Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Such is the case with the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. L Brands has canceled the program, saying the decision was part of a move to “evolve the messaging of [the company]” and dial back the brand’s more extravagant marketing methods.
(Warning: The following blog post contains images of women in lingerie. If you are offended by such a thing, please do not read on).
The 2018 version of the show received its lowest ratings ever, and sales fell 7% in the latest quarter, compared to just a 2% drop during the same period a year ago. In fact, the stores’ sales have declined every quarter except one since the fourth quarter of 2016.
Not surprising. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show used to be a pop culture event generating considerable controversy for putting impossibly tall, thin women in itty bitty clothes on a major broadcast network for anyone to see. But it had become something you see advertised and think, “Oh, yeah, I’ll set the DVR to record that again,” and then either forget or record it and eventually erase it without ever watching.
It’s remarkable that with so much variety of media choices competing for our attention, even scantily clad striking women who could accidentally become naked at any moment can barely lure our eyeballs anymore.
Some people are pleased to see the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show go, the same way they’d love to see Playboy and Hooters restaurants bite the dust. At this rate, they may do just that.
I am all for women and gay men seeking escape and titillation in the sight of Chris Hemsworth, Jason Momoa, or Alexander Skarsgård with their shirts off or bare butt cheeks appearing on-screen — especially if I can still enjoy beautiful models and actresses. These little escapes make life a little easier, you know?
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: How it began
Hey, to have lasted this long is impressive. Just think, some of the most recent “Angels” in the runway show probably weren’t even born the first year Victoria’s Secret did it.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show started in the 1990s as a simple runway show, then became a webcast, and finally made its network television broadcast debut on ABC in 2001, moving to CBS the following year. Last year, it returned to ABC. Major brand sponsors of the show were emailed by protestors complaining that it was soft-core porn, too indecent for airing on television.
Doing away with the expensive marketing gimmick that only sort-of still works as designed is the sort of move that Wall Street analysts will like, trimming the fat, so to speak, ironically.
Maybe the beginning of the end was the mean-spirited decision to air 28-year-old Chinese model Ming Xi falling on the runway, along with footage of her sobbing backstage. It sort of robbed the show of some of its magic with no need to show a woman visibly upset. I can just imagine executives sitting around a table discussing how the show would be made relevant again by causing everyone to talk about it again the next day around the watercooler.
Nothing gets attention like a train-wreck.
Maybe it went downhill when they started using models just because they were related to Kardashians. I feel like the peak was the year Taylor Swift performed, surrounded by her posse of super-friends. Her toned legs made some of those models look flabby by comparison.
Regardless, it makes me a bit sad considering what it represents — a continuation of the end of an era that included the heyday of “laddie mags” like Maxim and FHM, etc.
It used to be that the day after the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired, women would feel inspired to call me for modeling photo shoots and boudoir-themed portraits, wanting to shine just like the gorgeous women they admired on their TV screens. They wanted to look sexy and create photographs they could gift to their boyfriends and husbands to remind them why they gave up their bachelorhood to become kept men.
That desire to look alluring won’t change, that’s just human nature. But the mediums have definitely evolved.
Social Media: The best and worst thing that ever happened to ‘sexy pictures’
A lot of people have become so comfortable with showing skin that they’ll share such photos on social media for the whole world to see and enjoy. Some do it to catch the eye of a man on the hunt, others do it to get attention or free stuff from companies looking for “influencers” with whom to associate their brands.
This is really a reflection of changing tastes and aesthetic implications. How can glamour brands compete with paid product placements in advertising that people largely ignore when so many ordinary, more attainable women are sharing photos of themselves on Instagram for free?
I used to know the Playboy Playmates by their names, now I couldn’t tell you any of their names if they were featured less than 4 or 5 years ago. There was a time when having your name associated with Playboy meant being set as far as regular work. Then they cheapened the magazine pictorials by creating the less prestigious and quality-controlled “Playboy model” and Cybergirl trying to compete with a lot more explicit glamour photography from the four corners of the Interwebs. IMHO, the magic was a mix of high-quality production values and leaving something to the viewer’s imagination.
It’s been extremely sad to watch the once-mighty lifestyle brand hang on by its fingernails, becoming so desperate at one point that it abandoned nudity, which was kind of the entire point of it existing. I recently saw where they are putting out issues quarterly just to have enough advertising to make it worth publishing.
