Victoria’s Secret Angels: A Historical Perspective

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Photo: Photos: Nicholas Hunt/PatrickMcMullan.com, Shutterstock

Until very recently in the history of angels, these celestial spirits were both asexual and genderless. But since 1997, Victoria’s Secret has brought us a very different sort of Angel: bronzed models in the tiniest of underwear, fluffy wings hoisted behind them. Tonight, these 21st-century Angels will stride the runway. How did angels transform from staid, androgynous, fully clothed, golden humanoids into sexy, barely clothed, golden sylphs? 

At some point, there was a cultural shift. Was it in 1971 with Jimi Hendrix’s soft, sultry “Angel”? Did 1954’s croony, desperate "Earth Angel” cement this creature as an object of lust? Or was the seed planted even earlier — with wild, religious passages about angels' blinding beauty and striking power to stupefy crowds (Matthew 8:10; Luke 1:20)?

Let us consider angels through history in an attempt to understand the Victoria’s Secret mascot of sexiness. 

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that angels appeared with female qualities. Until that point, even the more feminine-looking angels lacked breasts — so, absolutely as far removed from Victoria’s Secret’s idea of an Angel as possible. In artistic and religious depictions of angels, they appeared androgynous — though always beautiful, in an otherworldly way. That last quality is modelesque, as is this Quran illustration of angels, which describes them as standing in rows, never tiring, never sitting. A heavenly host of a runway.

In the beginning, angels were not depicted as winged at all. The concept of a supernatural winged human likely comes from ancient Sumerian carvings, though the aesthetics of the modern angel — draped in billowy, white robes, with long flowing hair and a glowing complexion — is probably some amalgamation of the Greco-Roman figures Nike, Eros, and Cupid. From the late fourth-century onward, most Christian depictions of angels featured wings and wings aplenty: usually four or six depending on the angel's rank. In the Quran, angels are described as having three wings. Muhammad said that Gabriel had 600 wings (a bit excessive).

Just as there is a hierarchy in heaven, so the Victoria Secret system of angels is a complicated lingerie ladder. After debuting its Angels line of bras, Victoria’s Secret has carefully selected which supermodels will earn the Angel title. "There is something called wing envy," explains Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show producer Monica Mitro. "All the girls want wings"; thus, the high-ranking angel in the hierarchy of heaven, the seraph, perhaps most closely resembles a Victoria’s Secret Angel. Besides, the descriptions of these beings are absolutely sultry. Literally, seraph means “burning one.” In Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite writes:

The name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness.

Lots of erotic and powerful, elemental, sexy descriptions in there. One angel, Samael, was even referred to as the “seducer.” Thomas Aquinas expanded this account of the seraphim in Summa Theologiae, describing them as boasting an “inextinguishable light,” which allows them to enlighten others, “rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.”

Such passages point toward the literary trope associating angels with romantic yearning, particularly for the unattainable. (For what are angels if not flighty?) Lusty Byron poems, like "Don Juan," focused on desirability of angels; he describes a woman, supported by her guardian angel, “perfect past all parallel — of any modern female saint’s comparison.” Herman Melville compared art to an angel that one must “wrestle”;  similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Uriel" uses an angel as a symbol for heated internal struggle. Edgar Allen Poe’s "Israfel" paints the angel as an enticingly excellent musician, so that even “the enamored moon blushes with love.”

But the conventional divide between pure, chaste women and impure, sexual women complicated the angel metaphor. Poet Coventry Patmore originated the trope of the "Angel in House." This Angel is a kindly, sympathetic, passive, graceful, giving, and pure wife, as exemplified in Patmore's 1854 poem. Virginia Woolf called this type of angel a dangerous “phantom.” She wrote that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” She continues:

Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.

The Victoria’s Secret winged being is as far removed from the Angel in House as it is from an androgynous Van Ecyk portrait — yet both House Angels and Runway Angels embody an impossible ideal, and their very impossibility makes them powerful.

As luck would have it, there are many women writers about to fling inkpots at their wing shadows.