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"Uncovering" Their Founding Principle: What IS Sexy?

Hoping to push up sagging sales, Victoria’s Secret CEO, Sharen Turney is making the case that the brand has become "too sexy" and needs to return to it’s "heritage." "We use the word ’sexy’ a lot and really have forgotten the ultra-feminine," said Turney. She’s not kidding. According to one CBS report (to which I cannot link, sorry) one issue of the company’s catalog used the word "sexy" more than 75 times!

All joking (and laments from male readers) aside, I actually think this could be an interesting development. Is there a point at which even our jaded popular culture begins to feel repulsed by a non-stop assault of the senses by overtly sexual imagery and exhortations to be more sexy? Is it any coincidence that the lingerie chain’s most recent advertising campaign asked this poignant and pregnant question: "What Is Sexy?" It is as if they finally understand they’ve reached the end of the road. They ask because it is so apparent that they no longer know.

Part of "sexy"--or really, any kind of appeal--has to be its mystery. You pique the interest and invite discovery. This is probably why Victoria’s Secret was so successful in the beginning. Their very name suggested the Victorian age--where such things were whispered but never spoken aloud. Instead of blasting rock and rap music, they used to pump classical and jazz music into their stores. They even used to feature pretty little feminine things you might find in a gift shop--apart from the underwear. (Years ago, I bought a lovely scented little volume of poetry from Victoria’s Secret--but I won’t say if I bought anything else.) Now they market "Sexy Little Things" and other items that more resemble things you’d have to search for in an adult bookstore 20 years ago. Once upon a time, you were not embarrassed to walk past their store front with an eight year-old in tow. Now, you avoid the mall.

In the beginning, the emphasis of the company was on the "Secret" . . . you got the catalog in the mail, it was just a little racy, but always feminine. No more. Look at the frightening woman marching at the camera in link above. She looks like something you’d get when Cruella D’Ville crashes into Xena the Warrior Princess and drags out Lorena Bobbit on the way--complete with the scissors. I mean, I realize that God made her an attractive woman . . . but no one could possibly believe that wearing that get-up is going to help her look anything other than ridiculous. Good lingerie advertising should make you believe it’s possible to aspire, in some way, to be pleasing to your man. But everyone knows that no one but a Victoria’s Secret model could carry off such a look without looking downright creepy. Whether the model succeeds in the "not looking creepy department" is even up for debate. Perhaps if she lost the leather and the scissors . . . but then you’re back to Turney’s point.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Actually, as a point of history, Victoria's Secret was first a catalog. It was aimed at men, but aimed at men buying for their wives, or...whatever. Men did not like going into the ladies' undergarment area of department stores to shop for items that they might find appealing on their wives. Even if they went there, what they found might not be all that - say giftable(?) or suitable to the purpose. There was the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog, but the quality of the garments was pretty poor and what was in there might not appeal to the wife, even it might to the husband.

What to do? The bright man who created that little catalog with the help of his wife, sought out really lovely things, which only rarely had models actually wearing them. A lot was left to the imagination, unlike the catalog nowadays. The point was not that woman in that clothing, but your woman in them.

Victoria's Secret had a VERY discreet cover in back then, more than twenty years ago, as befit something that would come through the mail and arrive at family residences. The whole thing had a sort of pro-family air about it that was simply charming. If Victoria's Secret goes back to something like its old ways, I will be delighted. However, I probably won't be a customer. At my age, nothing helps.

Several years back there was a photo in a Victoria's Secret catalog that showed a bookish brunette with glasses wearing cotton pajamas. It was a spectacularly sexy photo, for all the reasons Julie and Kate allude to. I think they peaked with that photo, and it's been downhill since then.

I've long since stopped browsing the darn thing, let alone doing any serious study of it. Bring back the smokey-eyed librarian look! In cotton! That's what I say.


Amen sister.

Somewhere in our family we still have the Victoria's Secret cassette tapes with the classical music that my mom used to buy every year. And I remember when the display window didn't prominently feature the backside of a woman in a thong.

BTW, don't trifle with your intelligence the way I did with mine when I buzzed over to the WaPo and scanned the comments on this article.

Julie, just wanted to compliment you on the wit of the first six words of your post.

Don in AZ: If you have not yet read Mark Helprin's Soldier of the Great War there is an unbelievably erotic (in the real and best sense) scene that is very like the one you describe from the VS catalog of yore. It is something that I have never forgotten and also something that I think is achievable (Kate) well into old age.

And thanks, Paul. But seriously, it was almost too easy.

I don't know. My only problem with VS is that my wife is too tall for any of it to really fit properly. They need tall sizes. Sigh.

I do agree with Julie, but our entire culture has become saturated with sexuality, and this would be a bucket against the ocean to turn the tide. Shows like Nip/Tuck are little short of pornography and make the panties and garter belts of a VS catalog/website seem rather demure by comparison.

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