Fashion, Lookbook

A look back on Victoria’s Secret’s controversial history in light of the annual fashion show’s cancellation

Has the brand's unrealistic representations of women's bodies and many issues with diversity and cultural appropriation finally led to its downfall?

For 23 years, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was a staple of the fashion world.

It featured the brand’s latest designs in lingerie and sleepwear, including a ridiculously priced ‘fantasy bra’, which was the show’s statement piece. The show was split into different segments, with themed outfits and models with perpetual smiles on their faces. A-list musicians played live and everyone looked like they were having the best time ever, with the show being broadcast internationally for everyone to join in on the fun.

For models, it was the highlight of their careers and their biggest dream come true. Some were known solely as Victoria’s Secret Angels while others used the opportunity as a stepping stone into the high-fashion world.

Models are in pairs and walking down a catwalk smiling and cheering in lingerie as confetti falls down around them.
[Image description: Models are in pairs and walking down a catwalk smiling and cheering in lingerie as confetti falls down around them.] Via Adam Jeffery/CNBC.
And while all of this is great, the brand has decided against having its annual extravaganza this year, according to veteran Angel Shanina Shaik.

In May, it was reported that the show would no longer be broadcast due to a decline in ratings and the chief executive of its parent company, L Brands, Leslie Wexner stated that the entire company would be re-branded and re-marketed.

So, has this been a long time coming?

Victoria’s Secret has most often been in the news in recent years for negative reasons, ranging from cultural appropriation, lack of cultural and body diversity in models, transphobia, racism in its stores, and unrealistic representations of the female body.

Model Karlie Kloss, who worked for the brand for two years, claimed her decision to leave was due to the message the brand sent out about what it means to be beautiful. The brand has been criticized for its lack of diversity in body shapes, as all its models seem to be the same shape and size from the legs to the bust, and in height and weight. The lack of diversity has been contrasted with Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty brand, which embraces women of all shapes and sizes in its campaigns and fashion shows, instead of being limited to one specific body type.

The 2018 Victoria’s Secret fashion show was marketed as being the ‘most diverse’ show ever, although this was only in regard to more than half of the 52 models being of black, Asian or Hispanic descent. None of these models were plus-size.

Many people have chosen to boycott the brand’s stores due to this lack of body diversity, with the maximum sizes available being XL (for panties) and D for most bra styles (DDD in chosen styles). This has resulted in the lingerie giant closing over 53 stores in North America due to lack of sales and competition with diverse brands such as Fenty and Aerie.

The stores themselves have had problems with racial discrimination in the past, where women of color have been kicked out and banned from entering certain stores after being wrongfully profiled for criminal behavior. While the company has apologized and the store in question underwent a personnel overhaul, these kinds of incidents shouldn’t even have happened with a brand that seems determined to portray itself as ‘diverse’.

But the entire diversity saga doesn’t end there. The chief of marketing for L Brands, Ed Razek, was criticized after he commented in 2018 that the reason why Victoria’s Secret hadn’t included transgender models was that they do not ‘belong’ in the fantasy of Victoria’s Secret. Razek also said there was no interest in ‘plus-size’ models in the same interview. An apology was subsequently issued via the company’s Instagram page, but no action was taken against Razek.

Marketing plays a large role in the themes that are presented each year at the shows, so it comes as no surprise that someone like Razek would make comments like the ones above, judging by the cultural appropriation and disrespect that the brand has passed off as lingerie themes. In 2010, one of the themes was ‘Wild Things’, and featured models covered in black body paint that represented indigenous body art, as well as with the majority of the designs being worn by dark-skinned models. The 2012 show had a theme that celebrated annual holidays and featured a white model dressed in Native American dress to represent Thanksgiving, something that was repeated during the 2017 show for the theme ‘Nomadic Adventures’, which also included looks featuring feathers, bright colors, and tribal prints and beads.

Three images of three models. From left to right: a white model wearing traditional Native American headdress and lingerie, a black model wearing animal print lingerie and black body art, a white model in tribal patterns and accessories including beads, feathers and prints.
[Image description: Three images of three models. From left to right: a white model wearing traditional Native American headdress and lingerie, a black model wearing animal print lingerie and black body art, a white model in tribal patterns and accessories including beads, feathers and prints.] Via Theo Wargo/Jamie McCarthy/Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.
Despite Razek arguing that the reason why the company hasn’t evolved with the times after 42 years is that they are the most popular lingerie brand already and because they don’t want to be accused of pandering or copying, the backlash, controversy, and declining sales and viewership numbers say otherwise.

Razek resigned from his position this year, a few weeks after the company announced the first transgender model joining their line-up, Valentina Sampaio. The annual fashion show has been canceled and the entire Victoria’s Secret brand is undergoing an overhaul. Could this be what the brand needs to progress, or is it time for the Angels to hang up their wings permanently?