Why Did We Buy What Victoria’s Secret Was Selling?

The last ever Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show took place in 2018, before allegations of institutional misogyny surfaced at the underwear chain, but after many of us realized that it was peddling something more insidious than $40 teal lace push-up bras with rhinestone details. The model who opened the event was Taylor Hill, a then-22-year-old from Colorado with the guileless beauty and long limbs of a baby farm animal. “We should go forward, we should push the boundary,” Hill said in footage that was projected backstage before she made her entrance, dressed in a tiny plaid kilt, thigh-high stiletto boots, and a fuchsia brassiere with feathered fuchsia wings. The imperative, she added, was to “be sexy for ourselves, and for who we want to be, not because a man says you have to be. It was never about that in the first place.”

Except, with apologies to Hill, it kind of was. Victoria’s Secret was founded in 1977 by Roy Raymond, a former marketer for the cold-remedy company Vicks, who purportedly felt uncomfortable buying lingerie for his wife in existing stores and thought extravagant underwear sold in more welcoming environments might be an untapped market. Raymond settled on a softly Victorian vibe for his first store in Palo Alto, California. Aware that some women might find undergarments catering so specifically to the male gaze somewhat incompatible with the second-wave feminism ascendant at the time, he landed on a unique sales pitch, which Susan Faludi lays out in her 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. It was important for the consumer to think that she was buying “this very romantic and sexy lingerie to feel good about herself, and the effect it had on a man was secondary,” Raymond tells Faludi. “It allowed us to sell these garments without seeming sexist.” He shrugs when she asks him if it was actually true. “It was just the philosophy we used. The media picked it up and called it a ‘trend,’ but I don’t know. I’ve never seen any statistics.”

But oh, how it stuck. The idea that underwear designed to constrict and contort could be empowering, even liberating, is the kind of upside-down logic that was used to sell girdles to housewives in the 1950s. (“For the woman who insists on her freedom,” one Skippies Formfit ad read.) I recently watched a YouTube video of the first televised Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, from 2001, and one of the more striking things to observe was how some of the models—the most hardened professionals you could ever source for the task of moving fluidly in restrictive garments while balancing on four-inch heels—struggled to walk in their corsets, jerking inelegantly from side to side. Here was apparently a visual embodiment of women’s sexual freedom in the new millennium. It looked awkward, unnatural, outright painful.

[Read: Down the rabbit hole: The surprising tale of the bunny suit]

And yet Victoria’s Secret, more than any other icon or cultural product, was the brand that defined what sexuality in the late ’90s and early 2000s looked like. Raymond’s idea of persuading women to objectify themselves for their own supposed gratification—buying into a version of sexiness that just happened to align perfectly with pleasing men—anticipated a moment that was overtly raunchy, exclusionary, and consumerist. The company made “beauty” unattainable, while confining female sexual exploration to the realm of male fantasy. And while it did all this, a new Hulu documentary series points out, the brand and its leadership were reportedly enabling the alleged abuse of a number of women.

We’ve already heard this last part. I’ve watched, at this point, several accounts of the friendship between Leslie Wexner, the former CEO of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, and the now-deceased billionaire and convicted sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, doesn’t dig up anything substantially new in its investigation into Wexner, and its analysis of Epstein is necessarily focused on how his abuses intersected with Wexner and his empire. But the series is notable for its insight into a moment in which an underwear brand shaped not just the market, but also the very culture of America. Why, it might lead you to wonder, did so many of us buy what Victoria’s Secret was selling?

When Wexner, the mall-retail pioneer behind The Limited, purchased Victoria’s Secret from Raymond in 1982, the brand was still rooted in its blousy, 19th-century origin story, even if customers didn’t seem fully convinced. (Faludi reports visiting the original Victoria’s Secret store in 1988 and noting that shelves of floral-scented teddy bears in wedding gowns were gathering dust while the more practical panty table was being ransacked by the hour.) Wexner, Angels and Demons explains, was in thrall to the idea that every brand needed a story, and he expanded the vision behind “Victoria,” the urbane, British, mythical persona persuading women to upgrade their underwear drawer. She’s the reason why, for decades after the sale, televised Victoria’s Secret ads would be narrated by an unseen woman with a British accent.

During the ’80s and ’90s, the series explains, the physical location of the stores within shopping malls was crucial to its cultural force; malls were almost like a proto-Instagram, a space where people dressed themselves up to see and be seen, to absorb new trends, to spend money. In 1995, though, Wexner and his chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, hit on an idea that would extend the notoriety of Victoria’s Secret beyond mall rats and their beleaguered parents: They decided to host a fashion show. The aesthetic was described as “tits and glitz”; the audience was deliberately stuffed with men, who, as archival footage shows, smirk and nudge one another as they take their seats. In its earliest, pre-televised days, there weren’t yet “Angels,” as the brand’s ambassadors would come to be cringily called. The models don’t wink or blow kisses at the audience, and they wear what’s recognizably underwear, without hints of the appropriative carnival aesthetic that would eventually define the event.

