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Angels, Tweens & Lingerie
By: Tori Mends-Cole
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Who would have thought that the advent of Victoria’s Secret stores 36 years ago would revolutionize the underwear industry and how people went about buying underwear? During the 1970s, in the midst of the sexual revolution and the legalization of the Pill, the environment for intimate apparel was ripe for change. When Victoria’s Secret opened its first specialty store, social norms redefined these previously unmentionable garments from utilitarian to acceptably sexy. Women and men across the country shed the notion that lingerie was reserved for special occasions; it became appropriate for respectable people to walk into an underwear-only store or carry around an underwear catalog. In return, the company promised luxurious quality and by implication, sophistication, increased sexuality, happier husbands, and more!

Victoria’s Secret quickly became the largest lingerie retailer in the world. Every day, women who embraced their sensuality wore Victoria’s Secret. Lingerie, an old taboo, became an American middle-class household staple, even later claiming primetime television placement in the form of Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show featuring underwear-clad models whom the organization introduced as Victoria Secret Angels. Those angels were the faces and bodies that sold the company’s products. Although an argument could be made that the company’s imagery has consistently appealed to a male audience, clearly, photos of beautiful scantily clad women appealed to female demographics as well.

By the early 2000s, though, staunch competition from long-established brands marketing to teens and young adults, such as the equally sexualized and provocative Abercrombie & Fitch and the usually all-American Gap, forced the company to redefine itself. The brand tamed its soft porn image in a bid to attract high-end customers and introduced an affordable line aimed at enticing tween girls into its stores. Reality shows such as America’s Next Top Model and others have helped influence young girls’ ideas of fashion and how undergarments affect a person’s style, further spurring the early concern with underwear. Tweens strive to emulate the angels and models.

Despite controversy and protests, the strategy works in part: Victoria’s Secret’s controversial tween line, aptly named PINK, is ubiquitous among the tween culture and can be seen on college campuses and schoolyards across the country. It’s indisputable that young women and girls as young as 12 love the PINK line, which often has flirty messages strategically placed across the chest or rear end. Whether the organization achieved its other objective to attract a more sophisticated customer base is up for debate. Quality issues have plagued the organization in the past and moving beyond its lingerie specialty (with clothing, shoes, and other products that do not carry the Victoria’s Secret brand) may also explain some of the decline in catalog sales that the organization has experienced. Certainly, e-commerce and the digital evolution have also played a role in the move away from catalog purchasing. However, another explanation could be that few sophisticated women, let alone lust-filled men, want to purchase sexy underwear from the same place their pubescent daughters frequent.

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About the Author
Tori Mends-Cole is the Communications Coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union. She holds an M.A. in communication from the University of Maryland at College Park.
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