Every so often, a cultural shift occurs within the universe; two opposing ideas run collide and then break off in opposite directions. However, for a brief moment before that shift occurs, the two run alongside each other, occupying the same sliver of time within human history.
November of 2005 is one such moment.
Lingerie company Victoria’s Secret dominated the early 2000s with sexy underwear and even sexier spokesmodels, called “Angels.” The brand expanded itself beyond the realm of the traditional consumption experience; when you bought from Victoria’s Secret, you weren’t buying a lacy bra but a carefully curated idea of femininity. This idea permeated marketing campaigns and the lavish extravaganza that was, and still very much is, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
The show is what made Victoria’s Secret stand out from its competitors. With its “simple” roots dating back to 1995, by 2000, the show had grown to allow for the reported $15-19 million-dollar Fantasy Bra worn by supermodel Gisele Bündchen, the most expensive piece of lingerie that existed at the time and the most expensive Fantasy Bra ever showcased. Each year* (*excluding 2004 for Janet Jackson related reasons), tall and bronzed women strutted down an increasingly ostentatious cat-walk with perfectly white smiles.
According to the Washington Post, 8.9 million American viewers tuned in for the show in 2005. It was supermodel and Angel Tyra Bank’s last appearance with the brand and Heidi Klum’s triumphant return from giving birth 2-months prior. More importantly, 2005 marked a decade since the beginning of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
Thirteen days after the show’s November 9th taping, a very different kind of landmark event occurred. On November 22, 2005, Angela Merkel assumed office and became the first female Chancellor of Germany.
Conservative in politics and dress, Angela Merkel portrays female strength and resilience in a way entirely contradictory to Victoria’s Secret’s brand. It is hard to imagine the Chancellor in a rhinestone encrusted bra as it lacks both comfort and practicality, two things her signature blazer/trouser pairings have in abundance.
But Angela Merkel’s character is more than just her attire. She broke Germany’s political glass ceiling and has continued to be an influential leader, especially in regard to Europe’s refugee crisis. She’s been lauded as the "Moral Leader of the West", a symbol of future progress and hope. In 2015, TIME magazine named her Person of the Year not because of her aesthetics, but because of her strength as a political leader.
In fact, aesthetics is exactly what makes Victoria’s Secret and Angela Merkel two opposing forces. Although both sides are female, and to some degree both do serve as a method of empowerment, the implications are very, very different.
The only real aesthetic similarities between Angela Merkel and the Victoria’s Secret Angels, on which the entire brand of Victoria’s Secret rides, are that she is a woman and is white (of the current Angels, 12 of the 14 are white and only two represent women of color, an unimpressive 6:1 ratio) . She lacks the tall, toned, bronzed goddess image the Angels promote, and her hair style is most definitely lacking the curly and heavily stylized extensions the models tout on the runway. However, both are important for women’s history and are emblematic of the culture they inhabit.
The era harkened by Victoria’s Secret included stores like Club Libby Loo and scandals such as Abercrombie’s thongs for children . To be a woman was to be glittery, flirtatious, and not too serious. The brand profited off of the cultural standard of beauty and indeed propagated it. An entire sector of media production seems to be centered around de-mystifying the diets and exercise routines the Angels use to obtain their slender physiques. Victoria’s Secret isn’t so much about feeling good as it is about looking good.
In the age of Malala Yousafzai, #MeToo, and Hillary Clinton, Victoria’s Secret hasn’t adapted. In its collision with Angela Merkel’s election in 2005, the brand lost ground to a different idea of feminine power. Although it has tried to save face by hiring more models of color and promoting a “girl power” attitude, recent years have seen a steady decline in interest in all things Victoria’s Secret. By the end of 2017, the brand’s comparable sales had dropped by 5% and the most recent fashion show in Shanghai received a little less than 5 million viewers (30% decline from 2016).
Consumers now favor Aerie; whose body positive marketing campaign and corporate activism welcome young girls and women. After announcing their ad campaigns will no longer include Photoshop retouching, the brand’s comparable sales increased by 32%. A press release from American Eagle Outfitters, Aerie’s parent company, reports record fourth quarter and fiscal year sales in 2018. As feminism takes the helm of social culture, displacing corporate driven girly-girl attitudes, women are demanding more from their consumption experiences and their society as a whole. It’s not so important that their bras be made from Swarovski crystals as that they are comfortable. It’s not so important that women be perceived as attractive as it is they are taken seriously.
In the end, it would seem as though the idea of femininity promoted by Angela Merkel, of women as strong independent units of substance, won out over the hypersexuality and superficiality of the Victoria’s Secret brand. But for a moment in November of 2005, and just a moment, the two ran side by side, congruent in history.
*This illustration depicts iconic VS Angels Candice Swanepoel and Adriana Lima along with an aggressive, over-saturated color palette, emblematic of the garish nature of the early 2000’s and its ultra-girly icons (see also, Juicy Couture and Paris Hilton) as well as headlines from 2005.
Author: Mary Sutton
A 17 year old coffee addict, Mary can be found in bed with a cup of coffee, watching a cheesy romantic comedy. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, she self-identifies as a city girl and plans to join the University of Pittsburgh class of 2022 in the fall. In addition to rom-coms, she enjoys drawing, her Prius, and early 2000's pop music. Growing up in a male dominated environment, Mary is passionate about the gender issues that permeate all aspects of society and hopes to contribute to the conversation, especially through art.