Model Lily Donaldson at a Victoria's Secret Fashion Show (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

June 24, 2021   7 mins

Victoria’s Secret has long been the embarrassing uncle of the underwear world, a dinosaur ambling across the lingerie landscape in a threadbare 1990s-style slip nightie, a relic of both a culture and a consumer model that no longer exist. Its catalogue, a boon to teen boys in the pre-digital age whose dads were too square to have a stash of Playboys, was discontinued in 2016. Its biggest attraction, a runway show that aired on cable TV and featured a stable of anatomically improbable models wearing prosthetic angel wings, was cancelled in 2019, after a multi-year ratings plummet. Its perfumed retail stores are shopperless tombs, anchored to decaying malls that nobody goes to anymore.

It was the internet wot done it: as enterprising startups began to offer affordable, personalised underwear options that catered to customers of all shapes and sizes, Victoria’s Secret could only linger in the background like a reminder of the bad old days, with its narrow range of sizes, unimaginative designs, and bras aiming solely to shove the wearer’s breasts in the direction of her chin. “Lift and separate”? Strapless underwires? Okay, boomer.

But now, like so many 1990s-era properties steeped in cultural nostalgia, Victoria’s Secret is trying to reboot itself for a new and enlightened age — clipping the wings of its Angels and hiring a new cadre of spokesmodels who better represent the diverse tastes of the modern consumer. The new squad, who will not just model and promote the brand but serve as advisors to its majority-female board, includes actress and UNICEF ambassador Priyanka Chopra Jonas, plus-size model and activist Paloma Elsesser, and trans swimsuit model Valentina Sampaio. In other words, Victoria’s Secret has traded its stable of unattainably gorgeous models for a set that is no less gorgeous but also has the proper politics. Its most famous, and most unexpected, new model is Megan Rapinoe, the all-star soccer player who was named FIFA’s best player of the year in 2019.

For a brand that has always shamelessly catered to the heterosexual male consumer, strategically airing its runway show and debuting its new collections just in time for Valentine’s Day, as boyfriends rush to lingerie stores en masse in search of gifts, the hiring of Rapinoe as a spokesmodel is like a hot poker to the eyeball of the male gaze. The new face of Victoria’s Secret is a tough-as-nails athlete and longtime gay rights activist, married to a women’s basketball player. And while she did once famously show up to an award ceremony wearing formal shorts and an oversized blazer with nothing underneath, she’s not generally known as an icon of either fashion or femininity.

But of course, that’s the point: Rapinoe is as far as it’s possible to be, in aesthetic and public persona, from the leggy, lacey look of the Angels era. And she is therefore the perfect choice to spearhead Victoria’s Secret’s awokening, at a time when straight men — and, by extension, the women who want them — are being pushed to the cultural margins.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rapinoe decried the old Victoria’s Secret for being “patriarchal, sexist, viewing not just what it meant to be sexy but what the clothes were trying to accomplish through a male lens and through what men desired.” Worst of all, Rapinoe said, the brand “was very much marketed toward younger women,” which she described as “really harmful.”

Rapinoe, for obvious reasons, does not particularly care what guys think about her underwear (or, one imagines, anything else.) But the young women who desire men — as in, the vast majority of young women — might question the notion that they were harmed by the existence of lingerie designed to appeal to their intended sexual partners. If you want to attract men, it stands to reason that your choice of undergarments might be at least sometimes influenced by what they consider sexy. (And vice versa; one might even argue that buying your underwear with an audience in mind, if you have one, is only polite.)

But the contemptuous dismissal of men, and their tastes and opinions and desires, is as trendy in our present moment as the lace bralettes that have replaced the underwire bra as the lingerie du jour (and like those bralettes, it doesn’t suit everyone.) The broader tendency is to treat any desire for men like a character flaw, a burden, an embarrassment. The writer Indiana Seresin invented the term “heteropessimism” to describe this phenomenon — an excellent coinage that’s nevertheless overbroad in its implied gender neutrality, when the sense of heterosexuality as something in between a cursed affliction and a personal failing is almost exclusively held by women. To be horrified by one’s own sexual orientation, and every possible expression thereof, is the side effect of a culture that flattens everything from personal relationships to aesthetic taste into a political framing: if you like men (as most women do), but men are trash (as every good progressive feminist must surely agree is true), then what’s a girl to do?

Whatever she wants, modern feminism tells us, as long as it’s not conventional. And so the new lingerie model is defined by how much she differs from the old, bad, “Angel” ideal: from the fresh-faced and un-photoshopped girls of Aerie to the 81-year-old bodybuilder featured on Athleta’s blog in a midriff-baring sports bra. It’s not just about smashing outdated beauty standards; it’s about rejecting an entire mode of feminine existence as embarrassing and passé.

