Why The New Calvin Klein Underwear Ads Are Bulging With Meaning

1Trevante Rhodes in a picture of Calvin Klein’s underwear ads together with the men of Moonlight.

Calvin Klein

The sexy Calvin Klein underwear photos of actor Trevante Rhodes that dropped the afternoon after Moonlight’s surprise Oscar win prompted a theater of thirst online. “Let Us Give Thanks to This Image of Trevante Rhodes,” read Jezebel’s reverent headline. “Trevante Rhodes: Hi, how are things? Me: Wet, and yourself?” tweeted one woman. The photos developed a real moment in ways that few men’s underwear ad campaigns on this scale have television, at the least since those crotch-grabbing Marky Mark ads from the early ’90s.

If the thirst is real, it’s especially so for Rhodes, an ancient track star, who had become the center of attention. He reclines over a leather chair — smiling in a of the pictures, more pensive in another — and is also shot from an angle which makes his thighs and crotch the photograph’s protagonists. Arguably, encountering bulging crotches — everywhere from Instagram feeds to billboards to magazines — has grown to be normalized for the point of cliche; we have now think of men’s underwear as inherently erotic. But we forget the images are a space where race, masculinity, and sexuality collide in complicated ways.

Underwear ads have always navigated the ambivalence around explicit depictions from the sexualized male body, in addition they contend together with the erotics of race. The uproar in the first Calvin Klein underwear ad in 1982 had not been only around the gay sensibility of their photography, but about the exoticism of model Tom Hintnaus’s Brazilian-European tanned ethnic in-betweenness. The furor in the 1992 ad campaign featuring Marky Mark grabbing his crotch was obviously a result of his incarnation of black hip-hop gestures by way of a white, boyish innocence. These latest Calvin Klein images are enticingly revealing — specially the ones making Rhodes a star — but they’re also the response to a trajectory of advertising that delicately dances around America’s fear and wish of black male sexuality, along with that choreography every gesture counts, from the smile on the angle of the bulge.

Fruit in the Loom Christmas ad, 1965.

Fruit from the Loom

Men’s underwear wasn’t always framed with the eroticism of male bodies; pre-1950s ad campaigns were often just illustrations that focused mainly on promoting values like health insurance and comfort, highlighting things such as the quality from the wool material and the elasticity on the fit. Critic Richard Martin notes that whenever World War II there was obviously a shift from health to “happiness ” in marketing campaigns, as underwear was sold straight away to consumers — presumably wives and mothers — up for grabs displays as opposed to through salespeople. “Feel being a million!” proclaimed one 1950 Jockey campaign, featuring an illustration of the man stretching cartoonishly alongside a mirror. Tellingly, the models featured during these ads were white, plus it wasn’t till the 1960s that black men were included in this happiness, as depicted inside a 1965 Fruit on the Loom Christmas ad. But even so, the sole representation of black masculinity to seem in the ad, which features multiple generations of smiling white men posing in boxers and almost humorously large briefs, is undoubtedly an innocent black boy grabbing a Christmas ornament when he looks up with an invisible tree. The implication is the fact only a black boy can go with this feature, almost like an adult black man might appear threatening towards the presumed white women buying underwear for his or her husbands or sons. And so the question of how to evoke the black male body in nonthreatening terms for white consumers recurs during the entire history of men’s underwear.

In the late ’60s, the men’s underwear market was revolutionized while using emergence of “fashion” underwear, a condition that described smaller bikini briefs plus a new panoply of colors. Underwear became a means for men to craft a fashionable, urbane, and masculine eroticism independently terms, from the Playboy style.