The Pirelli Calendar was created in 1962, when an enterprising advertising executive in London, Derek Forsyth, was pondering ways to boost sales for an Italian tire company. At the time, “girlie” calendars featuring women in various states of undress were popular among mechanics and car manufacturers. Forsyth’s idea was to class the format up, bringing fashion models and respected photographers together to produce an artier advertisement for the Pirelli brand.
The Pirelli calendar became a hit, unexpectedly uniting the worlds of auto manufacturing and high fashion. But it also became a way for photographers to break new artistic ground, free of edicts from magazine editors or clothing companies. The calendar’s goal (after selling tires, naturally), was to capture shifting cultural trends. “‘The Cal,’” Pirelli explains on its site, “aspired to be a sign of changing times.”
This year’s calendar, shot by Peter Lindbergh, presents itself as a similarly aspirational and inspirational work. Lindbergh photographed 14 Hollywood actresses (and one Russian academic, presumably for diplomatic reasons), most of whom are over 40. He captured them wearing minimal hair and makeup, in an artistic decision he described as “a cry against the terror of perfection and youth.” Lindbergh’s images are striking: His unretouched models, including Helen Mirren (71) and Julianne Moore (55) radiate poise, confidence, and peace with their physical selves. But the muted fanfare they’ve received mostly signals how much fashion as an industry—from the Pirelli Calendar to Vogue—has fallen behind when it comes to breaking new ground for women. Rather than trailblazing new standards for beauty, the 2017 calendar is a sign that institutions that were once at the forefront of new trends and movements are now struggling to catch up.
One symbol of the industry’s recent conservatism is Ashley Graham. The 28-year-old plus-sized model has been in the business for more than 15 years, and has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in campaigns for Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Liz Claiborne. She’s the official face of Lane Bryant lingerie. In November, she was honored with a Barbie doll in her image. This week she was announced as the January cover star of British Vogue.