Symbol-Making with Style: A Critical Account of the Fantasy Bra
This project will be a critical account exploring the discourses of haute couture fashion, social control, and utilitarianism, as related to the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra. In the activity of engaging this history, I will critique the dominant rhetorical narrative that establishes the Fantasy Bra as the pinnacle of Western breast standardization. This project aims to bring awareness to the identity and performance of the Fantasy Bra which privileges invented categories of women through the valorization of haute couture interpretations of the bust over perceived vulgar representations of the natural bust.
Background and Significance
The Fantasy Bra is a novelty bra made from jewels, and valued anywhere from $1 million to $15 million (Okwodu). A different bra is crafted each year, and has been performed the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show since 1996 (Storey). The Fantasy Bra situates itself within haute couture fashion, demonstrating that high fashion can be aesthetically meaningful. Fantasy Bras step away from the fashion accessibility which prêt-à-porter/ready-to-wear brands offer, and present as a decedent item (Okwodu). As a result, the Fantasy Bra positions itself to make an impact on the fashion industry, similar to the way in which haute couture pieces find their way down to the ready-to-wear market.
Brassiere emerged as a fashion trend in the early 20th Century. During the First World War, the U. S. War Industries Board urged women to stop wearing corsets to conserve metals for war production (Farrell-Beck & Gau). As a result, corsets and enhanced busts went out of fashion, and the modern brassiere was introduced with the intent of flattening the bust to achieve a boyish figure (Farrell-Beck & Gau). Similar to modern bandeaus, this fashion trend was only accessible to the upper class. During the Second World War, the brassiere market experienced rapid growth — military women were given uniform underwear (Farrell-Beck & Gau). Female factory workers were encouraged to buy bras as a form of protection while operating heavy machinery (Singer). After the War ended, the bra returned to its status as a fashion accessory — eventually, coming to be perceived as a necessity (Singer).
The history of the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra presents three primary discourses on brassiere:
- Haute couture fashion — a bra does not always have to be a necessity, it can be a luxury. A bra can also be a fashion statement or a piece of art. The discourse suggests at its highest aspirational form, the bra is custom tailored, customizable, and aesthetically pleasing.
- Social control — the Fantasy Bra is something one aspires to or accomplishes (this narrative is closely mirrored by the narrative surrounding training bras). Wearing a bra shapes a sense of self and can define an individual (VS Angels never lose their Angel identity). Being chosen to wear the Fantasy Bra and voluntarily accepting this opportunity integrates the bra-wearer into a place of authorial control.
- Utilitarianism — while offered for sale, the intent of the Fantasy Bra is to be seen, felt, experienced, and encourage the sale of Victoria’s Secret products. As the pinnacle of Western breast standardization, the Fantasy Bra serves as a reminder that a bra is always necessary.
In the execution of these three discourses, the Fantasy Bra participates in a categorization of women, essentially, bureaucratizing social imagination to the point where one cannot imagine a real or good woman without the control and/or modification of her breasts.
Plan for Research
I plan to critique the account of the Fantasy Bra starting with an identification of various discourses, using Foucauldian methodology. I will utilize Foucauldian critique to identify statements in the discourse domain from various resources, such as fashion websites or blogs, social advocacy website or blogs, books, newspapers, and video clips. I hope to use a diverse set of resources to gather a full picture of statements within this domain, and understand the construction and motivations behind the first Fantasy Bra to its modern descendent. I also plan to engage with Burke’s comic corrective and Definition of Human. I believe that viewing the Fantasy Bra as a symbol used to separate the human from the negative will open up opportunities to arrive at a comic corrective where I can view additional discourses that I may have not encountered. I also plan to explore White’s Tropics of Discourse to discover the diataxical movement from data into the Fantasy Bra narrative. White’s methodology will also demonstrate the current emplotment of the Fantasy Bra narrative which ensures its existence.
During this research, it is important that I problematize my own views and position as a cisgendered man who has no need for brassiere — I must continue to ask how this reality shapes the way in which I conduct research. I also must address my economic privilege which allows me to look at the Fantasy Bra as a piece of art and not a waste of resources, and also allows me to view brassiere as optional and open for liberation, while in fact, low-income individuals are not only expected to wear a bra but also purchase one (Morris).
- Lange, Alexandra. “MOMA makes a list of iconic fashion ‘items.’” The New Yorker, 29 September 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/moma-makes-a-list-of-iconic-fashion-items?mbid=social_facebook. Accessed 28 October 2017.
- Brenhouse, Hillary. “The joy of not wearing a bra.” The New Yorker, 26 October 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/the-joy-of-not-wearing-a-bra?mbid=social_twitter. Accessed 28 October 2017.
- Foucault, Michel. The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. Translated by Rupert Swyer, Vintage Books, 2010.
- Rocamora, Agnes, and Anneke Smelik, editors. Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists. I. B. Tauris, 2015.
- Farrell-Beck, Jane, and Colleen Gau. Uplift: the bra in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
- White, Hayden. Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997.
- Holmes, Sally. “$137 Million in Bras: The Complete Evolution of the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra.” Elle, 1 November 2017. http://www.elle.com/fashion/news/g29153/victorias-secret-fantasy-bra/. Accessed 20 November 2017,
- Okwodu, Janelle. “Your First Look at Victoria’s Secret’s Sapphire-Studded Fantasy Bra.” Vogue, 1 November 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/victorias-secret-fantasy-bra-2017-lais-ribeiro. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- American Vogue. “The Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra Gets a Dose of Reality.” Online video clip. YouTube, 1 November 2017. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRL-2noYCfo. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Brooks, Andrew. “Clothing poverty: the hidden world of fast fashion and second-hand clothes.” Zed Books, 2015.
- Victoria’s Secret. “The Fantasy Bra: Lais Gets The Big News!” Online video clip. Youtube, 1 November 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcBCOPa3ttQ. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- American Vogue. “Victoria’s Secret Angel Jasmine Tookes Reveals the Fantasy Bra.” YouTube, 26 October 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MldjGJvKOBo. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Barr, Naomi. “The Tragic Story Behind Victoria’s Secret.” Slate, 30 October 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/when_big_businesses_were_small/2013/10/victoria_s_secret_founding_roy_raymond_had_a_great_idea_but_les_wexner_was.html. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Storey, Kate. “The Untold History of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” Elle, 23 October 2017. http://www.elle.com/culture/a40862/victorias-secret-fashion-show-timeline/. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. University of California Press, 1984.
- Morris, Avigayil. “Accessibility: Poor People Need Bras Too and We Don’t Care.” Lingerie Detective, 26 March 2016. http://www.lingeriedetective.com/accessibility-poor-people-need-bras-too-and-we-dont-care/. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Okwodu, Janelle. “What Goes Into Creating the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra.” Vogue, 25 March 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/victorias-secret-2016-fantasy-bra-jasmine-tookes. Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Singer, Olivia. “The Brassiere: An Uplifting History.” Another Mag, 24 November 2015. http://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8054/the-brassiere-an-uplifting-history. Accessed 21 November 2017.
I have no suggestions, just affirmations. Let’s continue our conversation if you’d like to actually do this research project in the future. It would be an excellent Indy Study, and perhaps you could apply again for summer research support with this project? Your proposal would be ready to submit!
I am breathless reading this, the identification of the three categories of discourses is so illuminating and excellent, your digital archive is a masterpiece, your articulation of method is clear and concise (maybe a bit too concise with White, for some mention of the tropes of your study–metaphoric and ironic figurations of discourse, seems important to add, but let’s see what we discuss tomorrow after your panel).
Thank you for the excellence you bring to our class and to your research, you are so stellar!