By Niniola Folatoriola
After 24 years, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been cancelled. 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 down Ariana Grande 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 Merrit became the first Filipina model to walk.
At the show’s best in 2001, its broadcast debut garnered more than 12 million views. 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 just 3.3 million views, 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.
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 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 goes 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.