Ten million viewers; ten million individuals exposed to and influenced by the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Although this televised event is one of the most anticipated nights within the fashion industry, many critics of the show recognize the stereotypical ways in which this lingerie brand has designed and showcased outfits to depict various racialized categories. The Indigenous Peoples, East Asians, and Black communities, all have fallen subject to Victoria’s Secret’s racial projects. It is essential to study and understand how Victoria’s Secret’s racialization of ethnic groups has further reproduced and reinforced the hegemonic discourse of “the other” in a North American context. It is finally time to reveal Victoria’s “Racially Unjustifiable” Secret.
In their 18th annual fashion show, Victoria’s Secret decided to showcase a faux Indian chief headdress on one of their leading white models, Karlie Kloss. Obviously, this caused much controversy, as many Indigenous Peoples were offended by the insensitivity the company had towards the meaning behind this tribal culture. Traditionally, these Native Aboriginal headdresses are worn by male war chiefs and warriors. The fact that a white woman, belonging to a dominant culture within society, adopted this tribal element is a clear representation of cultural appropriation.
Later on in the week, Victoria’s Secret responded to this heated discussion, saying that they in no way intended to mock the importance of the Native Aboriginal culture and its elements. Thus, it is essential to ask the question, when does this cultural “borrowing” become an ignorant appropriation? For starters, the fact that Victoria’s Secret sexualizes the Native Aboriginal woman, directly falls into the stereotypical concept of the sexualized maiden found within many Western films. As well, while wearing this piece, Kloss sported a leopard pair of undergarments, although leopard’s predominately live in Africa. Thus, not only is Victoria’s Secret racializing Native Aboriginals, but the company is also generalizing all minority groups, or non-hegemonic cultures, into one category.
This is not the first time that Victoria’s Secret has reinforced discourse involving racialized worldviews. Just a few months prior to the abovementioned fashion show, Victoria’s Secret released an outfit called “Sexy Little Geisha,” worn by white model Candice Swanepoel, as part of their “Go East” online collection. Once again, this hints to the idea of cultural appropriation. However, an important difference here lies in the fact that Swanepoel’s ethnicity is South African. Thus, this specific situation leads to critiques about the intensity of this appropriation since she does not necessarily come from a hegemonic culture. However, since Swanepoel is heavily influenced by Western ideologies, alongside the fact that she is white and visually appears to be part of a hegemonic “race,” cultural appropriation is still an evident and pressing concern.
With this being said, an even more critical and evident form of radicalization occurring in regards to this outfit is the Western discourse of “Orientalism.” As discussed and coined by Edward Said, Orientalism is a language that is imaginarily created by the West, in order to establish the binary between the Orient and the Occident, and create political and social power for the latter. The name of the collection, “Go East,” makes it clear that Victoria’s Secret is “othering” the Eastern part of the world, specifically East Asian communities.
This lingerie outfit is heavily influenced by the “attribute theory” of culture, painting an image and creating a checklist of what it means to be East Asian. It consists of floral prints, bows, bamboo hair sticks, and a matching hand fan – all common stereotypical fashion apparel that can be considered floating signifiers associated with East Asian communities. This critique is reinforced using the underlying premise of Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s “The Power of Absence.” Throughout this article, Tierney argues that zero signifiers are implicitly marked taboos – they are created with the intention not to be contested, creating power when transgressed. Since a zero signifier is floating or changing depending on the social construct and dialogue around it, Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to create a much more powerful discourse by trying to reverse and contest these “unbreakable” taboos. However, through reinforcing the imaginarily constructed discourse of “the Orient,” Victoria’s Secret is simply participating in new forms of racism, which strongly emphasize ideals regarding radicalization within the Western world.
Further, although many of the most well known Victoria’s Secret models are white, the corporation does have a fraction of coloured runway models. In fact, their presence was brought to the forefront of the 2010 show when a cast of black models showcased outfits in a segment called “Wild Thing.” The models are covered in tribal-like body paint, leopard print, as well as other “jungle” attire. Emanuela De Paula, the female model leading this segment, is a “mixed- race” Brazilian, coming from a White Brazilian mother and an African Brazilian father. Nonetheless, it was an obvious choice for Victoria’s Secret to have De Paula lead this section of the show, due to the fact that her skin colour acts as a signifier for visible minorities. In reality, she is South American, not African. However, due to the racialized and stereotypical cultural symbols placed within this segment, many viewers would assume she is in fact African.
When criticized for propagating ideas of race thinking throughout this segment, Victoria’s Secret’s response paralleled that of strategic essentialism. The company argued that by using black models, they intended to celebrate the culture of this visible minority. In reality, all Victoria’s Secret achieved was continued systematic racism, generalization of black communities, and sexualization of African women. In particular, this segment exhibits racial imagery relating to that of the “barbarian” in the Ancient Greek and Roman Tripartite Scheme. When looking at the rest of the segments throughout the show – specifically those encompassing all white models – there are not any props, clothing, or accessories that are direct signifiers of “whiteness,” which indirectly demonstrates the ideologies of normalization and white privilege. The ways in which Victoria’s Secret continuously perpetuates and reinforces hegemonic discourses is most definitely a topic of concern, and must be critically deconstructed in order to decolonize and understand the true forms of racism taking place in today’s society.
It is evident that Victoria’s Secret deeply embodies multiple Western hegemonic discourses found within North American societies, leading to the unintentional “othering” of various visible minority categories. Whether it be the Indigenous Peoples, East Asians, or Black communities, Victoria’s Secret’s reproduction of various racial formations is deeply rooted in negative stereotypical ideals. Ultimately, although Victoria’s Secret may not be at the origin of this discourse, nor does the company “intend” to reproduce such ideologies, it is crucial that they critique and deconstruct their own products and visuals before releasing them to the public.
Large, multi-national corporations, such as Victoria’s Secret, have an extremely heavy influence on society. They have the power either to disseminate such conversations about varying racial categories, or slowly reverse the negative impacts these hegemonic discourses have had on minority groups. As it turns out, Victoria’s (racially unjustifiable) Secret, quite frankly, is not much of a secret at all. Rather, it contributes to an unconscious, universal process of radicalization, which must be undone by current and future generations.