The New Sexy

Good Night, Angels

The demise of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show heralds a new era where women can officially wear lingerie to please themselves.

Good Night, Angels
Getty Images

No more prioritising others’ pleasure before yours. And for many women, this revolution begins right in the confines of their underwear drawers.

Once fuelled by hypersexuality, the lingerie industry has been struggling to shed its antiquated ideas of women and female sexuality. Upheavals are going far beyond construction, fit and colour; they are hitting out at the collective notion of what it means to be sexy.

Victoria’s Secret learnt it the hard way. In November 2019, the company announced it was cancelling its over-the-top runway show for the year. This came after countless PR cycles of backpedaling and apologising for former president Ed Razek’s transphobic and sizeist remarks. Most recently, Razek said transsexual models should not be cast “because the show is a fantasy”, and commented that “no one has any interest” in seeing plus-sized lingerie models.

It didn’t help that Victoria’s Secret hasn’t been doing particularly well. Third quarter sales fell 7 percent, marking a sixth consecutive quarter of decline; market share, meanwhile, sunk to 24 percent in 2018 from 31.7 percent in 2013.

Women are no longer buying into the VS fantasy of being eye-candy in sexy lingerie. One torrid ad showed a woman with a red bra in hand, with the tagline “Dress your boyfriend’s floor”.

That the concepts of lingerie and sex intertwine is nothing new. Kate Low, creator of Singaporean lingerie label Perk by Kate, says: “Lingerie is so intimate, only certain people you trust get to see it. It is vulnerability and sensuality wrapped in one package.”

Lauren Schwab, co-founder of Negative Underwear — a luxury lingerie label favoured by influencers like Eva Chen and Gwyneth Paltrow — lamented in 2016 that the business thrived because “it doesn’t matter if the wearer enjoys wearing it, as long as the person looking at her is enjoying it”.

With Negative Underwear, which offers basic styles for everyday comfort, Schwab wanted to turn sexy on its head: “It wasn’t that you were wearing something to look good for somebody else: you were wearing something that made you feel good physically and also that you were proud to wear.”

The problems plaguing the lingerie industry go beyond its practice of oversexualising women; it’s also been criticised for misleading us into believing what makes a body beautiful. In the quest for perfection, pain is inevitable (see any article or video detailing how lingerie models voluntarily sign up for punishing fitness plans so they can look slim in their skivvies).

Ratnadevi Manokaran, co-founder of Singaporean plus-size retailer The Curve Cult who has a dress size of UK24-26, shares her own body-shaming experiences. “Once, a smaller girl and I were seen in the same outfit; only I received feedback from friends and family that I looked ‘vulgar’.”

On the other end of the spectrum, things aren’t better either. Low says she founded Perk by Kate out of exasperation as “salespeople used to insist that smaller-sized women try on bras whose cups were just too big for them”. Perk by Kate stocks bras that start at 30A and run up to 40B.

But things are looking up, with more brands responding to calls for a more inclusive industry.

Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty has been lauded for its wide spectrum of sizing options and cuts, and for including models of all body shapes. As the style icon declared after her show last September: “You belong in these pieces. You, me, trans women, women of all sizes, paraplegic women, all women are important women! All women belong here.”

GI Collection, launched last February by Carmen Liu to offer trans-friendly undergarment options, sold out its first collection of panties within days. Its range has since been expanded to include more styles.

It is healthy to desire, much as we wish to be desired. So instead of coaxing women into believing that they exist to please men, why not celebrate their right to please themselves?

This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of A Magazine.