Victoria’s Secret was founded in the same year I graduated from high school by a man who put in eight years studying the lingerie market after trying to buy underwear for his wife in a department store. He must grossly understate his disappointment in the experience to have spent almost a decade studying the market before launching the first Victoria’s Secret retail store in California.
Or, like the rest of the Victoria’s secrets, the origin story is just another part of the brand’s carefully curated image.
We, here in Vermont, had Bertha Church on Church Street in Burlington. Bertha Church is now the oldest retailer on the Church Street Marketplace and at this point it would be fair to say it has fit at least four, possibly five generations of young women into their first or second — or third —bras. It was a respected institution back in the 1970s and remains to this day a rite of passage for girls to go in for that first fitting with the calm and experienced staff.
I’m going to assume that even in the early 1980s Bertha Church sold some saucier stuff than the plain whites I was wearing. But for those of you born two decades after the 1980s, risqué knickers and lacy little things were the reserve of the newly married. A girl would have, as part of her trousseau — there’s a word you don’t see any more — a few delicate items for her honeymoon but only a girl of dubious moral character would own sexy underwear. Would even desire sexy underwear!
If you were looking for something flirty and racy, and preferably not purchased from your mother’s friend, your option was Fredricks of Hollywood. Line drawings of extravagant legs and breasts, boas and provocative little numbers you probably did not want your mother knowing about.
Although in retrospect, since the catalog was coming to the house, perhaps we should assume my mother did have intimate knowledge of these intimates?
When Victoria’s Secret, staffed by people my parents did not know, opened locally we peeped in the door at the carpet, the lavish décor, eyeballed the price tags and scooted on. Over time I learned that in the back of the store was a sales rack and I still own a silk pair of pajamas, in the most stunning shade of blue, that is one of my primary motivations for grimly fighting middle age. The elastic hasn’t failed, but nor will it stretch one millimeter further. And the silk is a weight and color I’ve not seen since.
Victoria’s Secret was also one of the first brands to appear in quantity on eBay. The company would crate up returns, damaged items, the unsaleable and sell the case, sight unseen, to jobbers. Who would then unbox their treasures hoping this one contained a leather jacket or other high-end item and blow the inventory out online.
I bought the most comfortable pair of overalls I’ve ever owned off a Victoria’s Secret jobber. Unfortunately, Victoria’s Secret overalls, while they were properly shaped (impossible to find at the time) were built for fashion, not for work, and they died a sad and shredded premature death after one summer.
So, I’ve owned two pieces of Victoria’s Secret stuff, and then, I got married. Unfortunately for Victoria’s Secret, in the era of sports bras.
But remember, this was a business founded on making it more comfortable for men to buy their wives something sexy!
I can tell you my husband has purchased one bra from Victoria’s Secret. For the dog. A padded bra to make the dog ear protection against the engine noise of the motorcycle so the dog would be more comfortable in the sidecar. The girl waiting on him cupped her hands over the dog’s ears and said with authority, “B cup.”
Which, coincidentally, but never mind. The dog wore sexy underwear for a while, until the hearing protection used by military and rescue dogs started being sold to the general public.
Victoria’s Secret is the subject of a recent documentary, and the topic of the number one song on Apple Music right now. The song “I Know Victoria’s Secret” was written for a tween girl who was humiliated when she went to try on bathing suits and was told she, a perfectly normal young girl, looked “fat and flat” in the suit.
Victoria’s Secret used, from its inception, a fake London address to give it cachet and a veneer of respectability. And skinny child models in push-up bras.
“I know Victoria’s secret,” the lyrics go “she was made up by a dude.” The real, poorly kept, secret, was a culture of “misogyny, bullying and harassment” and an awareness of abuses being committed by accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein by the company chairman.
To say nothing of “cashing in on body issues, selling skin and bones with big boobs…” to a women with “Photoshop(ed), itty bitty models on magazine covers” to tell us we were overweight and spawning an entire industry, currently worth $58 billion, in weight loss.
What’s the one positive thing to come out of the pandemic? The weight loss industry declined by 25 percent in 2020. And Victoria’s Secret, after a 40 percent stock plunge and store closures, embraced new brand ambassadors, including the National Woman’s Soccer League’s Megan Rapinoe, award winning actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka.
Yet, embracing size inclusion, athletes and women of color — even statements in support of a woman’s right to control her own body — is the more of the same glitter sprinkled over a pig. Victoria’s Secret continues to fund the National Retail Federation, which, through its political action committee continues to support the politicians who are attempting to strip women of their right to health care, even the right to travel to where health care will be provided.
This information is publicly available, and if it is online this generation will find it, make spreadsheets out of it and make it accessible from every platform they can get their hands on.
In an endless stream of bad news and rolling catastrophes it’s worth noting that the number one hit on multiple platforms right now was written by a 26-year-old Gen Z babysitter with the ferocity that is characteristic of this demographic. This is not a “me” generation, this is a generation with empathy, and an unparalleled intolerance for injustice.
This is a “we” generation.
These young wolves leverage collective action to create the change they want to see. There is a proverb: every new generation, whole new world. I think this generation is going change the world for the better.
Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She works in Stowe.