After 24 years, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been canceled. A true loss! No footage of leggy blondes and brunettes and, like, three or four black women trotting down a long runway this Christmas, flirting with Grown Baby Shawn Mendes or nearly knocking Ariana Grande over with a 15-pound feathered wing. What will we do? Probably literally anything else!
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show started in 1995 as a much simpler version of the winged-out, glittery monstrosity it had morphed into over the last decade. Back then, it was a subdued fashion show on a plain stage, supermodels showing off high-waisted underwear and bras and little wraps tied around their narrow hips. But even as the production changed and expanded, the look of the models largely stayed the same: all very thin, very tall, very conventionally beautiful. None of the models have been plus-size or gender nonconforming. The show’s efforts at diversity have been limited but, I suppose, worth pointing out. Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, two of the most famous models in the industry, both first walked the runway in 1996 and many times after that. In 2009, Lui Wen became the first Chinese model to appear in the show. In 2018, Winnie Harlow, a black model, and their first “angel” with vitiligo, walked the runway. That same year, Kelsey Merritt became the first Filipina model to walk.
Slowly, the show transformed into something louder and flashier, while still maintaining its roots as a lingerie store for women, created by men. After all, its cofounder Roy Raymond started the company in the late ’70s after feeling like a creep when he was shopping for lingerie for his wife. (It is my sincerest hope that most men now know that many women are often equipped to buy their own lingerie and would perhaps rather be gifted an elegant pen.) The 2002 show kicked off with cameras asking regular people (namely men) what they thought about VS and its models, leading to a bunch of firefighter dudes pointing at a catalog and excitedly saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, right there.” Earlier versions of the show we’re familiar with were clearly catering to straight men. I guess, to be fair, the internet was pretty new, and men had to do a bit of work to look at images of half-naked women. Lo, how far we’ve come!
At the show’s best in 2001, its broadcast debut garnered more than 12 million viewers. Andrea Bocelli performed. (Sure! Why not.) But trouble began brewing in the last few years, presumably because viewers — namely its female ones — started to get bored. The models all looked the same, the fashion was bizarre, unwearable, and uninteresting. Demand for more diversity in its casting began to reach a fever pitch. Its 2018 show netted only 3.3 million viewers, its lowest ratings ever, a steep drop from the 5 million viewers just the year before.
But Victoria’s Secret isn’t even trying to give its customers and viewers lip service when it comes to diversity. In 2018, the company’s then-president, Ed Razek, who doesn’t seem to understand that saying absolutely nothing is always an option, opened his big mouth in response to mounting complaints. In an interview with Vogue, Razek said he wouldn’t have “transsexuals” in the fashion show, “because the show is a fantasy.” He said they tried to do a plus-size fashion show in the past. “No one had any interest in it, still don’t,” he said. Scandal ensued, Razek resigned, and that year it did indeed hire its first trans model, Valentina Sampaio, but for a catalog shoot, not the fashion show itself.
Frankly it’s amazing that the company has withstood as many scandals as it has. In 2014, it released a lingerie line called “Body,” whose ads featured “THE PERFECT ‘BODY’” scrawled across images of ultrathin models. Its “Go East” collection included a mesh teddy called “Sexy Little Geisha,” which came with a matching mini fan. The fashion show has consistently been accused of cultural appropriation, which is made all the more offensive by how few models of color they actually hire.
It’s a strange coincidence that the VS Show was shelved indefinitely two months after Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Fashion Show took place in New York. The hourlong show broadcast on Amazon Prime Video in September was the ideological and visual opposite of whatever Victoria’s Secret was doing. It was dark and moody and aggressive, and above all, it had a new point of view. “I’m looking for unique characteristics in people that aren’t usually highlighted in the world of fashion as it pertains to lingerie,” Rihanna says at the beginning of the show’s behind-the-scenes footage. “It’s very important that the casting tells the narrative of what the brand stands for. What we stand for mainly here is inclusivity.”
Savage x Fenty has had some design issues with its larger sizes, but there’s no denying it made an effort to both be size-inclusive and display more than thin bodies on the runway. Making a show that Rihanna described as “performance art,” musical acts and dancers accompanied models on the off-kilter runway. The dancers were a wide range of sizes, as were the models. Isis King and Laverne Cox, two trans women, walked on the same runway as Gigi and Bella Hadid, two of the most conventionally attractive and famous supermodels working today. Drag queen Aquaria appeared alongside cis women in the show. Mama Cax, a black woman with a prosthetic leg, was also featured as a model.
Fat women were featured too, and not just the kind of “fat” that the fashion industry uses to pat themselves on the back for. They’re not size 8s — these are women who likely wouldn’t be able to find clothes that fit at Victoria’s Secret, who are often punished for their bodies and can rarely find something sexy, comfortable, and affordable. In the Savage x Fenty show, they wear skimpy lingerie that celebrates their curves and rolls. As they walk and their thighs rub together, the camera treats them with the same gaze thin women have enjoyed for a lifetime: with desire and awe. You lust after them, or you want to be them, or you want both. Savage actually makes you feel like the aspirational is attainable. After all, a lot of these girls look like just you.
