Intellectualism and Victoria's Secret

    An essay on the insecurity surrounding fashion by Briony Somers

Image by Briony Somers

Image by Briony Somers

Insecurity finds its way into our lives in the strangest of ways, but it becomes the most obsessive when it is based on truth. When our lack of confidence is based on the known disapproval of others anxiety gains an obsessive quality. Knowing it is a case of not if, people will judge us but when, a hypersensitivity to those around us develops. Each comment and decision is potentially veiled disapproval and, not wanting to be ignorant to our infallibility, we make doomed attempts to maintain our credibility. This develops in us a self critic but this kind of insecurity is seldom born from self hatred. It instead grows out of defeat - at having the opinions of others subsume your own. 

Insecurity is something women are particularly adept at feeling. Germaine Greer saw it in the anxiety of female students and Sheryl Sandberg sees it in professional women holding themselves back. It is unsurprising it had seeped into how we view fashion - the only industry where women earn more than men, a market dominated by female consumers and what, was claimed by Greer, to be the main component of female culture. Women’s activities are susceptible to debate and analysis in a way that men’s pastimes never are. Discussions surrounding the role of sport in encouraging aggression and competitiveness in young men are virtually non-existent and athletes encouraging young men to feel physically inadequate and rely on drugs receives nowhere near the same amount of attention as the messages sent my the bodies of young female models.

For women there exists a tireless need to justify our engagement with fashion and flickerings of shame when the industry is so readily criticised. A search for a defence of fashion will go largely unsatisfied. Those in the industry have become so tired of fashion’s stereotypes they avoid engaging in what has become a one sided discussion. But even if the leaders of the industry are slow to articulate it, fashion does provide answers. Prada is part of a tradition in fashion of offering an alternative form of beauty for women. One that is removed from the idea of attractiveness and that offers women a way of dressing that avoids fitting the sexual fantasies of men. This has long been a tendency of fashion from the androgyny of Chanel’s suits to the deconstruction of Comme Des Garçons. This comes from a desire and ability to see beauty in not only in the traditionally wrong or ugly. Even the phenomenon of the nineties supermodel demonstrates this tendency. Photographer Peter Lindbergh defined the group of models that came to be known as the supers and define female beauty for a generation. The supermodel is synonymous with physical perfection but Lindburg created these defining images by capturing the depth and personality of these women. Kate Moss said of Lindburg “He loves women, but not in a weird sexy way”. His eschewing of photoshop, androgynous styling and respect for women create images that show beauty a raw, sincere and unglamorous way.

Not all of fashion celebrates the ugly and not all of fashion is content with a niche audience. The annual Victoria’s Secret show hold a unique place between the worlds of commerce and fashion. It assumes the trappings of the conventional high end fashion show but appropriates them for an overtly commercial mid range underwear brand. Models such as Jac Jagaciak and Yumi Lambert began walking shows such as Givenchy, Dior and Chanel. They represent the the high fashion aesthetic with slender frames, angular features and a generally unconventional beauty. Victoria’s Secret cast these girls alongside the more conventional likes of Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio and all are present in the widely accepted guise of the “hot girl” - loose waves, an incredible weight of natural makeup and big smiles. Victoria’s Secret takes the high fashion aesthetic and presents it to the mass market in a more palatable relatable, and ultimately commercialised, package.

The female image used for mass market advertising speaks to traditional views of women. She is friendly, familiar and “curvier”. The veneration of these characteristics is interesting. It shows that for women to be broadly appealing they must have a friendly demeanour and fit a sexy aesthetic. Is it not concerning that the form in which society is more willing to find women attractive is more in line with what is believed to be what men find more attractive? There is a difference dressing for the male gaze and embracing a sexualised aesthetic. This distinction is similar to the one between competitiveness and ambition. To the outsider the phenomenon may seem the same but the intended audience alters our ability to find peace with our outcome. A motivation of competitiveness requires our success to deemed of a higher standard than those around us. Ambition speaks to the fulfilment of personal goals, of reaching a set of ideals that represent how we want ourselves to be. Ambition is not necessarily easier to satisfy but it is easier to be at peace with because it requires personal satisfaction and not the potentially fluctuating approval of others. The sexier look of the mass market, that the Victoria Secret show exemplifies, puts women in an empowered position if its an appearance that resonates with their sense of self rather then its appeal to men and society’s sense of beauty.

The Victoria’s Secret show offers hints of empowered sexuality. The women in the show represent some of the highest paid women in the world with significant talent in both performance and business management. The postures of the models are reminiscent of the power poses Amy Cuddy has shown to improve confidence and power. Naked female bodies are frequently censored, this year most famously on Instagram. This brings a sense of shame and the lack of control over how their bodies are presented inhibits women’s ability to feel ownership over their sexuality. The images of strength coupled with the open celebration of the female body show the power that women can derive from their bodies.

Ultimately Victoria’s Secret is commercial and mass market so its aesthetic is less interesting. Superficially the experience is tacky and hollow. Imran Amed of the Business of Fashion deemed the prerecorded spectacle to have lost its edge. It is none the less dubbed as fashion. This type of commercialised fashion encompasses that which makes us insecure about fashion. It explains itself as light, fun and insubstantial. While it creates images of empowered women it does not intend to say anything or change the way we think. It stays away from any intellectualism that may alienate potential customers and reduce its market.

It is precisely this intellectualism that gives fashion its a place in the cultural landscape and makes it more than a commercial activity. It gives women a way of engaging with their image independent of men. It creates dialogues around beauty and challenges conventions. Tavi Gevinson, the former blogger and editor of Rookie Mag explains “Thing I always liked about fashion was that it was very connected to everything else and when I really loved a collection I would look up the movie or song or whatever (that) inspired it and from that was just opened up to a whole world of what eventually became my very favourite things.” Fashion is a rich intellectual and cultural experience and by fully recognising that we prevent ourselves from becoming the vain, superficial and materialistic people we worry its turns us into.