy covers of Vogue, much of the effort required to situate the text was removed and the ASA was confident this would reduce potential anxiety. Still, Dahl’s singular version of heroin-chic was highly subversive and the image made strange bedfellows with the drawn, waif-like, androgynous figures that surrounded it. Indeed, as a woman intended to look like she had had ‘too much of everything; too much food, too much sex, too much love’ (again quoting Ford in The Observer, Dec., 2000), Dahl’s body has instead been read as ‘porn-chic’.
Apprehensions around the reframing of sexual representations in popular culture are, of course, nothing new; for President Nixon, pornography was an anarchic force, a threat to social order and liberty that must be contained. While there was never any suggestion YSL’s advert breached UK obscenity laws (archaic as they are), the iterating image of a woman apparently caught in a moment of exquisite self-pleasure was taken as evidence of a creeping permissiveness and prompted many to invoke Lovejoy’s Law by pleading ‘won’t someone think of the children?’.
It would seem then that the locus of the text’s disruptive power was its trivial (in the Latin sense) situation, existing at the intersection of Art, Fashion and Pornography. When we consider that the image emerged at a time when millennial anxieties had resulted in increased concern for the maintenance of boundaries, we can better understand how the conditions were set just so for the advert’s ban.

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