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[Guest Post] Lingerie, Women and Eroticism: A Brief Study of the 21st Century Agent Provocateur Woman (Part 1/2)

2013 March 26
  • 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.
Agent Provocateur invitation brochure page

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.

Shot of models at party for AP brochure.

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.


It has often been suggested that the female body in lingerie is more erotic than the nude female body. Roland Barthes touches on this in his essay on striptease, published in Mythologies:

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.
13 Responses leave one →
  1. March 26, 2013

    “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.”

    We’re de-something-ised, yes. If you want to call that sex, go for it, I guess. I tend to agree that “sex” has been so taken over by the “something” that disappears when fear disappears, that we may as well go ahead and call that something “sex”. Isn’t there something else that can exist, though, outside that “something”? My desire isn’t based on fear, and I don’t want desire for me to be based on it either. I’m a woman, I love myself, I love other women. I don’t want anything predatory in my love.

    “… 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?

    As a radical feminist, I agree. But I wouldn’t say “womanly”. There are ways of being a woman which aren’t about doing the “acts of [female] gender”. In a patriarchy, those acts and their internalisation are part of the female sex role. In a patriarchy, the female sex role is the suppressed, hyper-differentiated, defined-as-lack, instrumentalised and homogenised component of the gender dualism, i.e. what woman has to be to make man God.

    I’d ask, “What could possibly be more feminine (the aesthetic of the female sex role) than dressing oneself up in Agent Provocateur lingerie?” And then, “Where’s the nearest dustbin?”

    Of course, our selves (individual, collective) can be deeply interwoven with femininity. It’s understandable: I often say that “gender is the system of organising male power within which women, who are forced to live in it, have made a makeshift home”. Femininity is part of that makeshift home. But the task for me and other radical feminists is in untangling what’s positive for us from the system of organising male power, and in Spinning new realities for women.

    I don’t think uncritically embracing Agent Provocateur has anything to offer us toward that end!

    • April 3, 2013

      You’re right, feminine would have been a much better choice of word than womanly. I’m just dipping a toe into cultural studies at the moment (having never studied it before) and so am a newbie as far as this level of analysis goes. So, thanks very much for your comment, Lisa. It’s definitely got me thinking!

      • April 12, 2013

        Thanks for the engaged response, Lori. I worried after leaving my first comment that it had come across too snarky, even though I certainly didn’t mean it that way!

        For me it helps to be transsexual in doing this kind of analysis, because that explodes the fictions around femininity. For me and I suspect a lot of trans* women (as well as many others), there’s nothing glamorous about femininity. It’s exposed to us very clearly as brutal hard work which comes at significant cost.

        There are all kinds of bargains with patriarchy which some women (e.g. white, judged “thin”, not-visibly-disabled cissexual women) can make which just aren’t available to many of us. I don’t use the word “bargain” to suggest collusion or blame women; I mean it more as making a trade-off for reasons of survival/self-worth. But it’s important that life as a woman is patriarchally designed to only be survivable through making many of those trade-offs, yet not everyone has access to them.

        Dressing up in Agent Provocateur, I suggest, is one of them. A woman gets a certain kind of self-worth, a certain feeling of power, at a certain cost. That’s a bargain she makes. Not all of us can. So I think the cost can be clearer for those of us who can’t make it, because we can see it from the outside with less temptation or confusion.

        Femme, for some women, can be playful/fun. But in my case, femme is trying to kill me. Femininity is the standard against which I’m judged and found wanting. Every cissexual and transsexual woman who rejects femininity makes it easier for me and all women to survive by making femininity less compulsory for women as a class. “Ironic” embrace of it sadly doesn’t do much to liberate me from its standards!

        • April 15, 2013

          I like the phrase ‘bargains with patriarchy’ – it sums up what you’re saying perfectly. I can see how/why you have issues with femininity as the bar against which all women (trans or cis) are judged. I have been reading an interesting book on female masculinity that highlights all sorts of issues that women who don’t present as traditionally feminine have to face.

          It’s interesting that you mention ‘femme’ because I’d always thought (based on what femme friends have told me about their identity) that it was based on a rejection of traditional femininity and a reclaiming of supposedly feminine things. Therefore, femme is a performance that anyone, regardless of gender, can undertake. I guess it’s not quite that straightforward as you have to be choosing to bend/break these patriarchal rules… does that make femme an ‘ironic’ embracing of femininity? I’m not sure.

