Playboy

The problem of where to put all the Playboys was new to Jerome Huffor, the magazine buyer at Book People, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. After all, in the 36 years Book People has held court in downtown Austin, Playboy had always been, well, nude.

“I haven’t seen the first issue yet, but I’m assuming it’ll be moved to men’s interest,” Huffor told me ahead of the magazine’s historic inaugural nudity free issue, which hit stands last Friday. “If there’s no nudity, I don’t see the harm in putting it next to magazines like Maxim.

And just like that, as if overnight, Playboy will be liberated from a harshly lit corner shelf littered with signs warning anyone under 18 to “not even think about touching” the magazines to the roomy main floor, polybag-wrapping free, aside competitors that have never once dared to free the nipple in their own glossy tenures.

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In many ways, Playboy’s shift into the real estate of men’s interest magazines feels like the prodigal son of sex has finally returned home. If the Playboy brand of the 50s and 60s titillated us with what good sex looked like for the classy modern man, the decades of Playboy that came shortly after did little to maintain that panache, instead rendering us numb to a desensitizing amount of glimmering breasts and butts scattered through the magazine’s pages over the years.

The new Playboy, with all its semi-clothed flesh, isn’t then just about covering up to make a statement and boost circulation—it’s about returning the magazine to its glory days, the days when Playboy not only accurately encapsulated what America found sexy at the time, but started those conversations as well.

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Given Playboy’s strong early aesthetic, I was surprised to learn that the magazine’s first—and according to founder Hugh Hefner, only—stumble occurred in its inaugural issue, and in an edition containing Marilyn Monroe, no less.

The December 1953 issue featured a nude pin-up photo of Monroe, featured as the magazine’s first “Sweetheart of the Month” centerfold. Just one issue later, Hefner would change “Sweetheart” to “Playmate” permanently, to make it imminently clear how Playboy planned to differ from how young women were already perceived in the 1950s. “Hefner wasn't selling steady dates and monogamy; he was selling one-night stands and variety. He wasn't selling duty. He was selling pleasure,” as the Chicago Tribune once put it. “And plenty of folks—imagine that—wanted to buy.”

Hefner’s gamble paid off. If pin-up calendar girls invoked images of soldiers heading off to war to give them something to fight for, Playboy opened society’s eyes on how to live. The cornerstone of the magazine, as the old saw went, was always the articles—commentary, criticism, politics—but the scampish nudity proliferated, without ever veering too far from Hefner’s original goal of selling a lifestyle, not just selling sex.

As the sexual revolution of the 60s raged, Playboy once again led the charge. Playmates went from being posed in ostensibly demure pin-up shots to owning their sexuality—a reality reflected not just in the pages of Playboy, but in the brand’s growing empire, including Hefner’s Playboy Clubs, which were designed to bring the pages of the magazine to life, much like a titillating Disneyland. As Playboy writer Vanessa Butler pointed out, the magazine’s push towards bold, big breasts in its pages reflected the climate of the time: free love, music festivals, topless women abound.

But that move toward the bold and buxom took a turn for the manufactured in the 70s, as Playboy began to compete with other skin mags launching at the time, including Penthouse and Hustler. As each magazine upped the ante—Penthouse was famously the first to flaunt pubic hair, full frontal nudity, and exposed clitorises—sex became more plastic. The advent of the VCR in the mid-70s—and with it, the boom of the porn industry—only amplified this trend toward the overproduced. Gone were the days of adult movie theaters and limited access to instant gratification; sex sold, and Playboy was forced to keep up.

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But as Playboy and its rivals continued to churn out oiled breasts and completely bald vaginas en masse throughout the 80s and 90s, a societal pushback to the overproduced renderings of sexuality began to take root in the late 90s and early aughts. Fashion magazines began featuring erotic images of ethereal waifish beauties, Lolita-esque in their innocent provocation, termed “porn chic.”

While the phrase was first coined by New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal in 1973 when describing the seminal porn film Deep Throat and its impact on what would later go on to be referred to as the “Golden Age of Porn,” the porn chic of the 90s was largely a fashion movement—one that invoked the realistic narrative of Deep Throat and a 70s porn aesthetic, in outward rejection of the hardcore pornography of the 90s and 2000s.

In Annette Lynch’s book Porn Chic: Exploring the Contours of Raunch Eroticism, Lynch describes the phrase as “fashions and related trend-based behaviors linked to the porn industry that have now become mainstreamed into the dress of women and girls, particularly within the United States and the United Kingdom.”

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And in Europe, there was no bigger purveyor of the trend than the editor in chief of French Vogue from 2001 through 2010, Carine Roitfeld. Often referred to as the “Queen of Porn Chic,” the look was based on Roitfeld’s own fashion taste when she was designer Tom Ford’s muse in the 90s. Self-described as “very sexy, but very woman, and always some rock and roll,” Roitfeld brought a similar aesthetic to French Vogue, constantly pushing the boundaries with vintage inspired nudity that had models owning their sexuality, while being wholly authentic at the same time. As New York once described it, “Roitfeld remade French Vogue in her own image, which is to say svelte, tough, luxurious, and wholeheartedly in love with dangling-cigarette, bare-chested fashion.”

