Victoria’s Secret canceled its annual fashion show this year, a Christmastime staple of network television since 1995. The 2018 show had drawn only 3.3 million U.S. viewers on ABC, down from five million in 2017 and 12.4 at its 2001 peak. The cancellation added to Victoria’s Secret’s other woes: store closings, falling sales revenue, the termination of its famous catalog in 2016, and revelations that
had been the financial adviser of
82-year-old founder and CEO of parent company
The retailer finds itself politically and culturally out of step.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
complained at the Guardian of the “pornified aesthetic” that the “male gaze” had foisted upon Victoria’s Secret’s customers. “It’s refreshing that comfort and inclusivity are now on the agenda,” she wrote. Big Think’s
credited the “body positivity” movement for the cancellation, which she called the “nail in the coffin to an archaic, androcentric definition of ‘sexy.’ ”
Conservative commentators expressed similar sentiments. The Washington Examiner’s
called the show a “sordid event” staged by a company whose “advertising has always been about fulfilling male fantasies.”
The left also complained that Victoria’s Secret models lack “diversity.” True, Victoria’s Secret made the reputations of black supermodels
and Tyra Banks. But “none of the models have been plus size or gender nonconforming,” Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul grumbled. Asked why in November 2018, Ed Razek, L Brands’ marketing director, told Vogue: “Because the show is a fantasy.” Mr. Razek has left the company, and in August Victoria’s Secret hired
as its first transgender model.
It is quite a change since 1977, when
founded Victoria’s Secret as a bordello-décor haven for men to buy sexy underwear for their wives and girlfriends. Raymond’s birthday- and holiday-focused business plan couldn’t sustain sales. When Mr. Wexner bought the chain in 1982, his first move was to reconfigure the stores to appeal to women who couldn’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars for a La Perla bra but would snap up midpriced lace and satin.
Mr. Wexner marketed his wares by employing gorgeous models like Ms. Banks,
That was Mr. Razek’s “fantasy”: Customers knew they didn’t have supermodel bodies, but the idea was that some of the glamour would rub off on them. And of course it was an “androcentric” conception of sexiness. The vast majority of women are heterosexual.
Beauty, however, is not democratic. And in the age of militant identity politics, identity has replaced beauty as a marketing strategy. Increasing numbers of women, especially the loudest in the media and social media, aren’t interested in partaking vicariously of the supermodel glamour of
They demand instead to be told that they themselves are just as lovely as Ms. Jenner and Ms. Hadid—and to see versions of themselves on the runway.
One form of fantasy has been traded in for another. Plus-size and other figure-flawed ladies are now ubiquitous in womenswear advertising, especially among Victoria’s Secret’s upstart competitors: Aerie, Third Love, and singer Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty line. An X Fenty fashion show that streamed on
Prime in September was heavy on performers of uncertain sex and hefty bra-and-panty models showing off their cellulite dimples.
Beauty has been declining in Western culture for more than a century, starting with the fine arts. Now it’s vanishing even from advertising. But the market is democratic, and we’ll see if social justice can sell underwear.
Ms. Allen is author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”
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