[Guest Post] Lingerie, Women and Eroticism: A Brief Study of the 21st Century Agent Provocateur Woman (Part 1/2)
- Having had an awesome time at the Rarely Wears Lipstick Awards, in which we were nominated for Best Feminist Blog (and congrats to Stavvers, the fabulous winner!) we are very happy to have RWL founder and blogger Lori Smith back to BadRep Towers for a two-parter (which is possibly NSFW depending on how relaxed your workplace is! Maybe skip the vid)…
Part 1: Agent Provocateur, Discourse and Performativity
In 1971, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren set up ‘Let it Rock’, their first King’s Road boutique. Their son Joseph Corré followed in his parents’ footsteps and opened a shop in London with his wife Serena Rees in 1994. Named Agent Provocateur, the unusual boutique bridged a gap between the erotic lingerie sold in Soho’s sex shops and the respectable prettiness of the established quality brands sold in department stores.
Corré and Rees saw the brand as a vehicle for their creativity and their ideas about women and femininity. In 1995, they began a search for a woman who ‘would represent the concepts behind the clothes, model new designs, and be a spokesperson at upcoming events’. They saw the face of their brand as ‘charming, glamorous, curvy, independent and intelligent’ (see Agent Provocateur: A Celebration of Femininity).
The finalists of their competition were used as part of a publicity stunt at London Fashion Week, staging a demonstration against bland passionless fashion that drew the attention of the assembled press. After a decadent Miss Agent Provocateur Party had been held, where the winner was announced, Corré and Rees realised that a single woman couldn’t represent their brand’s values as the concept was too diverse. Every woman has the potential to become an agent provocateur.
Corré and Rees have since divorced, and in 2007, Agent Provocateur was purchased by 3i Group. This gradually led to a significant change in how the Agent Provocateur woman was represented in the brand’s advertising campaigns. The brochure to showcase the Spring/Summer 2008 collection retained a lot of the ethos of Corré and Rees’ original vision. It has a cover designed to look like an invitation to an exclusive party, featuring the text ‘you are cordially invited to attend a very private affair […] Bring a blindfold and an open mind!’. Each image inside forms part of a digitally-created montage, with the pages containing small parts of the panoramic whole, unfolding to reveal one uninterrupted tableau.
The models are depicted as attendees of the party and are engaging in activities of a sexual nature. Nothing pornographic is depicted, merely hints of erotic and light BDSM play. Most of the party guests are women, clothed in Agent Provocateur lingerie and swimwear, but there are also a number of men in the image. The women take both dominant and submissive roles, whilst the men are purely submissive.
Product information about the lingerie sets featured, such as name and price, is listed on the back of the image. With this choice of layout, it could be argued that the images are designed to be enjoyed first, and to be informative second.
By contrast, the Autumn/Winter 2012 collection is presented in a brochure containing separate images for each named set of lingerie, with the product details directly underneath each photograph. The theme of the collection is ‘Wilhelmina: Show Your True Self’ and the associated campaign focuses on a woman in Victorian London whose inner sensuality is revealed by a backstreet photographer’s magical camera.
Each image contains between one and three female models, with little or no interaction between them. The women are not engaged in any activity other than modelling the clothing for the viewer, and are, as such, passive subjects of the gaze. Hair and make up is consistent throughout and maintains the look of a catwalk show, where the models are presented as a homogenous entity – a representation of how the brand’s woman should physically embody that season’s look.
Each model’s ‘true self’ appears to be no different from the others. This presents us with a single type of Agent Provocateur woman, as opposed to the idea that she is present in all women, as Corré envisioned seventeen years previously.
Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration.
At the very heart of the original concept of the Agent Provocateur brand, when it was founded by Corré and Rees, was the idea of lingerie as a ritual sign which evoked the idea of sex. Although they sought to design underwear which referenced socially acceptable quality French lingerie, eroticism was very much a part of Agent Provocateur’s core values. They made the brand accessible to women who would not normally venture into sex shops to purchase erotic lingerie.
It could be argued that Corré and Rees were also responding to dominant discourse on sexuality and gender when they set up Agent Provocateur in the 1990s. In The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Michel Foucault analyses changes in discourse on sexuality and argues that discourse is a productive force; for example, leading to definitions of “normal” and “other”. He also looks at the concept of docile bodies versus active agency, discussing reverse discourse as an empowering method of countering the dominant discourse.
There is little doubt that Agent Provocateur – whose name refers to an undercover agent employed to provoke suspects to commit illegal punishable acts – originally sought to engage in a reverse discourse on female sexuality. In The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Foucault delves further and discusses what he calls ‘techniques of the self’, emphasising the role of practices and instruments in generating a sense of self.
Clothing is very much a ‘technique of the self’. People use their clothes to transform, change and project a chosen image on a daily basis. Although society still often restricts the individual’s choice of outerwear, unseen underwear offers the wearer a sense of agency. Lingerie is considered by many to be an instrument in generating a sense of self, and it is worth considering here that the self is also shaped by gender.
It is widely understood that gender is a cultural construction that is shaped by discursive forces. One of the main issues considered by Judith Butler is the performativity of gender. Gender is not a performance – as that suggests the performer returns to a more genuine self once they leave the stage – but it is performative, as we are all constantly putting on an act. Lingerie is but one aspect of the act of femininity.
Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.
– Judith Butler
Therefore, what could possibly be more “womanly” than dressing oneself up in Agent Provocateur lingerie? In Gender Trouble, Butler explores the spaces of resistance to dominant discourses. Like Foucault, and with reference to his work, she asks how we can go beyond the boundaries imposed on us by discourse, and explores the concept of agency. Gender and identity are more of a “doing” than a “becoming”, and are constantly shaped by discourse. Like any woman, the Agent Provocateur woman’s identity is fluid. She is constantly made and remade by the forces around her.
- Lori Smith is a rant-lite feminist who enjoys turning her thoughts into word form and then throwing them at the internet to see what sticks. She does this on a regular basis over at Rarely Wears Lipstick, and has previously contributed to The F-Word under her Sunday name.
- Pop back tomorrow for Part 2 of Lori’s reflections.