It’s that time of year again; the lights are strung, Christmas trees are decorated, and extravagant angel wings flutter down the runway. Yes, its time for the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and this year, the globe trotting spectacle landed in Shanghai, China. Last Monday, when the show’s recording took place, Instagram was flooded with posts from the runway, backstage, and after party. Models Taylor Hill and Jasmine Tookes posted pictures wearing everything from feathered wings to Balmain. Although this year’s show has been plagued with negative press and mishaps, from Katy Perry being banned from performing to model Gigi Hadid being denied a visa, the show must go on.
But if the bombardment of Instagrams told us anything it’s that when the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired, we could expect it to be even bigger and better than last year. What it didn’t tell us was that model Ming Xi would face plant on the runway in front of her family and industry peers after the VS marketing team touted her across their platforms before the show, amping up anticipation for her appearance. They didn’t tell us that white models screamed the N-word backstage while listening to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (Nylon, 2017). And they didn’t tell us they would send white models down the runway appropriating Native American culture, AGAIN (Nylon, 2017). In case you didn’t know, ALL of these are not okay. It’s time VS started thinking hard about their behaviour. And it’s time we started thinking hard about whether the VS Fashion Show should even exist.
The show itself is a stand alone concept as no other brand or designer has ever done a show as big. Fashion week is a beast of its own, but no one designer has developed an international phenomenon. This VS show is huge and in 2016 it reached a global audience of almost 800 million people in over 190 countries. The sheer success of Victoria’s Secret comes down to the unique way in which the show brands itself. The models themselves are branded and are celebrities in their own right through their presence on social media, making them the essence of the brand.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion show has turned the concept of the faceless, objectified model on its head. As an audience, people watch this show not just for the clothing, but for the models, hoping they might see their favourite Instagram or YouTube personality. The list of models walking the runway is a huge attraction of the show and Victoria’s Secret promotes this with their “Meet the Angels” feature on their site. In the Road to the Runway Youtube series, Creative Director, Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou discusses the importance of pairing a specific outfit with the girl and the synergy between the two so the model herself is not overpowered. When the model takes her turn on the runway it is about her, while the lingerie being modelled becomes secondary. Through successful marketing they’ve been able to positively promote their models despite the objectifying nature of the show.
Over the years the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has become more ethnically diverse, but barely. This year seven Asian models will walk the show, including veteran angels Liu Wen and Ming Xi. Victoria’s Secret is also slowly moving away from their typical beauty ideal by incorporating more models with hair types that drastically differ from the iconic soft curls embodied by VS Angels of the past. Models Aiden Curtiss and Alanna Arrington sport their natural tight curly hair while Dilone and Grace Bol, among others, were permitted to rock their short hair. Along with seasoned veterans Maria Borges, 6 new black models, Samille Bermannelli and Amlina Estevao among them, have joined the show this year. We see Victoria’s Secret starting to embrace more diversity. But the ways in which they allow diversity to manifest do nothing to usurp the archaic beauty standards the industry’s championed for so long.
While on the topic of diversity, it’s true that Victoria’s Secret has improved its focus on ethnic diversity however, there’s still room for improvement in terms of size diversity. Models walking down the runway still represent the size zero ideal and don’t show body image in a positive light. Ashley Graham pointed this out last week on her Instagram and drew attention to the reality that Victoria’s Secret is not body inclusive. Graham says it’s time for them to address that. Business of Fashion talks about the fact that women of today have significantly changed in culture and how they define beauty.
It is more inclusive, body positive and multi-dimensional (Business of Fashion, 2017); beauty no longer manifests solely in one’s appearance. We see this new form of beauty in ad campaigns, like Aerie’s untouched images, and with bloggers who vocally fight size shaming. Victoria’s Secret however, is not adhering to this new culture change and it’s important that they do so in order to stay relevant and successful in the global marketplace. We say that, but do they really? With an annual viewership of 800 million people, composed of lovers and haters alike, will changing their ways really lead to better business? If exclusion, elitism and diversity shaming is the name of their current game, it sure as hell is making them a lot of money.
So now is where we ask: does the Victoria Secret Fashion Show make you feel empowered? Does your race and body and sexual orientation feel reflected by the models on that stage? Do you buy VS merchandise because of the way those models make you feel? And above all else, are we comfortable with a brand being so successful when their entire model is based on the exclusion of others, the romanticism of unrealistic beauty ideals, diversity dissonance and cultural disrespect? If it was up to us we’d tell VS and their holiday show to take a hike, but at the end of the day we also love to hate it.