I saw a similar thing happen in 2008 when I took a meeting with National Lampoon while visiting LA for Savvy.com. I had stars in my eyes as I sat in the main guy’s office, proposing ways that Savvy could cross-promote content. I quickly realized that these guys were there to cannibalize the National Lampoon brand to churn out low-quality straight-to-video pieces of crap that spat on the predecessor films that had associated that brand with instant comedy classics. The cheapened it and slapped the brand on top of lesser quality crap.
Anyway, I digress…
Going forward, I probably won’t know any of the Victoria’s Secret Angels, assuming the company wants to continue attaching itself to overpaid beauties who are increasingly no longer put on the same top-shelf as movie stars.
That was the whole thing in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, elevating “hot” models to superstar status to sell magazines or movies. It only happened because diva movie stars in the early 80s who were believing their publicists’ hype needed to be humbled and shown that they could be replaced in the vanity projects. MTV also had a lot to do with elevating pretty faces from nameless mannequins to women so famous they were referred to by first name only.
It’s no coincidence that Pamela Anderson’s star is fading. It doesn’t have as much to do with her aging as the culture moving on to something else less manufactured. The shine wears off and we crave what’s more genuine.
As the old world falls, new things rise to take their place. Why sell the rights to your likeness to a publisher like Playboy to exploit when you can turn on a webcam and keep most of the money yourself, enjoying the layer of privacy that comes with a paywall and getting mostly lost in the crowd?
I don’t think the end of Victoria’s Secret as mainstream cheesecake results from increased conservatism, in terms of our attitudes regarding sex and skin. If anything, there’s more nakedness to be consumed than ever before, partially because the polished and beautiful imagery in Victoria’s Secret marketing has gradually made lingerie and sexuality less taboo to see and talk about in everyday life.
In fact, sexual imagery has become so ubiquitous that I worry about consumers becoming desensitized to it to the point where it is no longer thrilling to view. I worry about girls my daughter’s age looking at supermodels and feeling like they don’t compare. There’s a LOT of content on the Internet that I wish I could shield her from.
It feels like the desensitization has already happened.
How many of us walk right past those huge storefront images in the mall without even noticing the curvaceous supermodels doing their best to seduce us into buying something to attain the fantasy they illustrate? Who even goes to the mall anymore? Things are pretty gloomy for ALL brick and mortar retailers struggling to compete against the Amazons of the Internet, pun intended. If you’re ordering online, why spend time browsing the VS website when that bookmark you saved for the X-rated version of that sexual fantasy is right beside it?
Evolving Attitudes about Sex and Sensual Imagery
Attitudes about the presentation of the female body in media have evolved. As I’ve pointed out before, glamour photography runs the risk of being perceived as cheesy, whereas “sexy” these days is more respectable when presented as either fitness photography or fine-art rather than a gratuitous flaunting of breasts and manufactured sensuality.
I’d always hoped I would eventually photograph lingerie for a designer to use in his or her calendar, catalog or on the brand’s website. I guess I came pretty close shooting and art directing for Savvy.com for nearly 5 years, producing photo features of models that mimicked the Maxim publishing model (racy but non-nude).
I’ve long been intrigued by lingerie as subject matter — and no, not just because women look great wearing it.
It’s fascinating how the garments represent so many facets of our lives and our culture: It’s functional, it’s artistic, it’s used for seduction, it makes a statement about the changing attitudes and morality in the society. I am actually working on a book on this very topic, tackling it from a historical/fashion design perspective. The changing nature of these outfits is a bit like studying the cross-section of a giant tree that has grown over decades.
Below are some of my favorite lingerie images that I’ve done over the years.
Lingerie and Identity
For all of the naughtiness that is associated with it, Lingerie can be quite gorgeous from a craftsmanship perspective. The patterns and fringe cause us to associate “classy” vs “trashy.” In that way, people wearing it feel that the quality of the brand’s creations is a reflection of their own character and respectability, the same way a piece of businesswear speaks when generating first impressions of us.
I also find it curious that the word “lingerie” carries such powerful connotations. A model who wouldn’t bat an eye about posing in a skimpy bikini gets tense the minute that other L word is unleashed, even though she’ll be posing in attire that covers more skin than she’s flaunting at the public beach.
Why? Because we wear lingerie in our most vulnerable moments — hoping a lover finds us alluring, preparing to slip out of it and reveal nakedness with all of the insecurities that accompany that. And in some cases, lingerie may be sheer (practically being nude) or actually cover less skin, as with a thong. When we close our eyes and imagine lingerie, it is the skimpiest of outfits that come to mind.
Anyway, Goodbye Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Thanks for the mammaries, Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, and all the rest of you gorgeous women I’ll miss seeing strut down the runway in your diamond-embellished bras.