It may be more thoughtful about its branding, but Savage is, of course, still trying to get you to buy some stuff all the same. But it’s become a successful brand because instead of marketing only to thin women, or only to women who aspire toward thinness, it’s marketing to everyone. It’s still very shrewd.
“There’s nothing delicate about it, there’s nothing fragile about it,” Rihanna said about the choreography of the show. “It’s in your face. That kind of strength and that confidence.” Fragility, conversely, seems to be a big part of what Victoria’s Secret was doing for years. It might argue that its brand and clothing are all about strength, but the women featured on the runway often displayed a coquettish kind of sexuality. They grinned widely and waved, or clasped their hands over their mouths in wonderment at the audience, acting as if it were a big surprise that they, each a hot person, got to be hot for a living. The models who walked for Victoria’s Secret had no growl of adult sexuality. Instead, they seemed childlike and practically chaste, wide-eyed and cutesy, young girls playing at what they imagined sexy to be. Like, what the hell is this?
Oddly enough, with all this flawless, aspirational hotness, what Victoria’s Secret lacks is the suggestion of actual sex or sexuality. Its products, branding, and show seems to have no idea who it’s targeting. Is it for women who just want to feel good? Is it just for men who want to drool over women, but not be threatened by too much female sexuality, the lingerie equivalent of “the good girl” or “wifey material”? The Victoria’s Secret behind-the-scenes coverage, meanwhile, shows the models working out as hard as they can so they can be “ready” for the runway, further solidification of the idea that there are only certain types of bodies who should wear a bra on a glittering stage. Victoria’s Secret has said many times that it’s selling “a fantasy,” but when the fantasy is nothing more than the socially accepted norm, it’s not all that interesting to buy into.
Savage, conversely, is aggressively sexual. Halfway through the show, the speakers played “Big Booty Problem” by Full Crate, the lyrics repeating “Dirty/Nasty/Dirty/Worthy.” The models were women presented as being in control of their sexuality. They wore what they wanted — often sneakers because, christ, it’s hard to dance in heels — and their outfits were designed to make them feel good, though they’d share them with a partner if they feel like it. It’s sexuality on their own terms.
It also didn’t hurt that Fenty is owned by a woman, that the choreography and dancers were all women, and that many of the people taking the lead on planning the show were all women, as opposed to Victoria’s Secret, which is and has been owned and controlled by men for years. (The CEO of VS’s parent company is an 82-year-old billionaire from Ohio with ties to Jeffrey Epstein.)
The failure of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was, ultimately, a failure to keep up with the trends within commercialized feminism. Having fat women in its fashion show would’ve, of course, been a good start, but instead it’s used its traditionally slim and beautiful models to talk about “confidence” and “fierceness” and “strength.”
And while its 2018 show clearly tried to pivot to make the brand seem like it was all about empowering women, Victoria’s Secret can’t shake itself from being the quintessential male gaze brand, making it feel woefully out of date. Even the company’s name — Victoria’s Secret — suggests this absurd Madonna–whore complex that women have been trying to escape for centuries. “Raymond imagined a Victorian boudoir, replete with dark wood, oriental rugs, and silk drapery,” Slate wrote about the company’s provenance in 2013. “He chose the name ‘Victoria’ to evoke the property and respectability associated with the Victorian era; outwardly refined, Victoria’s ‘secrets’ were hidden beneath.” Christ, can a woman just want to fuck in peace without feeling ashamed about it??
Now with investors pushing the company to modernize within three months, Victoria’s Secret has to figure out how to rebrand while its competitors eat its lunch. “While Victoria’s Secret has improved the racial and ethnic diversity of the women in its advertising campaigns,” one of its investors wrote in a letter to VS’s parent company’s CEO in March, “it continues to use models that depict a very narrow definition of beauty.”
Savage is just one example of a company succeeding where VS has failed to keep up with the times, but there’s also Ashley Graham’s plus-size lingerie collection with Addition Elle, whose sizes go up to 4X. Teen-centric Pink competitor Aerie works with models of varying body types for its lingerie and bathing suit lines. E-commerce generally has made plus-sizes more accessible (and quite cute!) in a way that hadn’t been true before. Asos, Torrid, Third Love, and Eloquii all have products available in larger sizes than whatever Victoria’s Secret is offering. The marketing strategy and the products coming from these companies aren’t flawless, and there’s plenty of room for growth in the space, but at least these brands have a new perspective.
The fashion show’s cancellation is a lesson for other brands trying to appeal to women without an authentic point of view. It’s not enough to read feminist pablum from a prompter. It’s not enough to show women being happy in their bodies, if all those women are culturally considered to have “perfect” bodies. It will forever ring false to the average customer who wants to look hot in a bra without having to walk into a store that looks like Barbie’s DreamHouse if it got a boring BDSM makeover. Ultimately, Victoria’s Secret’s miscalculation was thinking that all women still want wings of their own. ●