Something distinct happens at the nexus of American culture and minimalism. It’s the birth of a unique parternship. Where minimalism streamlines visuals, American culture streamlines messages. The short phrases that often define Americanness are, in many ways, minimal: “one nation under God,” for example; or, better yet, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There’s a smooth quality to these phrases, an extent to which they reduce broader narratives into easily trafficked sayings.
In the context of American fashion, minimalism cares for a similar ease. It is interested in a simplification of forms used to cut back on bulk and clutter. However, none of these deletions are austere. Like the open spaces of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut or Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Massachusetts, American minimalist clothes tend to invite and envelop through understated technique. The quiet (though often very luxurious) fabrics they use emphasize form, balance, and harmony. This harmony is not achieved simply. As Francisco Costa observes in his foreword to Minimalism and Fashion: Reduction in the Postmodern Era, minimalism is “never easily cultivated.”
The reduction that minimalism achieves makes it an ideal canvas onto which we can project different goals. The meanings we can create with minimalist clothes are often fluid and endless. We can say luxury; we can say austerity; we can say anarchy and rebellion. All are significations enabled by minimalism’s openness. One of the most interesting uses of minimalism, over the past few decades, has been as an expression of sexuality. It is a very specific sexuality: athletic, glistening, powerful, and sculptural. And has defined a strong vein in the visual culture of American minimalism, which has included the work of Calvin Klein, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, Tom Ford, and Halston.
Calvin Klein has arguably been the most important to carry the mantle. Klein’s house took off in the early 1970s. His clothes were seen as cutting through the clutter of late 60s excess. Defined by simple cuts and an attention to quality fabrics, Klein’s minimalism struck the American psyche’s reductionist nerve. It was easy to digest and easy to live in. The 80s and 90s staged the development of his aesthetic past the domain of simple, nice things and into things with charge and signification. In 1981, Klein released an ad starring Brooke Shields, which defined the axis along which his style would evolve into the 2000s. The ad was a concise 27-second spot, set against a white backdrop. The camera pans towards Shields’ face as she whistles. Within the final seconds of the video, Shields launches the infamous formulation: “You wanna know what comes in between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.”
Salacious, succinct, and compelling, Shields’ quip gets at the heart of the America’s erotically-charged, reductionist project. It exploits minimalism’s attention to the everyday and to our physical and psychic relationships with our clothes. Nothing is between you and your jeans; the implication should be clear. On another level, the sleek commodity forms part of your expression, entering into a bizarre unbreakable bond. Distance is shaved away. As the video illustrates, minimalism accommodates play like no other aesthetic practice, such that an unassuming pair of jeans can be mobilized for the most startling of messages.
The infamous ad heralded a series of visual strategies that de-emphasized clothing and shifted the lens towards bodies fit for Greco-Roman sculpture. Tonne Goodman, the current Fashion Director of Vogue, masterminded this sexy, sleek minimalism, which Calvin Klein further distilled in the early 90s. Also complicit in this strategy was photographer Herb Ritts. Ritts was known for his formalist focus on the muscular body and its erotic dimensions. His subjects were Herculean men and women who appeared to float against sparse backgrounds. His high-contrast figures often fill the photographic field, appearing monumental and dominant; they are snapped in either kinetic compositions or athletic action.
The tripartite collaboration between Goodman, Ritts, and Klein resulted in the stunning image of Mark “Marky” Wahlberg in white briefs with Kate Moss. His body is intensely present, yet the underwear are barely the focus. Sexuality is the central concern of these images. They are preoccupied with showing it, selling it, making it alluring. The clothes in Calvin Klein ads began to undergo a rapid subordination. Once Bruce Weber took up the project started by Ritts and Goodman, the images became yet more intense: the ads were dominated by (predominantly white) deities who hovered above ground on billboards in cities like NY and LA. During this period, underwear and jeans ads became the brand’s primary publicity. The move from expressing the sartorial might seem bizarre. However, this goal been written into minimalist clothing’s destiny since the start. What else could be expected from clothes planned in the interest of invisibility? Calvin Klein’s clothes were not clothes to think about, in short. In absenting clothes and heightening sex appeal, the ads ensured that we appreciate on the Calvin Klein aura instead of the Calvin Klein suit.
Calvin Klein’s use of minimalist codes has arguably defined the concept of “sexy” in American visual dialogues. Pre-Klein, sexy was European. Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and François Truffaut contributed to a long tradition of sensuousness to which Americans only had access through travel and film. Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin’s images of Parisian woman were American minimalism’s closest analogue, where erotics were concerned. But even they worked through a lens that was distinctly Parisian, rich and unctuous in its luxury. American culture necessitated a cleaner and lighter look, but also a look that departed from the relative Puritanism of the first half of the 20th century, codified partially by Klein’s contemporary, Ralph Lauren. The 80s and 90s were the perfect time for this break from tradition, and a formula of formal reductionism and high-octane eroticism provided the rigorous (yet liberating) methodology by which such a rupture could be achieved.