Amid the scantily clad world of lingerie modelling, a pair of Victoria’s Secret angel wings are the ultimate accessory. Heavily laden with an elaborate concoction of feathers, crystals and other flamboyant embellishments, the coveted wings are awarded to a handful of the 50 or so models who appear in the brand’s annual catwalk extravaganza.
And, for those Angels charged with showcasing the US company’s latest collection of fripperies, the financial rewards are heaven-sent. So when the Brazilian model Adriana Lima, a Victoria’s Secret Angel since 1999, and one who has banked $10.5m this year, announced last week on social media that she would not take off her clothes any more “for an empty cause”, it caused quite a stir.
With 11.5 million Instagram followers, Lima’s proclamation was big news – and an apparent U-turn in her professional aspirations and allegiances. Only last month, she appeared in her 18th Victoria’s Secret runway show – live-streamed from Shanghai to almost 70 million people around the globe. In a backstage post-show interview, the 36-year-old model talked of her aspirations to continue working for the brand: “Two more years. Maybe more, I don’t know. It’s nature. I’m working out, I’m being healthy, so let’s see how the body is going to turn out. But I enjoy it. So, let’s say 20.”
A week down the line, and Lima’s social media post alluded to a major re-evaluation: “Every day in my life I wake up thinking, how do I look?” she wrote. “I thought that’s not a way of living and beyond that … that’s not physically and mentally healthy, so I decided to make that change. I will not take [off] my clothes any more for [an] empty cause … I am tired of the impositions, we ‘as [women]’ can’t be continuing living in a world with such superficial values.”
The ensuing furore around whether Lima was hanging up her wings saw her spokesperson rapidly try to shut down the rumours, saying that the model had simply been asked to appear in a video shoot that she wasn’t comfortable with, and that “Adriana is blessed to be able to work with all of the brands she does, including Victoria’s Secret”. It was, the spokesperson told People, Lima’s intention to share “a message of female empowerment”.
So what is the difference between taking off your clothes gratuitously for an “empty cause” and parading in your underwear in the name of female empowerment?
“Victoria’s Secret has been responsible for a lot of changes in how we view women in lingerie,” says Professor Carolyn Mair, a psychologist working in the fashion industry. “Their runway shows are a celebration of women, and the models look like they are having fun on their terms, so it’s aspirational and empowering to see. I can look at the Angels and appreciate their beauty, and know that I will never look like that – although I do think for women with low self-esteem and a tendency to compare themselves to others, that could be quite damaging.
“It’s when you see women in sexually provocative images, wearing just underwear, that it feels like they are being objectified. And that changes the meaning: it is no longer empowering in the feminist sense.”
Mair says the nature of our undergarments has evolved dramatically in the past few decades, progressing from purely functional to fashionable and fun, and that has created a very different relationship with our intimate apparel. “The idea that we build subliminal stories around the clothes we wear means many women now enjoy putting on beautiful underwear,” she says.
“The symbolism of those choices is important, and can affect how we feel. In truth, I believe that true sex appeal comes from being comfortable in your skin, not from what you put on it, but making the decision to wear certain styles of lingerie can nevertheless make you feel great and really boost your confidence – in turn, making you more attractive.”
It was in the late 1960s that designer Janet Reger took the bold step of launching a fledgling lingerie collection that focused as much on style and colour as it did on fit and form. “She was going against the tide when she set out with her new label,” says her daughter Aliza, who took over as chief executive of the Janet Reger brand following her mother’s death in 2005. “In those days, unless you were a certain kind of woman, you simply wore practical undergarments: lingerie wasn’t for ‘nice girls’. At that time, there was a lot of bra-burning going on as part of the women’s lib movement, but Janet believed that independence and equality was about earning your own money and having the freedom to be sexually liberated. She made beautiful, feminine pieces that women wanted to wear and looked fabulous in.”
Reger’s eponymous line was high-end luxury and came with a premium price tag, but today the business focus has shifted towards a more affordable collection, sold in Debenhams department stores. “The most empowering thing is for women to have the choice of what they want to wear,” says Reger. “We are all multifaceted individuals with many elements to our lives: there are some days when we want to wear stretchy cotton and others when we want to slip into stretch satin and lace. There is no doubt that women love beautiful lingerie and the sensation it creates when you put it on: our bestseller this season is the Ella Rose range, a dark-grey-and-blush-pink collection embellished with Swarovski crystals, but we have democratised it by making the highest price point £50, so it is more accessible and affordable.”
Since Janet Reger introduced women to the concept of foundation wear as fashion, we have seen Madonna dancing on stage in conical corsets and the Pussycat Dolls parading in little more than their bras and knickers. Brands such as Agent Provocateur, Coco de Mer, Ann Summers and, of course, Victoria’s Secret (which launched in the UK in 2012) have brought once-taboo styles to the high street, introducing us all to half-cup bras, peep-hole knickers and bondage-style straps on bodysuits. Saucy styles are no longer the preserve of naughty girls – every woman has the chance to experiment with her underwear choices.
The advent of online shopping has meant we can shop and try on clothes in the privacy of our homes, avoiding the potential embarrassment of browsing in store. And, while many of us wear sombre hues and classic shapes in our everyday wardrobes, the temptation to experiment with the fripperies beneath has seduced us, with bold colour choices and fashion-forward styles proving popular.
Nowhere is the shift in our relationship with lingerie more evident than Marks & Spencer. With a 32% share of the UK knicker market, the chain sells more than 60m pairs a year – and they’re not all granny pants. In fact, its flirty black stretch lace Glamour Unwrap Brazilian Knickers, with tantalising satin bows on each hip, epitomise how far we have come in embracing a cheekier style of undergarment.
“I’ve seen vast changes in the lingerie market in the last couple of decades,” says Soozie Jenkinson, who has worked as head of lingerie design at M&S for 20 years. “Yes, there have been trends, and we cater for those, but the key is that women now have a wardrobe of lingerie styles to suit their lifestyle and their stage of life. So we have sports bras – many of which women are choosing to wear as their everyday bras – smooth T-shirt bras, uplifting balconette styles, backless or strapless styles, and so on. While you want the underwear to complement and create a streamlined look to work with your outfit, there are emotional connections to the choices you make every time you put your underwear on. It’s an intimate layer next to the skin, and because we’ve benefited from a technological revolution that means we can manufacture wonderful stretch pieces, or seamless styles in beautifully sensual fabrics, the designs are so much more appealing than those of yesteryear.”
One of the more interesting developments in the M&S lingerie offer is the result of a collaboration with British model and former Victoria’s Secret Angel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Designed “by women, for women”, the collection has been a runaway success and has challenged the popular perception of M&S as a provider of everyday bras and knickers. Launched five years ago, around 11m Rosie for Autograph items have been sold.
“Rosie has a passion for vintage style and luxurious materials, such as silk and French lace, and right from the start we wanted the collection to be feminine,” says Jenkinson. “That has helped us develop the DNA of the designs and informed the sophisticated colour palette. It is a premium range, featuring flattering shapes and styles such as camisoles, slips, French knickers and different bra shapes, and it has resonated with confident, modern women who want seductive, tactile garments.”
It is, says Mair, a simple fact that “human beings crave desirability, and wanting to look alluring is perfectly normal. If certain styles of lingerie help enhance that sense of sexual attractiveness, then that is ultimately empowering.”