• Poojil Tiwari

Victoria's Secret is Falling to a Cultural Awakening

Victoria’s Secret is facing a slow death. The steadily declining numbers have been telling this story for years. For a while now, Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been hemorrhaging ratings – falling to an all-time low of under 5.5 million in 2017, only to fall further to 3.3 million next year. It’s bid to tap into the Chinese market was hindered by an aggressively conservative government. Despite this, the brand continued to gloss over declining numbers with its carefully constructed fantasy world where women, drowning in its hallmark PINK!, continue to market lingerie to a room full of men in tuxedos. For years, Victoria’s Secret dominated the ideal of female beauty and set aspirational standards for millions of women. VS’ ideal woman has largely been stagnant throughout years – white, cisgender, and impossibly thin. However, in a post #MeToo world, this monochromatic outlook seems to be shifting fast.

To mark the 2019 Pride Month, the company released a statement on Twitter, expressing its support for its LGBTQ community –

“Here at PINK, we’re proud to celebrate our LGBTQ associates & customers that make an impact in their communities. Inclusion makes us stronger and we’re committed to giving everyone a voice. We’ll be sharing Pride stories from associates, Campus Reps and PINK fans all month long!”

The brand was universally panned on social media for attempting to capitalize on the LGBTQIA+ community after the transphobic and body shaming comments of its (now former) Chief Marketing Officer Edward Razek (pictured below). In a 2018 Vogue interview, Razek dismissed the idea of hiring trans and plus-sized models for their Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

“I don’t think we should (cast transgender models). Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us.”

He later apologized, in a statement that was marked by its explicit ignorance of Razek’s comments on the inclusion of plus-sized models. In a way, Edward Razek was not be completely off the mark. As more and more apparel brands respond to the demands of a more diverse and inclusive customer base, Victoria’s Secret might be the only one that continues to sell its quaint idea of the female body. As the VS woman remained alienated from reality, other brands stepped up to fill the gap. American Eagle intimate apparel sub-brand Aerie has branded itself as the opposite of Victoria’s Secret, and with substantial success. In 2014, the brand launched its highly successful Aerie REAL campaign that places exclusive focus on hiring models across the body size spectrum and representing a diverse community of women in its campaign. It also made a point out of refusing to digitally retouch bodies in its ads. Coupled with affordability, this has allowed Aerie’s sales to take off, with expectations of crossing the billion dollar mark in 2019.

On the ramp, Rihana’s 2018 show Savage X Fenty has already taken the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show head-on – bringing forth a diverse set of models that stood in stark contrast to the restricted version of sexy pedaled by VS. Rihana’s marketing strategy with her makeup line Fenty Beauty and now, her lingerie line has been fairly simple – diversity is not a tool to be deployed selectively to pander to consumers. Her runway debut placed diversity at the center of the brand’s identity, with an intense show that was replete with plus-size models, women of colour, and two pregnant models. The principle behind this marketing is the very anthesis of Victoria’s Secret. The message was clear,

“Make no mistake– the VSFS fantasy is not meant for women.”

Shows like the Savage X Fenty are attempting to demonstrate that VS is dedicated exclusively to the male gaze, and focuses on elevating women to literal “angels”, plush with elaborate wings. In 2013, model Erin Heatherton left the brand due to growing pressures to lose weight. In the world of Victoria’s Secret, women are as much of a commodity as the product they sell. Brands today are focusing on bringing lingerie back to women and redefining it as an article of clothing meant for female comfort as opposed to male consumption. In a recent Vogue interview the pop-star was quoted as saying,

“Women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves. I can only hope to encourage confidence and strength by showing lingerie in another light. You don’t have to stick to one personality with lingerie; it’s fun to play around. You can be cute and playful one week and a black widow next week.”

The demand for inclusivity goes beyond asking for the incorporation of a diverse model base. For decades VS has not only controlled the conversation around “beauty” but also what it means to be “female”. Its vast market share and worldwide presence of walk-in stores have ensured that the brand remains synonymous with femininity. The very notion of “angel” makes women into demure, malleable commodities, whose only form of expression is a sexuality that is shaped by the demands of a male lens. However, as women continue the fight of reclaiming the narratives about them, the very idea of the Victoria’s Secret female is becoming obsolete. In 2017, plus-sized model Lane Bryant started her highly successful campaign, #IamNoAngel. The campaign focused on questioning the unrealistic expectations and harrowing implications that accompany the idea of wanting to be an angel. For far too long, the femininity endorsed by brands such as Victoria’s Secret have alienated women from the very humane emotion of anger and self expression.

The woman of the post-MeToo world is marked by her anger, her voice, her dissatisfaction with status quo and demand for aggressive change. The mechanised sexuality of the angel of VS has rendered her incapable of voicing the concerns of this woman, of expressing anger that women today are articulating. Victoria’s Secret is no longer the aspiration.

It speaks volumes about the reach of unrealistic beauty standards and commodification of women when you realise that for over a decade Victoria’s Secret managed to make essential clothing an exclusive aspiration. However, the magic has been broken. In a world where consumers are getting increasingly comfortable with calling out brands, and campaigns are propelled by their social media currency, brands will be held answerable. For decades Victoria’s Secret has made the active choice of not opting into the body positivity movement. One has to wonder that such a shift, if it ever occurs may be far too little far too late.

About the Author

Poojil is pursuing Bachelors in English Literature from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Like most English students, Poojil has an affinity for reading. She is an avid debater, placing a lot of value in the ability to question and have constructive discussions. She is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, and regard dancing to be her true passion. Poojil has a keen interest in Gender and Cultural Studies and has worked with organizations such as Delhi Commission for Women and Teach for India.

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