The great irony of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is that it's not about lingerie. Yes, the show features lingerie, much in the same way a department store features lights or a hotel room features carpet, but the branding exercise that is the VS Fashion Show is about so much more than bras and panties.
A nationally televised event since 2001, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show has the distinction of being both the oldest and most famous lingerie fashion show in the United States (if not the world). It's an extraordinarily glossy, glittery production, more akin to a Lady Gaga concert or Cirque du Soleil performance, than a "traditional" fashion show. It's also held just before Christmas, at a time when there are no official Fashion Weeks, but plenty of consumers looking to buy holiday gifts. As a marketing tool, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show has no equal. What other fashion brand gets a free hour-long commercial on major network television during the holiday season?
The models—uniformly thin and tall in a way that most resembles fashion croquis—are among the most famous fashion models in the world, working for magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and walking the runways for labels like Dior and Chanel. The VS Fashion Show is so famous that it can even completely change a model's trajectory. Prior to being discovered by VS, Candice Swanepoel was a model for the considerably less glamorous Bare Necessities. Victoria's Secret is almost singlehandedly responsible for her career.
It's difficult to explain the VS juggernaut to people outside the United States. The company accounts for between 35-60% of U.S. market share (depending on what industry report you read), but they are inarguably the most famous lingerie brand in the United States. Founded in 1977 and acquired by L Brands (then The Limited) in 1982, they've spent the last three decades making their name synonymous with the concept of lingerie for the average American. A ubiquitous presence in shopping malls across the country (over 1,000 stores at last count) means they're the first—and, frequently, only—place to go for even vaguely nice lingerie. Their market dominance is all the more impressive because their products, quite simply, aren't.
Despite their reputation as a "fashionable" lingerie company, Victoria's Secret works within a very narrow range of silhouettes, with an extreme variety of color giving the mirage of endless choice. Almost all of their bras are contour or molded cup bras, a fairly easy to produce and inexpensive shape that doesn't require skilled artisans to individually stitch bra cups from tiny bits of fabric. In addition, most of their bras are push-ups or demis; a quick scroll through the bra section of their website reveals the exact same plunge silhouette repeated ad infinitum on dozens of bras, simply with a different bit of lace here or there.
The fact that the bras don't all look identical on the runway, despite being more or less the same, is a masterful illusion on Victoria's Secret's part. Lingerie styles that would be called "basic" and "uninspired" were they by any other brand are transformed into editorial-worthy looks through the careful application of angel wings, sequin capes, lace pants, embroidered boleros, and ill-fitting corsets (not to mention their trademark glamazonian hair and makeup). Several times during the show, I realized I could barely see the lingerie. How can this be a "lingerie fashion show" when the most interesting pieces in the entire event are the things Victoria's Secret doesn't even make?
To be fair, there were positive things at this year's show. One thing I've often discussed on my own blog is how Victoria's Secret is far and away one of the most ethnically diverse lingerie brands in the industry. In the world of intimate apparel, very few lingerie companies use models of color, especially in high profile campaigns, yet VS does every year. In addition, this year's decision to let Maria Borges wear her natural afro on the runway is one worth applauding; I can't deny the positive impact this almost certainly had on young women of color all over the world. And in an industry that overtly prizes models that still have the word "teen" in their age, the fact that Victoria's Secret has lingerie models in their mid-thirties is worth noting.
Yet none of this changes the fact that the VS Fashion Show is derivative, and, dare I say, boring. Despite the publicity, the annual show is little more than a sweet sugar glaze over a bubble of empty air. At this point, it almost feels like it's imitating itself, with near-identical themes (golden angels, fairy angels, sporty angels, winter wonderland angels) repeating year after year.
Dedicated to convincing the American public that they're a luxury lingerie brand, VS has simultaneously managed to make the world of bras and panties accessible, inoffensive even, in a culture that regularly bans nipples and equates lingerie with sex. Despite the regular complaints the show receives, both in terms of body image and sexuality, they are the closest many Americans will ever get to experiencing a fashion show of any kind. They link to that mass American desire of equality the idea that you too can be a part of that elite, rarefied fashion world, even if only as a bystander. You too can look like an international supermodel and never need go further than your local mall.
But at this point it's hard not to feel… weird about the VS PR machine replicating the same event every December. Gem-encrusted fantasy bra? Check. Girl Power/Cinderella story narrative? Check. Detailed discussions of how much the models eat/exercise/sleep in the days leading up to the show? Check. Even places known for their fashion commentary become surprisingly docile when it's time to cover VS. Is it because lingerie is such a taboo subject that discussing it critically scares most people away?
In this Instagram-focused era of authenticity, where lingerie brands brag about not using photoshop and show makeup-free models, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show (and their brand strategy in general) can't help but feel a little dated, a little frayed around the edges. The "Angels" archetype, with its unstated implication that it's okay to like lingerie if you're a "good girl," feels archaic, and the hair extensions, body contouring, and pouty lip of the VS runway feel more suited to the early oughts than the up-and-coming lingerie consumers of today. In a time where people are promoting the notion of sexy at every size, Victoria's Secret's particular brand of sexy is slowly but surely becoming obsolete, their look tipping over into a uniformity that borders on fetish.
Worst of all is the knowledge that the show could be better. It could be more diverse. More creative. More thought-provoking. I often think back to the show of 2005, which is one of the last VS Fashion Shows that featured custom runway lingerie before Victoria's Secret switched to a format that focused on what could be bought in stores. There's so much potential here, not just as a marketing tool, but also to expand the notion of what lingerie could be for the average American consumer. But come to think of it, that's counterproductive, isn't it? If people ever learned there's more to lingerie than a push-up t-shirt bras, what would VS do then?
Cora Harrington is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict, a fashion blog dedicated to intimate apparel. She has been writing about lingerie for seven years. Follow her on Twitter @lingerie_addict.
Cora Harrington is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict, a fashion blog dedicated to intimate apparel.