It’s not a coincidence that the hottest brand for young women by far is Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line, where not just the models but the clothes themselves purport to be a flipped bird to all things boring, basic, and heteronormative. Its models come in every possible shape, size and skin tone. The lingerie evokes queerness and kink, bondage and burlesque; it’s daring and dark and occasionally bizarre; it wants to be something bigger and more important than just underwear. The Fall 2018 runway show was Fashion Week’s biggest bombshell event, heralded by critics as “moving, empowering — spiritual, even” in its “unapologetic celebration of women,” a claim echoed by the brand itself: “Savage X Fenty celebrates fearlessness, confidence and inclusivity,” says the website’s About section.

This isn’t about the products, which are not different by design than any other underwear; it’s pure branding, of the most persuasive sort. The Savage x Fenty wearer stakes a claim on a desirable, cool identity, one that makes her fundamentally more interesting than the boring straight ladies who wear other, more conventional brands (that the Savage x Fenty wearer may well be heterosexual herself is irrelevant.) If Victoria’s Secret catered to the male gaze, then Savage x Fenty explicitly rejects it: this lingerie, we are told, is not for men.

Men, it must be said, would be surprised to hear this. As much as the Savage x Fenty runway show might read as subversive to fashion insiders, it is still, at the end of the day, a bunch of beautiful women walking around in complicated, gorgeous lingerie; to imagine that straight men would not enjoy this is frankly ridiculous. They’re not that picky.

But men don’t matter; they are the subject but not the object of Savage x Fenty’s siren song. This message is for women, malleable and impressionable creatures that they are, who are expected to follow the latest identity directives just like they’re expected to follow fashion trends: heterosexuality is boring, heterosexual desire is embarrassing, and dressing with any thought of appealing to men is a gross offence against feminism.

Never mind that these directives create their own set of pressures and impositions, or that what makes a woman (or anyone) feel sexy is inextricably bound up in cultural expectations and societal standards that govern our notion of what sexy is. Never mind that a woman who has dressed for herself is far more likely to be wearing comfortable underwear (or none at all) under her clothes than a complicated set of garters connected to a bondage corset connected to a pair of fishnet leggings with no crotch. What is the practical difference between this fearless, confident, inclusive Savage x Fenty body harness, and the 2003 Victoria’s Secret runway getup worn by Heidi Klum, featuring a “matching white choker, sort of like a dog collar,” which a scandalised writer at the New York Times described as “not just retrograde but practically unimaginable”?

The most obvious answer is simply that one of these items is currently on sale for $32 — from a company that knows the value of wokeness in a millennial consumer market. In a world where young women are particularly anxious not to be seen as less-than-perfectly progressive, Savage x Fenty is here to assure them that unlike the bad old offerings of its patriarchal forebears, this dog-collar-resembling piece of lingerie is fierce, feminist, and on the right side of history — and so are you.

This marketing model, which Victoria’s Secret now seems to be attempting to cash in on, may have begun as a needed corrective to the notion that a woman’s only value is in her sexual attractiveness to men — a poisonous idea that we were wise to dispense with. But lingerie is not just underwear; it is made to package a woman’s body in a way that is all form, no function. These garments serve no purpose but to make us pleasing to somebody’s eye.

Who is served by the notion of underwear that rejects the male gaze, even when its wearer might like nothing better than to be seen wearing it by a man? Who is served by Megan Rapinoe’s assertion that marketing such a thing to young women is not just immoral but harmful, that it feeds an impulse which ought to be stifled? Who is served by the increased stigmatisation of male desire as inherently predatory, dreadful, traumatic in its very expression — and what are young women to make of the message that not only should they not want men, but that they should mistrust and fear them? Perhaps it’s no surprise that the current crop of young people are dating less, and having less sex, than the generations prior.

At a moment when the corporate world is plastering every available surface with rainbows to assert its support of sexual minorities, the world’s heterosexual women are getting a different message: that desiring men is not ordinary and healthy, not genuine passion stemming from an innate orientation, but something to be apologised for, and at least performatively resisted if not actively suppressed. The tragedy is that some will try to do this, and feel ashamed when they can’t. The irony is that what’s bad for us is very, very good for selling us things.

All of this is by design. Nobody makes an easier mark for the woke industrial complex than a young woman convinced that she’s bad and broken and can only get better — morally, spiritually — if she buys the right products. Our misery is their profit margin. The unhappier you are, and the bigger the void inside you, the more you’ll spend to feel validated — which the brands are only too happy to do for you, at an affordable price. Forget the male gaze; forget men, period. Forget the things you want, those frustrating intangibles, like intimacy and love. Just think, ladies, of how sexy and empowered you’ll feel when you’re sitting at home alone in your lingerie, buying still more lingerie to feel sexy and empowered in.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.