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Lingerie Ads Have Always Been Homoerotic

But they’re definitely not aimed at queer women.

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You know what it looks like: a picture of two women in their underwear who appear to be physically intimate. One of them is looking at the ground, or at her partner, while the other stares at the camera.

You’re looking at a lingerie ad that is marketed toward cishet women. So why the homoerotic undertones?

Agent Provocateur, 2000s
Agent Provocateur

Homoerotic lingerie ads, which date back to 1920, at least, hint at erotic relationships between women. The women in these ads are often in intimate situations: as implicit as lying on chaise lounges or beds, or as explicit as engaging in BDSM.

What is remarkable is how consistently erotic lingerie advertising has been — even in the early 20th century, when the LGBTQ+ community was underground and the public did not have a discourse for discussing or interpreting queer relationships. In part because of strong social taboos and the lack of a framework for understanding homoeroticism, lingerie advertising was able to capitalize on the double entendre, latently playing to homoerotic fantasy. In the 1950s, women in lingerie ads could lie on beds together and share obviously intimate gazes — and, presumably, no one was the wiser.

While the lingerie ads of the 1950s and ’60s don’t appear to be self-conscious, the body language of lingerie ads bears a marked visual relationship to the covers of lesbian pulp novels of the same era, which contained titillating stories of lesbianism. While the novels found an audience in underground lesbian communities, the intended audience was cishet men.

With the increasing cultural consciousness of women's sexuality, spurred on by the feminist movement and the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, homoerotic lingerie advertising became less focused on intimacy between the models and more focused on sexuality. In the 1950s, there were fewer scenes in the bedroom and more scenes demonstrating activity, conversation, subjectivity, and relationships. One Maidenform ad shows women taking tea in their underthings.

Wolfhead Undergarments, 1920s.
Wolfhead Undergarments

By the 1970s, the implication of substantive intimacy between women in lingerie advertisements is gone. The models move to the bedroom and to greater physical intimacy, but they no longer engage with each other as much — they look at the camera, at the invisible viewer, far more often.

This begs the question: Who is the viewer? And who is this eroticism for?

This is a question I ask not only as a queer woman inundated with these ads, but as a member of the lingerie industry. I got into lingerie because experimenting with lingerie and underthings was a vital part of stepping into my queer identity, and I opened Bluestockings (my store) so that the affirming experience that I had could be open to LGBTQIA+ folks who are often ignored by the industry.

The lingerie industry has a history of hyper-sexualizing women, but the winds seem to be shifting. Brands like Victoria’s Secret share their Angels’ hopes and dreams with us; brands like Aerie photograph campaigns of conventionally beautiful women un-photoshopped and call it radical. You can’t go one season without some lingerie startup releasing “disruptive” imagery that promises to challenge beauty norms; that insists that lingerie is, in fact, for you and not for him (though the assertion that “It’s not for him!” still affirms the straightness of customers).

The PR messaging of the industry has changed. The underlying practices haven’t. Most lingerie ads still inadvertently cater to the male gaze.

A Warner ad from the 1950s.
Warner

By male gaze, I don’t mean the actual, literal male gaze delivered to you by a dude saying “God bless you” on the street. Rather, the audience for these advertisements is women: women who want to be arousing to men in the way the models are. Lingerie brands focus their advertising on women who are cis and straight: women who grew up being socialized to interpret themselves through what academics call the male gaze — the internalized lens of being watched, of being attractive. “Lingerie advertising is developed from a perspective of what men find attractive — even when those ads are ostensibly directed towards women,” Cora Harrington, founder of fashion blog The Lingerie Addict, says. “The subtext is ‘You, too, can fulfill the fantasies of men if you wear this product.’”

This idea that an image can seem to be created for cishet women while the advertising retains its stalwart appeal to a cishet masculine gaze is critically important for understanding this trend in lingerie advertising.

In the context of the (internalized) male gaze, women exhibiting desire toward each other do so in service to a performative fantasy. Specifically, homoerotic lingerie ads and lookbooks rely on the expulsion of queerness from the image in order to establish themselves as fantasy.