But the vibe was shifting. Wexner and Razek knew who their audience was, and tailored things accordingly. In 1999, they paid for a Super Bowl ad promoting the show’s first livestream, which drew so many visitors that the website crashed. The Spice Girls had released their debut album in 1996, touting stereotypes of female sexuality and “power” that ranged from childlike to expensive to intimidating. Sex and the City premiered in 1998, exploring in its first episode the idea that women could be as gratified by casual sexual encounters as men. By 1999, Monica Lewinsky and Sisqó had, variously, introduced the concept of the thong to mainstream America. “The idea of sexuality and what was sexy during the 2000s was really a radical and fast change,” a former Victoria’s Secret executive named Sharleen Ernster tells the camera. “There was all this romance about the original muse, Victoria, how smart, educated, and well raised she was. And that was just not resonating anymore.”

Various theories have been put forward for why what the writer Ariel Levy characterized as “raunch culture” exploded in the 2000s; why porn and Playboy and Girls Gone Wild defined how women dressed and behaved and what body hair they removed; why sex, for many women, became an act that was rooted in self-objectification instead of pleasure. Levy, in her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, theorized that the overlapping of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution, as well as disagreements within feminism about sex positivity, had led to confused and contradictory ideas about what sexual “freedom” looked like. In the post-9/11 shop-to-save-the-nation years, it also helped that the narrow vision of sexuality evoked by raunch culture could be easily commodified. “If we were to acknowledge that sexuality is personal and unique,” Levy writes, “it would become unwieldy.” Not to mention unmarketable.

[Read: Where sex positivity falls short]

Whatever the exact reason, the culture was evolving in a direction that Wexner and Razek innately understood. What many women seemed to want was to be whatever they thought men wanted—anything else was uncool, or, worse, uptight. By the time the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show began airing in prime time in 2001, the flagrantly strange and casually misogynistic schtick proffered by its host, the actor Rupert Everett, was de rigueur. “Security is tight, and so are the girls,” he says early in the broadcast. Later, after warning viewers to “lock your wives or girlfriends in the attic,” he takes us on a “virtual tour” of Heidi Klum’s body, rubbing his face up and down her smooth, golden leg. When he sniffed and kissed it, and then pretended to be appalled by a single, errant hair, I had an instinctual urge to slap his face away. (If Klum did, too, she resisted the impulse, and however much money she was paid that year, it wasn’t enough.)

In the decade that followed, the brand’s union of sex and commerce and marketing—however corny and transparent it all was—proved astonishingly successful. Each fashion show featured a “fantasy” bra encrusted with jewels and escorted by its own security detail. (The names for the bras, which include “Very Sexy Fantasy Bra,” “Royal Fantasy Bra,” and “Champagne Nights Fantasy Bra,” are so facile that they evoke nothing as much as an adult range of Barbie dolls.) The models became leaner. They became cultural symbols of impossible physical perfection. They—and their trainers—gave interviews talking about the intensive workouts and diets involved in getting underwear-ready for the annual show; the model Adriana Lima once described phasing out solid food in the preceding days and not even drinking water in the 12 hours before showtime. Ed Razek told Forbes in 2015 that when one model asked him why she hadn’t been cast one year, he explained that while she was Instagramming from nightclubs most evenings, “Adriana Lima was jumping rope for three hours.” In 2018, the former Victoria’s Secret model Bridget Malcolm apologized on her blog for publicly promoting a fitness-and-diet regime that she’d come to understand was based on her profound body dysmorphia; she later described working with the brand as “traumatic.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that against this backdrop of colorful corporate misogyny, women were allegedly being abused and mistreated. In 2020, The New York Times published a story about Razek that alleged he verbally harassed and tried to kiss models; one model also claimed that after she rebuffed his repeated advances, she was, for the first time in four years, not selected for the annual fashion show. (Razek told the Times that the accusations were untrue or taken out of context, but declined to comment on specific allegations.) The same article detailed how a ​​Victoria’s Secret photographer named Russell James asked models he was shooting for the brand to pose naked for him in additional, unpaid shots, and that he later compiled those nude photographs in limited-edition books that he sold for thousands of dollars. Angels and Demons juxtaposes Epstein’s routine abuse of underage girls with Victoria’s Secret’s foray into the teen market in 2002, a strategy that’s long been criticized for sexualizing younger girls.

What is noteworthy is that it took so long for such an unimaginative, prescriptive, archaic model of sexuality and desirability to finally seem out of step with the times. Sales at Victoria’s Secret rose reliably through 2016, when they reached $7.78 billion globally. In 2018, following a decline in sales, the company’s stock fell by 40 percent. (That same year, Razek gave a disastrous interview with Vogue magazine in which he stated that he didn’t think the brand should hire transgender models because “the show is a fantasy.”) Razek resigned a year later, and Wexner sold a majority share in Victoria’s Secret to a private-equity firm in 2020 for $525 million.

Was the show a fantasy? In reviewing its aesthetic uncanniness over the years—its racist imagery, its ritualistic sexification of themes as mundane as “stars” and “Christmas,” its planet-killing abuse of sequins—the one constant I can identify is the idea that women need to suffer to be deemed desirable. They need to train like Olympic athletes, eat like hamsters, zap their body hair. The recompense for those who can manage all this can be substantial. (Gisele Bündchen told Refinery29 in 2018 that Victoria’s Secret made up 80 percent of her annual income.) But for the rest of us, the ones without the physiques of racehorses and the skin of toddlers, the ones who could never hope to attain the “perfect” body Victoria’s Secret tried to sell? It’s past time to conclude that such a blinkered, restrictive conception of beauty and desirability was a bad bargain.