It markets itself, perhaps earnestly, as the “most watched fashion show in the world” and hosts a line-up of musical entertainment unlike anything seen at fashion week, but the Victoria’s Secret Show does not belong in 2016.
This is hardly a surprising statement. Each year a number of articles appear online, branding the catwalk of wing-clad models as out-dated, sexist and creepy. We have heard it before and we will hear it again. This argument will be countered by those who cry ‘EMPOWERMENT’ from the sidelines of the runway and will then go back into hibernation until next year.
But please hear me out.
In the world of sex-positive feminism the conversation about objectification has gotten lost. Just as the current mood of post-truth politics has normalised the language of racism, the constant insistence on the empowerment of looking sexy has led to the normalisation of sexual objectification. Criticise the context of a lingerie brand and you run the risk of slut-shamming accusations and being branded a prude.
So first, a defence. This has nothing to do with an aversion to lingerie or, indeed, its place within the world of fashion. Agent Provocateur, the British-born Soho brand, led by creative director Sarah Shotton, is far more creative and, incidentally, seems less repulsed by women of different sizes.
Victoria’s Secret is by no means as innovative with its direction. However, many of the outfits worn by the models are well-crafted works of art. The intricate sculpture of the body-length wings and the diamond encrusted detail of the bras and corsets are beautiful.
This is not to say the whole brand deserves aesthetic applause: much of it is tacky, predictable and – in the case of the high street stock anyway – rather average. But it should be acknowledged that there is a level of artistic quality to the lingerie (and elaborate extras) worn.
The problems with the event lie not in the content of the designs on display – bar, of course, the racially problematic styles appropriated in recent years -but the entire culture and context in which it thrives.
Because the lingerie is not the main selling point of the show: women’s bodies are the commodity here. Victoria’s Secret is selling women a narrow, archaic version of femininity masked as fun-spirited empowerment. And, for some sad reason, many women buy it.
Surrounded by a male-heavy audience, models – sorry, “angels” – parade the runway to the leering stares and smirks of fully-clothed musical acts. Whether it be the awkward boyishness of Ed Sheeran’s appearance in 2014, or the disconcerting gleefulness of Bruno Mars and The Weeknd at 2016’s ‘extravaganza’ earlier this week, the employment of pop music is the brand’s same tired effort to maintain the relevance of its otherwise characterless pagentry.
The event is preceded by a wealth of propaganda, detailing the trials and tribulations of the models work-out routines. “It feels like we’re training for the Olympics” said one model proudly to the press in 2013, “We put so much work in.”
7-day-a-week intensive routines and water bans 24 hours before the show (you know, to make the skin a little tighter) are documented heavily by women’s magazines and national newspapers alike. The dangerously obsessive dieting regimes are promoted proudly by models across their Instagram accounts, feeding into the ‘fits-spiration’ (#cleaneating) lifestyle which has led to increase anxiety amongst young women and has been proven to contribute to the mentality leading to eating disorders.
Victoria’s Secret thrives on a culture where women are compelled to brag about their work-out routine in a bid to assert their value, not for sporting achievement but for aesthetic gratification.
These women are branded ‘inspiring’ and ‘empowering’ not just by women’s magazines but publications aimed at teenagers, instilling the message that the 00.01% of the female body types displayed on the catwalk are to be sought and envied.
The worst part of this is the marketing intentions. Victoria’s Secret is Playboy’s less sexually active sibling. It is the presentation of scantily clad women for commercial gain, the performativity of fantasy femaleness but never quite as sexually gratuitous. These are “angels” –“good girls” – they look sexy but don’t actually have sex. The concept of “angels” and “fantasy bras” and the language of “bestowed honour” all ring with the enduring creepiness of a 1970s hangover.
The intention is to “appeal to women” said the company’s chief marketing officer Ed Razek, “women have to say, ‘I want to look like that’.” “That” being the long-legged, thong-clad, six foot “angel” they see dominate the media every year. In a world where girls as young as seven are reportedly suffering from body anxiety this obsessive culture needs to be challenged not celebrated.
Quite frankly, we should resign the ‘old-rich-man-in-suit tells young women what to aspire to be’ trope to the past.
And perhaps the world will move on. Last year Ashley Lutz argued in The Business Outsider that Victoria’s Secret ‘is in real danger of losing its relevance’. Lutz quoted Jeetendr Sehdev of University of South California who stated that “The dazzling and over the top fantasy positioning is simply alienating to the modern day sophisticated and complex young woman.” Indeed British Vogue made headlines this month by featuring model Ashley Graham on its cover. Similarly, this week it was reported that lingerie brand Aerie has seen sales rise by 26% since it discontinued the use of airbrushing in advertisements.
Victoria’s Secret will air its latest round of false ‘empowerment’ on December 5. This year, we should stop watching.