The images are not representations of two (or more) subjects actively exploring their sexuality in relation to each other, which invites queerness into the image. The models exist, frozen, for the consumption of the viewer. There is no agency and no desire — save for what the viewer imagines onto them.

1970s Janet Reger ad.
Janet Reger

The reason we often see multiple women in lingerie ads is related to the reason why we never see multiple men in underwear ads: While homoeroticism between women is desirable (read: lesbian porn fantasies, which divests the word "lesbian" of its actual meaning), homoeroticism between men hints too closely at homosexuality for the patriarchy’s comfort.

Women's eroticism toward each other is acceptable if a male gaze is present. It is through this gaze that women’s sexuality, women’s queerness, becomes pornographic titillation rather than a genuine expression of desire. For this reason, these ads are exploitative — particularly because the brands that are engaging in homoerotic advertising (and the ones that aren’t, for that matter) have thus far expressed little to no interest in actually showing queer women or respectful representations of queer desire in ad campaigns.

As a queer woman, these ads tell me I can exist — to a point. My sexuality is real, as long as it's been stripped down so hard it's not even lesbianism. I get to be represented on the condition that I reduce my sexuality to a Playboy fantasy.

Queer women, in short, are shut out of these images entirely. Or, as The Lingerie Addict’s Harrington says, “[These ads] are not for queer, bi, or lesbian women, but for those who want to consume a risqué or transgressive fantasy. That's not to say queer, bi, or lesbian women cannot be enticed by these ads, of course. Rather, these groups are not the target audiences for such marketing.”

“I think that exploitive homoerotic ads are actually really damaging to our community,” says queer lingerie designer Dani Read of FYI by Dani Read. “They serve no purpose to us as far as representation, and they encourage the objectification of our sexuality and our relationships — particularly for femmes.”

JC Penney in the 1960s.
JC Penney

Read’s comment alludes to the more subtle damage these ads do to queer women, particularly to femme-presenting women and those who are in femme/femme couples. Not only do homoerotic ads exclude anyone who is not femme-presenting, they also contribute to the infantilization and hypersexualization of femme/femme couples. Femme couples are either denied sexuality due to an inferred lack of masculinity (“someone has to be the man”) or hypersexualized as a lesbian porno come to life in your subway car. They’re just waiting for the right man to come along.

The models in these ads are also, of course, representative of a patriarchal (and white-supremacist) beauty ideal. This is a critique Becca McCharen, the queer designer behind CFDA-finalist brand Chromat, has of the industry’s imagery. “The ads show a narrow type of beauty,” McCharen says, pointing to the fact that they almost exclusively feature thin, white models.

The strongest holdout in the lingerie industry when it comes to conventional (thin, white) beauty standards is the luxury sector. Historically, luxury fashion advertising relies on aspirational imagery, and luxury brands have been the slowest to respond to calls for representation when it comes to size, gender, and racial inclusivity.

Luxury lingerie is no exception; indeed, luxury is also where we see the most homoerotic imagery. Brands like Agent Provocateur and Chantal Thomass explicitly traffic in homoerotic fantasy, along with smaller independent brands like Edge o’ Beyond.

FYI by Dani Reed, 2010s.
Dani Reed

Chantal Thomass offers an interesting case study in homoeroticism because the company employs legendary photographer Ellen von Unwerth to shoot their lookbooks. Von Unwerth specializes in erotic femininity, and her work with the Chantal Thomass brand often vacillates between typical homoeroticism and the “caught in the moment” queer-friendly imagery embraced by queer-owned luxury lingerie brands like FYI by Dani Read.

Queer-owned lingerie brands typically demonstrate an understanding of the limitations of the male gaze. Ads from brands like FYI by Dani Read feature models who are more engaged with each other than with the viewer, creating the distinct feeling of having walked in on an intimate moment. "I want you to think of sex between women," Read says. (Sidebar: FYI means Fuck You Industries. Obviously.)

Becca McCharen of Chromat has a more general approach to inclusivity. She takes care to thoughtfully represent friendships between women in all Chromat campaigns (in their annual Galentine’s Day series, for example). Chromat’s advertisements and marketing campaigns represent a wider, more diverse array of body types, races, and representations of womanhood.

