What a time for female empowerment. The day after International Women’s Day, shortly before Harvey Weinstein was handed his 23-year jail sentence, and days before Kate Beckinsale outlined a run-in with the rapist movie mogul in which he called her a “cunt” for wearing a suit to a premiere, the British lingerie company Agent Provocateur released an underwear campaign celebrating “the unparalleled potential of the female physique”.
It opens with a woman’s bottom and closes with another’s cleavage. But here’s the twist. The bottom and breasts belong to four high-profile athletes – British gymnast Georgia-Mae Fenton, Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman, American climber Sasha DiGiulian and American hurdler Queen Harrison Claye.
The four women pole vault, climb and spin for one soft-focused minute in their underwear while Yello’s Oh Yeah (a song that film critic Jonathan Bernstein describes as “synonymous with lust”) provides the ironic soundtrack for us to chuckle along to. Sexy, not sexist!
Sarah Shotton, creative director at the British lingerie brand, describes the apparel as “under-armour” and the women “feminine as well as athletic”. The athletes don’t make eye-contact with the viewer, but the gaze remains external (it’s worth noting that the creative team behind the ad are all women, and that the women in the adverts all chose what they wore). This is sex rebranded as empowerment, or empowerment reframed as sex.
Delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it also serves as a reminder, in case we needed one, that there really is no movement – in this case female empowerment – that can’t be commodified. It suggests that athleticism is an attractive quality, and that while sex sells, so too does strength.
The world of athletic prowess, so often coloured in masculine hues, is shown in a different light. Athletes, it turns out, can be sexy. And sexy, we discover, can be athletic. It’s just… not always easy to see the wood for the tits.
Susanna Cordner, senior research fellow at the London College of Fashion, who worked on the V&A’s 2016-7 exhibition Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear, says the campaign works by flipping two historical tropes in underwear advertising.
“The first can be traced from 19th-century adverts for corsets that supposedly supported you during exercise, and 1930s campaigns for companies like Charnaux that [used] illustrations of women in action. The implication was that underwear can aid your performance and experience of physical activity.”
The second is using a photograph of a famous figure in a different context, one that reveals another side – perhaps a sexier one? It’s one deployed by Nike and Adidas, and by countless celebrities fronting fashion campaigns. And this is where it gets interesting, says Cordner. Is athletics after this sort of rebrand? Does sprinting in bubblegum satin devalue the act itself? Is this “an empowering message or a piece of progression from past underwear advertising tropes?”, or all of the above. The societal norms for beauty and sexiness have been changing for years, though the tipping point was, in my mind, the “Are you beach body ready?” campaign of 2015 – after which point abs on ads became toast.
Fashion has yet to agree on what is “empowering”, though. Choice seems to be paramount, though for every feminist slogan there was a latex bodysuit (at Saint Laurent), or a bare bottom (in the Bottega Veneta SS20 campaign). The #MeToo movement has attempted to crystallise this, bumping overtly sexual dressing into limbo and turning awards season red carpets (formerly curated, as Beckinsale discovered, by Weinstein) black.
But it’s arguably underwear that has seen the biggest change post-#MeToo. See Kim Kardashian’s brand, Skims, and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty line, which both feature underwear in a range of sizes and muted colours, alongside Heist, another hip new name in the underwear game, which goes one step further with a call to arms: “Shapewear is anti-feminist, right?”. Wrong! Almost half their sales come from shapewear.
Myriam Couturier, a fashion academic at Ryerson University in Toronto, isn’t convinced. Citing other brands such as Glossier and Outdoor Voices, she claims brands broadcasting a message of acceptance and empowerment are merely “trying to get women to continue spending money on fashion and beauty, [while] attempting to give them a sense of agency”. The context may differ but the product hasn’t – it has simply been rebranded.
Like many a fashion brand, Agent Provocateur has used risqué marketing to get attention through provocation. The clue is in the name. This approach served it well in those apathetic 1990s (it launched in 1994) and noughties. And since nothing is resistant to rebranding, here we are now with #Metoo.
It’s hard to think about Agent Provocateur without pivoting back to its bigger, creepier cousin Victoria’s Secret, a company that weaponised the million-dollar bra and turned the female form into content. That brand has now cancelled its shows, and seen one of its company founders linked to Jeffrey Epstein, but its ghost continues to haunt the industry.
Serena Rees, Agent Provocateur’s co-founder, recently launched a gender-fluid brand, Les Girls Les Boys, by way of repudiation of what she created. Her new venture is, she told the New York Times, “a reaction to the social and political climate we are currently living in”. What was acceptable in the past is now seen as embarrassing, even shameful, and requires some form of atonement.
What Agent Provocateur is conscious of, I imagine, is being deemed exploitatively sexy in a world that is beginning to tackle exactly that. Knowing we wouldn’t buy an earnest International Women’s Day video, it did it another way. The campaign isn’t quite as absurd as oil giant Shell saying it would rebrand as She’ll for International Women’s Day, but the intention is clear: yes, lingerie advertising has a history of turning women into sexualised objects but look, we’ve turned our women into protagonists. You could call it moving with the times.