          • April 18, 2013

            Hey Lori,

            I mention femme because I think the argument against femme is a more sophisticated and inclusive form of the argument against femininity. Most of us can see the problem, in some way or other, with white femininity. But I think those problems are obscured when it’s argued that by introducing an active component, we can make it work for us. That’s the strategy I’m referring to when I say “femme”. I use the word “ironic” to mean a form of expression which includes multiple levels of meaning as well as an intentionality about that multiplicity.

            I don’t think it’s a worthless strategy; I understand why many women use it, and I think that if you only think in an individual framework – what’s the best thing that I can do if I’m the only one who does anything, and nobody coordinates their action? – it actually makes good sense. For some people. But I think it also has some limitations on who can do it, and who it most helps. I’m not one of the people who can do it, and I’m not one of the people who considers herself helped by it!

            If you’re interested in the reasoning behind my thoughts, I’ve written them out at more length on my tumblr, and on where they fit into a framework of sexual liberation in my series on feminist desire, particularly here and here.

            in sisterhood,

  2. Miranda permalink*
    March 26, 2013

    I would love to see some models on AP’s material who are less uniformly white. This is an issue in fashion generally but the Wilhelmina shoot, is playing with, even loosely, the Victorian ‘pale virgin / sexually active vamp woman’ idea, both of whom are often victims who embody, I think, a particular kind of protected feminine virtue which is at risk from ‘other’ forces, be they male, foreign, or something else, and which is almost always white – and in a campaign that’s only loosely referencing this stuff, the models (though not all of them are marble-pale per se) just don’t have to be. There’s no reason either ad campaign couldn’t aim to be more diverse on levels that aren’t just ‘personalities, autonomies and desires’, although this is not a problem specific to AP.

  3. April 23, 2013

    I can see why people on Bad Rep are interested in Agent Provocateur — because it projects powerful images about femininity.

    All the same, I find it hard to engage with Agent Provocateur on any level. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the world I inhabit. It is a brand of very expensive underwear. I wear (an buy) underwear, I expect we all do, and prefer to wear reasonable quality brands. I usually opt for Marks and Spencers or Sloggi. But Agent Provocateur knickers (ignoring the thongs) seem to run from £45 a pair to £125. I wouldn’t consider paying those kind of prices, nor (I feel confident) would anyone in my circle of acquaintance.

    Perhaps Agent Provocateur might seem to belong in the real world if I lived in Bankside or Hampstead. Alas, I actually live in Leytonstone. Is this a class issue?

    • Miranda permalink*
      April 23, 2013

      I can’t buy anything from them even with the money – I’m too top-heavy! :S

      • April 23, 2013

        Since I had no intention of buying, I hadn’t bothered to check their sizes. Now that I do so, I find that the largest knicker size seems to be 14-16. I checked a random bra, and found what seemed to me a bizarre size range. It was available 32, 34 or 36, each of those available with a B, C, D or DD cup. It’s surely hardly a reflection of the female population as a whole. (I just checked on Marks and Spencer site, and found a very different size range… very much to my relief.) To take just one of those Agent Provocateur sizes, I wonder how many women fit a 32DD bra without silicon enhancement.

        There may be feminist issues around the sizes, in so far as they represent what is considered a “sexy” size to be. It may be that (as a commercial company) Agent Provocateur produce the sizes for which there is a demand. On the other hand, the size range they offer is probably at least in part dictated by the image they wish to project.

        And… I just wonder what kind of a woman wants a 32DD bra and is prepared to pay £95 for it.

        • April 24, 2013

          I take a 32E in some brands and my assets are due to a love of pie and cake, so I don’t think that women need to have had surgery to fit into small back sizes and large cups. However, I think you might be right about them only stocking sizes which fit the image they are trying to project these days. They are a large enough brand that they could easily afford to offer a wider range than they do.

          • April 24, 2013

            An entirely unenhanced (and happily cake-enjoying) 30HH here! Just flagging up my agreement with this. :)

            Generally my experience is that the majority of retailers do not cater to larger cup sizes. Places which do are often (when it’s an in-house brand like M&S) not great at making adjustments to the design that actually makes the bra fit me properly. I am effectively Bravissimo’s captive market on this – I’d love to write/read something analysing *their* marketing, actually, because it’s very “love your curves” – so far, so predictable – but I’m never 100% sure about it all the same. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, though!

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