When I talk to designers about this trend (at Curve, the lingerie industry’s biggest trade show, for example), one of the most common explanations I hear is, “We need two or three models in an ad! How else are we supposed to show all of the product?” And yes, it’s true that budgets are a concern when it comes to shooting brand photography. But this defense unwittingly exposes a lack of depth in the thought that goes into how lingerie advertisements are shot. There are a number of small, independently owned lingerie brands showing us how imagery can either embrace and celebrate homoeroticism between women (like FYI by Dani Read) or, alternately, show us a different path of body-positive, empowering imagery that takes the sex (and the male gaze) out of the equation.

Lane Bryant, 2010s
Lane Bryant

In the 2000s, a new trend in lingerie advertising foregrounds groups of women and themes of empowerment. From corporate behemoths like Aerie, Lane Bryant, and even Victoria’s Secret to indies like Dear Kate and Nettle’s Tale, everyone wants a piece of the body-positive pie, no matter how body positive the campaign actually is.

This genre of ad campaign has come under fire for substantive reasons: lack of racial diversity, for instance, and the fact that size brands like Lane Bryant exclude models over a size 20 (though their most recent activewear campaign directly addresses and grows from this criticism).

However, where these empowerment campaigns succeed is in presenting the models as active subjects who are engaged with each other and not with the male gaze. Much of it has to do with the nature of the models’ gazes toward the camera: they’re curious, rather than seductive.

Victoria’s Secret, 2000’s.
Victoria’s Secret

Laughter also destabilizes the male gaze. Laughter, of course, implies action, conversation, joy, participation in the moment. Laughter places the viewer directly in medias res. Laughter is not passive. Victoria’s Secret (heteronormative as it is) succeeds in humanizing some of the Angels’ group shots with this approach: smiles and laughter go a long way.

Destabilizing the male gaze can also be achieved by infusing action into these images. Whereas women in Agent Provocateur ads are shown lying down or engaging in BDSM, the amateur models in Dear Kate ads work on their laptops, while the very real and gorgeous models in Lane Bryant ads stride toward the camera like they’re on a catwalk. Neither of these images reads as exploitative or homoerotic, and it’s due to the presence of action and, most especially, the representation of women’s agency.

Does intentionality matter? Ultimately, that’s up to the audience. Is the implicit white supremacism of an ad any less significant if a white designer professes to not “see” color, while exclusively casting white models? Does it matter if someone who calls him- or herself an ally refuses any androgynous or masculine-of-center models because their look doesn’t "fit" the brand?

To consider the importance of intentionality when it comes to representation, we might think about Aerie's now-buried campaign around male body positivity. Aerie intended the campaign to be tongue in cheek, unaware of the response the work would provoke. The models took it seriously; so did the public. The campaign went viral and was publicly embraced — until Aerie revealed it to have been a joke. At this point, there was extreme backlash.

Agent Provocateur, 2000s.
Agent Provocateur.

The moral of the story? If a brand does not effectively communicate with its audience, intention doesn’t matter. Full stop. As Brene Brown reminds us, “Ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth.”

Ads aren’t just ads. Digital marketing experts estimate that the average American is exposed to thousands of ads a day. The imagery we consume teaches us about what is normal, what is beautiful, what is admirable, what is to be desired, what is good. This is why thoughtful and diverse representation matters.

Thoughtful representation matters because my industry — the one I have worked in for years — denies that I exist. Denies that my customers exist. Denies that my favorite bloggers exist. What's worse, brands — even brands that I love — capitalize on what are, in the end, perverted, fetishized representations of queer sexuality. That’s a problem. But I want to see it change, because I think we can be better. I think that more often than not, people want to do better. Tradition is not always better — it's just easy.

This whole article could be built on a faulty assumption, of course. Maybe my cishet friends quietly have sleepovers that I don't know about and cuddle in their lingerie. Maybe these images are relatable in some way.

But me? That looks like my life, every morning. (Without the perfectly done hair and makeup and lighting, obviously.) I don't sleep in a bra, and odds are good that I’ll have dried drool on my face, but I am lucky enough that cuddling with a beautiful woman in bed — in my underwear, cup of coffee in hand — is my life. Every morning. It's pretty awesome.

And I would love to see that reality reflected in this industry that I love.

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