Roitfeld’s decade-long porn chic influence wasn’t contained to Europe; as fashion historian Lynch noted, the trend was equally as strong in the States, and there may have been no bigger purveyor of the aesthetic in the early 2000s than Dov Charney’s infamous jersey-based fashion line, American Apparel. The American brand that used to boast that it never used models, only “real people,” in its advertisements quickly became a paean for American sexuality, offering the scantily clad version of effortless hipster cool.

As The New York Times Magazine reported in 2006, “the models in American Apparel's print ads challenge conventional notions of beauty […]. The ads are also highly suggestive…They depict young men and women in bed or in the shower; if they are casually lounging on a sofa or sitting on the floor, then their legs happen to be spread; frequently they are wearing a single item of clothing but are otherwise undressed; a couple of the young women appear to be in a heightened state of pleasure. These pictures have a flashbulb-lighted, lo-fi sultriness to them; they look less like ads than photos you'd see posted on someone's Myspace page.”

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The MySpace mention may date just how long ago the push for authenticity in sex began to proliferate, but it also highlights how critical social media was in making that happen. Once smart phones and social media made it easier than ever for real people to broadcast themselves, our definition of sexy began to evolve back to the 70s porn chic aesthetic of real people in charge of their own sexual agency, rather than the overproduced imagery coming out of magazines like Playboy and the world of rampant hardcore internet porn.

Porn itself is becoming more realistic, as feminist porn, narrative porn, and well-shot, sex-positive films continue to gain popularity over the hardcore porn of the recent past. As Stefanie Knauss writes in More Than a Provocation: Sexuality, Media, and Theology, “if professional porn is perceived to be unreliable because the models are too good-looking and the surface is too smooth to be ‘real,’ then maybe homemade porn with its grainy resolution and actors that look like the man or woman next door might provide the desired authenticity of the experience.”

And even now, a decade after Roitfeld and porn chic, its legacy lives on. Terry Richardson, with his overtly sexualized photo shoots, is the enfant terrible of the fashion world, once described by the Times as having popularized “a kind of glossed-up 1970s porn chic that is popular in high fashion…He seems to revel in making viewers squirm while his subjects, often naked or nearly so, wink at the camera.”

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As sex becomes easier to find, share, and sell on the Internet, the desire to present our true selves, and the ability to do so with as little fuss as possible, has become paramount to staying relevant. For Playboy, that now means a concentrated effort to return to the very aesthetic they once pioneered.

“Before we started the redesign process, we knew we needed to return to a more natural, classic Playboy style of model and photography,” Jason Buhrmester, editorial director of the magazine, told me. “Very early on, we filled a long wall with photos of women—celebrities, fashion shoots, foreign magazines, Instagram models. It became very evident that there is a specific way that women portray their sexuality today, particularly on social media. Those photos felt the most authentic and fun and best captured the girl-next-door aesthetic that Playboy was built on. Instagram is the modern girl next door.”

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Indeed, the new Playboy seems to have captured exactly that. The cover feels more authentic, with model Sarah McDaniel posing in an ostensible selfie, complete with the ubiquitous Snapchat text bar featuring a typed-out flirty missive. A photo spread with the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, though obligatorily fluffy as interviews with tangentially famous young ingénues tend to go, captures the wan, waifish cool regularly featured in the pages of Roitfeld’s French Vogue, or anywhere you turn on Instagram nowadays, and rarely found on the faces of models in highly stylized glossy magazine-produced shoots.

Putting skin aside, the bones of the magazine have evolved as much as the pages within. Of the many men’s interest publications it will now be competing against, Playboy is one of the only mainstream American magazines that migrated away from the glossy model to embrace looking and feeling like an independent magazine.

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“Hef created the first issue of Playboy at his kitchen table in Chicago, so in many ways we are an indie magazine. We've never been part of a big publishing house, so internally, Playboy has always had a cool indie vibe. We really wanted to capture that in the magazine, since that's how it feels to work here,” Buhrmester told me. “The best way to do that was to scrutinize everything and ask ourselves what Hef would do if he were starting this magazine today.”

The magazine’s redesign bets are not ill-advised. According to Huffor, the periodical buyer at Book People, the few sections in which magazine readership appear to be increasing are art, independent, and international magazines.

“I’ve severely reduced the number of adult magazines we carry in order to extend the arts section, which has grown in the last year,” says Huffor. “Our pricey indie magazine sales have gone up dramatically. People like to have an $18 magazine, just to have it look good laying around on their coffee table.” With its new look and invocation of Roitfeld’s porn chic editorial vision, the new Playboy will likely have no problem fitting in alongside the popular, more pricey indie mags, despite its adult mag beginnings.

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Sixty-three years and one magazine rack move later, Playboy has never felt more relevant, and it’s not just because, this time, the clothes have stayed on. If how we view sex is inextricably linked to who we are, Playboy isn’t in the business of selling sex—it’s in the business of knowing us best.

Beejoli Shah (@beejoli) has written for New York Magazine, SPIN, The Guardian, Matter, and other publications, reporting on entertainment, technology, and culture. She currently lives in Austin.