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From soft porn to Shakespeare: inside the Pirelli Calendar’s cultural awakening

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Holly Bullock
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As a new theme and cast is revealed for 2020, Stylist looks back on the history of the Pirelli Calendar.

The cast of the next Pirelli calendar has been announced, and it’s a brilliant lineup. Next year’s calendar will be packed with inspirational women, with the likes of Emma Watson, Claire Foy, Indya Moore and Yara Shadidi set to fill the pages of Milan’s iconic annual title.

The team behind the Pirelli calendar loves a theme, and this year, it’s Romeo and Juliet. Photographer Paolo Roversi is re-imagining the story as a modern tale of empowered beauty and independent romance.

Shot in Verona and Paris, Looking for Juliet features eight women who will all play the part of a modern Capulet. It sounds beautiful so far, but I know what you’re thinking…

How did we get here? After using women’s bodies as a marketing tool, has the Pirelli Calendar finally become a beacon of equality?

To answer that question, let’s go back in time, to the very beginning of the Pirelli calendar. It all began in 1963, when British art director Derek Forsyth was asked to create a new ‘corporate freebie’ for tyre maker Pirelli; an exclusive gift that the company could hand out to its most loyal customers.

When a glass ashtray didn’t quite hit the spot, Forsyth struck upon an idea to create a ‘tasteful’ version of the pornographic calendars Pirelli clients hid away in their back offices; “something dealers could put up on the wall for customers to see,” he explained in a film by Pirelli. By hiring the best models, photographers and art directors, Forsyth sought to create the most covetable gift-with-purchase in the business. 

At the beginning, the calendar was pretty tame. Fully clothed models posed next to tyres for a 1963 mock-up, but when that didn’t prove popular, Pirelli went in a different direction.

Over the next 10 years, the calendar became a manual of objectification. Following a particularly risqué installment that splashed uncomfortable-looking, latex-clad models across the page for every month, Pirelli finally took the calendar out of publication 1974.

After a 10-year hiatus, the calendar returned in 1984, with a brand-new strategy and a surprisingly refreshing take on diversity.

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The 1987 edition, shot by Terence Donovan, featured exclusively black models, and, three years later, Pirelli challenged gender norms when American track and field athlete Carl Lewis appeared wearing a pair of red stilettos.

Soon, all references to tyres were dropped, and the calendar was re-branded as an art project. Shortly after, models Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Karen Alexander and Kate Moss all gave it their stamp of approval by appearing inside, and soon the fashion crowd was hooked.

In 2013, the calendar was used to address political issues when photo reporter Steve McCurry leveraged his turn in the driver’s seat to spotlight the changing economic and social situation in Brazil, shooting models who were all involved in charity work. Adriana Lima became the first pregnant woman to grace Pirelli’s pages that same year.

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Still, Pirelli didn’t do everything right. In the past, the company has worked with now-disgraced photographers Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, to create some images that, looking back, make for uncomfortable viewing.

But in 2016, after a few rocky years diversity-wise, things began to change. Annie Leibovitz shot her second Pirelli calendar that year, which featured the likes of Amy Schumer, Serena Williams and Patti Smith. It was heralded as a new feminist, body-positive awakening for the project.

Serena Williams poses for 2016 Pirelli Calendar
Serena Williams poses for 2016 Pirelli Calendar (Photo: Annie Leibovitz)

In 2017, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz went makeup free for their photographs in the calendar, while 2018 saw the calendar’s most celebrated edition yet, as Tim Walker re-imagined Alice in Wonderland with an all-black cast.

“When you think of the Pirelli calendar, I’m not the face that comes up,” said Whoopi Goldberg of her 2018 appearance in the calendar’s launch video, “but little girls like me wait to see someone that looks like me in a calendar, so… ta da!”

You could say that this year’s theme isn’t so relatable. In a culture of online romance, Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have anything to do with modern love. But you’d be wrong.

According to Roversi, love’s elusive nature means that the story is universally accessible. “I’m still in search of Juliet,” he explains in a behind-the-scenes video, “and I think I will be in search all my life because, in the end, Juliet is a dream.”

For transgender actress Indya Moore, this year’s theme has everything to do with the now. “The politics of loving trans people reminds me of Romeo and Juliet,” she says. “It symbolises prejudice.” Straddling the past and the present might not work for Pirelli forever, but for now, it’s working.

Once feminism’s ultimate saboteur, in 2019, Pirelli’s pushing the conversation forward. As global narratives change, it’s no wonder, because, as calendar veteran Kate Moss once remarked: “Pirelli is always of the moment.”

Images: Pirelli

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