After the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show ended — after mylar balloons dropped from the ceiling and three dozen nearly nude women danced off the stage — I circled New York's 69th Regiment Armory in search of a restroom. After a flight of stairs and a series of byzantine hallways, I found one that, to my horror, served Victoria's Secret Angels and mere mortals alike. The Angels were in full hair and makeup. They wore pink silk robes with hems that barely covered their perfect rumps. The mortals, who trudged through a sludgy snowstorm to be there, wore winter coats and snow boots. Due to the combined effect of genetics, shoes, and voluminous hair, the clothed humans were, on average, a foot shorter than the unclothed ones. We were two separate species forced to share one habitat.
Waiting for stalls to open up, members of each species avoided eye contact with the other. One by one, world-famous butts and non-famous butts took turns sitting on the same set of toilets. When my turn came, I noted that the restrooms at the 69th Regiment Armory do not provide seat liners.
The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was invented in 1995. Early shows looked like totally normal fashion shows where the models just happened to be wearing store-bought bras instead of shirts. The effect was downright minimalist compared to the carnival of diamond nipples and animatronic wings that the show is today. In 1995, the show's budget was $120,000; last year, it was $12 million, and the show drew a TV viewership of 11.5 million.
This year, the show featured six themed sections, the first of which was "Circus" and featured aerialists, contortionists, and jugglers. The models wore rhinestone lingerie approximations of tiger, knife-thrower, and "painted lady" costumes. The effect, as 11.5 million Americans should by now know, is like a supercharged Slutoween. The ringmaster, portrayed by fourth most highly paid model in the world Adriana Lima, carried a whip.
In subsequent sections featuring live performances from Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Bruno Mars, the Angels embodied "Dangerous Liaisons," "Silver Screen Angels," "Angels in Bloom," "PINK Is Us," and "Calendar Girls," which featured twelve models dressed for each month of the year. April featured a lingerie raincoat. The model portraying May was a ribbon-trailing Maypole with boobs. For November, Karlie Kloss wore a predictably controversial Native American–inspired headdress. "Thanksgiving," a screen behind her announced.
Seasonality is integral to the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Early shows were Valentine's Day–themed and took place at the Plaza Hotel in February. With each year, the show became increasingly elaborate. 1998 marked the show's first sparkly catwalk; 1999 introduced the "Angels"; 2001 featured the first televised show and the introduction of a multi-million-dollar "fantasy bra." An event invented to showcase mail-order undies had snowballed in an annual holiday-season spectacular, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade of tits and ass. (This year's iteration had a giving component, too: Ticket auctions benefited the victims of Hurricane Sandy.)
And, as is generally the case with phenomena the masses enjoy, the fashion industry generally looks down on this show — not that you'd know it from the blanket coverage in the fashion press. (And yes, the Cut is not above it. Angels do have desirable hair, even if it's full of extensions.) Because, for all the impressiveness of the gold-leafed underwire and the pop-cultural feat of supplanting "Sports Illustrated model" as America's standard for sexiness, the greatest Victoria's Secret Fashion Show coup is how it has aligned itself with the fashion industry's most visible faces. KCD, the PR firm that handles the show, also manages the guest lists for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, and Hermès.
Asked in private how they feel about the Victoria's Secret show, fashion editors generally resort to nonverbal communication: eye rolls, sheepish shrugs, guttural groans. Describing the experience of watching the show, one editor pantomimed slashing her wrists. But the consensus across the board is that, even if they won't cop to liking the show, fashion invitees also wouldn't miss it for the world. "It's a spectacle," said one editor. "I enjoy the spectacle," said another. I heard the word spectacle at least a dozen times last night, including from people who weren't present but happened to text me mid-show about unrelated matters. It's a remarkable feat of consistency.
As a brand, Victoria's Secret is equally consistent. With retail locations in every major shopping mall in America, Victoria's Secret has come to define how we come of age. An informal poll of the Cut's female staff revealed salient memories of awkwardly shuffling into the store in our early teen years, around the time we first started wearing bras, to marvel at and imitate the sexiness on sale there. Two of us copped to shoplifting thongs — then hiding them from our mothers.
And yet, it's a strangely sexless form of sexiness. A search of victoriassecret.com shows 140,000 results for the word sexy. Meanwhile, the word sex appeared only in the phrase "irresistible to the opposite sex." The product in question: "Flirty Little Secret Firming Cream with Pheromones."
"It's corporate sexy," one fashion-industry attendee explained to me. "It can't be too aggressive." Or, in the retrospectively ironic and oft-repeated words of Paris Hilton, "sexy but not sexual." It's the same fine line that the night's biggest star, Justin Bieber, must walk to maintain his tween idol bona fides. My corporate-sexy friend noted that "it's no coincidence" that Bieber performed during the section of the show dedicated to PINK, Victoria's Secret's lower-price casual line. "That's the strategy," she said. "Appeal to the tweens. Get 'em young."
Later, after chastising Rihanna for ignoring her choreography (result: whacked in the face by an Angel wing), the same attendee announced that this year's show was the best she'd ever seen. How do you measure the quality of a Victoria's Secret Fashion Show? "Just that it was really big," she replied. "And fun." She's been to five or six shows so far and can't wait for next year's.