Just in time for International Women’s Day last Sunday, Agent Provocateur, the British lingerie company founded as a kind of hipper, kinkier Victoria’s Secret, released a new ad campaign.
It features four high-achieving sportswomen, many of whom are also Olympians: the Canadian pole-vaulter Alysha Newman, the American climber Sasha DiGiulian, the British gymnast Georgia-Mae Fenton and the American hurdler and sprinter Queen Harrison Claye. And if features them in action — on the track, mid rock face, on the uneven bars — in underwear, though not perhaps the underwear you might expect.
Instead of sports bras and leggings or briefs, they are wearing mostly push-up bras, lace and garter belts. Plus one filmy little robe, an elaborate gold chain and … it’s not exactly clear what. Looks kind of like a halter.
According to Sarah Shotton, the creative director of Agent Provocateur, the goal of the campaign was “to hero” a different kind of body. The sportswomen featured were given the choice of what they wanted to wear. And by wearing it in the context of their discipline, as opposed to the context of a runway show designed by men and largely attended by men, by doing it for a company run by women, in clothing designed by women, they are changing both the narrative and its authors.
This is pretty much the same argument used by Rihanna in her Savage x Fenty line, and expressed in her Amazon-streamed lingerie spectacular last September, which featured dancers, models and celebrities of all sizes and skin tones gyrating in a variety of ever tinier underthings and high heels — by their own choice. And it is the position of the Agent Provocateur athletes.
“A lot of times, as an elite athlete I feel we are told we are powerful but not feminine,” Ms. Harrison, the hurdler, said. “So to have a brand celebrate a physique like mine spoke volumes to me. Because to me, my strength is my femininity. They don’t exist on either side of a divide.”
Yet it is impossible to view the images and not wonder if it is really women taking charge of their own sexuality that people will see or, rather, very strong women being reduced to their sexuality. (Victoria’s Secret also tried to suggest that the women in its shows felt empowered, only for some of them to announce later that they didn’t actually feel that way at all). Or not to wonder: Am I really meant to take this — and by association, her — seriously?
“Because I am training and in the public eye, I do take into consideration how things I put out into the world can be perceived,” said Ms. DiGuilian, the climber. “But I do not let it control my decision making. I felt very strongly about bringing to life my own power through these images.”
“We are all navigating what femininity means in a post-MeToo world,” Ms. Shotton said. “To define what it means to be a woman in the 2020s. It’s challenging for all of us.”
That question may be most obvious when it comes to underwear — at least the kind that is less about practicality than what lies beneath — but it was also the single biggest thread running though the recent ready-to-wear season. (At least as far as clothing went; as for conversation, it was the coronavirus.)
So there was Sarah Burton before her Alexander McQueen show, demonstrating how a single fabric had been woven so that it segued from matte to sheer to reflect the multiple qualities and identities encompassed by the idea of the “feminine,” because, she said, “strength and fragility can coexist in one woman, one person.”
There was Silvia Fendi, backstage before her Fendi show, talking about balancing the tropes of girlishness and executive power and revealing that “as a kid, I never had anything pink.”
“I was raised convinced I had to put those symbols aside to find my space in society. But there is something very subversive about a strong woman dressing like a femme fatale.”
And there was Virginie Viard name-checking the film “Les Biches” by Chabrol in her show notes — “for his Parisiennes who are as feminine as they are amazones” — as an inspiration for her Chanel collection. Femininity in all its multiple meanings also came up at Alberta Ferretti, Prada, Lanvin, Paco Rabanne, Miu Miu, Chloé and Dries Van Noten (to name a few).
Not to mention Dior, where Maria Grazia Chiuri, the artistic director of women’s wear, highlighted the work of a second-wave feminist, the Italian art critic Carla Lonzi, and then pulled quotes from her work for T-shirts (“I say I”) and the neon signs that were her set decoration (“Consent,” “Women’s Love Is Unpaid Labor”).
To a certain extent, this would be expected. After all, these were (mostly) women’s wear collections. Femininity is presumably a defining issue when it comes to this particular sector. It should be a given that clothes would wrestle with its meaning, just as designing women’s wear (and women’s lingerie, for that matter) should be, by definition, a feminist act — one targeted at making women’s lives better, addressing their evolving sense of identity, and expressing it to the world.
Yet it’s hard to remember any season in which the term itself was so overtly questioned or underscored.
Though femininity and feminism have often been seen as mutually exclusive in the history of the women’s movement, they are increasingly shifting toward each other, at least when it comes to their expression in clothes. The suggestion is that it is a feminist act to flaunt your own femininity. According to data from Tagwalk, the fashion search engine, “boudoir” was the trend keyword with the single biggest percentage growth over fall 2019 (up 140 percent).
As Amy Richards, a third-wave feminist leader and the author of “Manifesta,” said: “The messages were so mixed. You’re empowered and strong — don’t throw like a girl, don’t wear a dress. Why shouldn’t we be reclaiming that?”
Elaine Showalter, the feminist literary critic, added: “I don’t know if there will be a dominant line. How you dress is meaningful, and fashion has finally emerged as something really of interest to feminists.” Both the clothes you see and the clothes beneath those clothes, and the subconscious assumptions that accessorize them.
It can be uncomfortable. But then, as Ms. Richards said: “Feminism comes with discomfort. It requires challenging convention.”
Of posing for Agent Provocateur, Ms. Harrison said: “I was outside my comfort zone. I’ve never done hurdling in a bra like that, obviously.”
But, she continued, “it was also really liberating.”