Soon we will see the debut of Rihanna’s new Savage X Fenty show. This will bring a host of scantily-clad women from all walks of life to the stage. Although the show is a nod to the Victoria’s Secret-inspired ideas, the theatricalities showcase some of the advances society has made over the past decade around the ideal woman’s body.
The underwear industry seems to have the same influence on society as other product spheres and their marketing departments. Advertising for underwear raises many questions about advertising, body images, and sex. Fashion in all its glory still adheres to a Eurocentric beauty ideal, which favors a thin, young, caucasian female, despite recent advances. This is more apparent than in an advertisement for underwear, where the entire body of the subject is displayed. This omnipresent imagery shows society’s progress towards body positivity.
Dr. Aurore Barrdey, Associate Professor of Marketing at Burgundy School of Business, Dijon, France, says that “an underwear ad could make us feel really good or really vulnerable.” They have become so ubiquitous in society because of this. As celebrities, models, and influencers posed casually in #inmycalvins undies, just few advertisements have achieved the same fame as #inmycalvins.
Many of us tuned in, despite the fact that it was not well-known, to see the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show circa 2012 in a way similar to the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter how old we get, there is something so intimate about seeing someone wearing their underwear.
What is the most striking difference between today’s ads and those of 2010? Casting. In 2014, Victoria’s Secret was criticized for its “Perfect Body” campaign. The advertisement featured 10 models who were slender and had a lot of racial diversity. It effectively displayed what the company considered “perfect.” Although the brand had previously launched similar campaigns, the public was more vocal with the Change.org petition that received over 26,000 signatures. This petition signaled a shift in consumer’s role in this equation.
Bardey says, “It was the beginning of a movement asking to see more body positive messages and representations of different body sizes and genders, as well as more inclusion.” As Savage X Fenty took Victoria’s Secret out the lingerie business’s driver’s seat, this mindset has continued. Consumers feel more at ease making demands due to cultural shifts. Bardey says, “In the study on the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter movement, we see a broad societal shift. We can see an increase in demand for body positivity messages and more inclusion.”
Underwear advertising has always been associated with sex and desire, whether it’s the direct approach of Victoria’s Secret or the subtle Calvin Klein perspective. Abigail Quist is the founder of ARQ underwear brand. She prefers to communicate in a more sexualized manner. Although she hasn’t completely removed sex from her ads, the photos are a contrast to the ones of the previous decade. The images show women wearing their simple, no-frills, untrained underwear sizes XS-4X. Quist did not intend to cause disruption when she created ARQ’s ads.
Quist says, “We are interested in showing a variety of body types in our clothes, in their natural state. They should be comfortable and empowered.” We are all about comfort and not about any one body type. Quist advocated a product-first approach. Bardey repeated twice that the conversations of the past decade did not revolve around the underwear but rather the marketing choices. The images, aside from the casting, have always represented society’s notion of what is sexy. But for whom? Although women often purchase and wear the underwear, ads are often targeted at men.
Abby Morgan, founder of CUUP, recalls that she was shocked when underwear was first sold to her as a performative for women. It’s almost like you’re imagining how beautiful this can make someone else look. It spoke to us because there wasn’t anything else. Morgan did not necessarily want it, but she didn’t mind identifying with the reductionist approach of removing sex and desire completely from the conversation.
Where does desire actually fit into the conversation? “We wanted it to be sensual with our approach.” Morgan says that they wanted her to see this gaze because it’s where sensuality is defined. “What makes you feel sensual and sexy is different than what makes me feel sensual and sexy. That’s what I love about it.”
CUUP’s imagery draws on lingerie references of the ’90s and highlights women of all sizes performing daily rituals in their underwear. Morgan prefers to use the word “sensual” instead of “sexual” to describe it all. This logic is applicable to all women, not just one body type. It is clear that underwear brands influence society’s perception of what is sexy by the images they create.
Great power comes with great responsibility. Female founders have taken on the responsibility to redefine what it means to be a woman in terms of imagery.