The Art of Perfume Ads: Calvin Klein Escape

I’m not an outdoorsy person, but it’s summer—in the weather report, if not on the actual or astronomical calendar—and I wouldn’t have minded having a watery way to cool off this afternoon.

This advertisement for Calvin Klein Escape (1991) came to mind and I realized that I’ve never written about it, so now’s the time. I definitely remember seeing this ad in every glossy magazine the year Escape came out, and even then, I had a pretty good hunch where the creative team (including photographer Bruce Weber?) got their inspiration…

There’s rarely any way to confirm these possible (or probable) allusions, but I’m guessing that someone behind the Escape campaign was familiar with the most iconic moment from the movie From Here to Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann and released in 1953. The film was based on James Jones’s 1951 novel of the same title, and certain elements had to be toned down for the big-screen interpretation. One such element was a love scene between Karen Holmes (played by Deborah Kerr) and Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster).

Black-and-white photography, check; waves lapping up on a rocky coast, check; full-body embrace, check; diagonal orientation of paired bodies on the sand, check. The Calvin Klein models may have have switched positions and donned white suits rather than black, but the influence seems clear. (One odd note, for me, has always been that lone water-ski. Which person used it? How did the other person get to the rendezvous point? And is that ski a distractingly phallic object, or am I reading too much into it? Just me? Anyway.)

More background on the movie scene: Warden is a First Sergeant in the United States Army—the story takes place in the weeks leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941—and Karen is married to a senior officer, Captain Dana Holmes. Lancaster and Kerr’s intimate kiss in the surf, despite being modified from a more explicit encounter in the novel, was thus charged with conflict as well as erotic power, not to mention a breathtaking seascape. (Oahu’s Halcona Cove did the honors in this memorable supporting role.)

Neither Kerr nor Lancaster won an Oscar for their performance in From Here to Eternity (unlike Zinnemann for Director and Frank Sinatra for Supporting Actor), but their roll in the waves entered the visual lexicon of classic movie moments nonetheless.

(You can read more about this scene at the British Film Institute website!)

Unlike the Escape ad’s very sincere homage, with its typically Calvin minimalist-erotic style, many pop cultural references to that intense beach kiss have been humorous.

In 1954, the TV variety show Your Show of Shows staged a parody of Zinnemann’s film titled “From Here to Obscurity.” The sketch’s illicit lovers, embodied by Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, played their scene sitting up rather than lying down (I’m sure the “standards and practices” censors were keeping a close watch?) and their comedically overwrought dialogue was drenched by nearby “waves” several times.

The parody film Airplane! (1980) included a flashback scene involving melodramatic seaside lovers who end up not only soaked, but festooned with seaweed, after clinging together in the waves. And the promotional poster for yet another parody, 1982’s Young Doctors in Love—a spoof of the soap opera General Hospital, apparently—restaged the classic clinch in full-color photography, complete with a stethoscope and surgical garb.

By the mid-90s, the Weber shot of models Shana Zadrick and Scott King was phased out as Kate Moss became the new face of Escape (and pretty much everything else Calvin-related). This image, however, will live in infamy.


  1. This also makes me think of Madonna’s Cherish music video, Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game video, and the CK Eternity ads with Christy Turlington all in the same time period of 1988-1991. Sexy time on the beach sells.


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