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

2013 March 27
  • Here’s Part 2 of Rarely Wears Lipstick founder and blogger Lori Smith‘s guest post two-parter (which is possibly mildly NSFW depending on how relaxed your workplace is!) Read Part 1 here.

Part 2: The Myth of the Agent Provocateur Woman

If it is understood that the dominant discourse still pertains to heterosexual and patriarchal ideologies, Agent Provocateur was certainly aiming to challenge this in 2008. The brochure for their Spring/Summer collection that year contains many examples of non-heteronormative behaviour.

A model in a swimming costume and stilettos stands in front of a seated, similarly attired woman, who touches her leg and looks up to her. Two women in satin lingerie and high heels are seen walking together – one has her hand on the other’s buttocks. A woman in animal print lingerie brandishes a spanking paddle and leans over an anonymous prostrate naked woman, whilst holding a rope that is attached to the submissive woman’s neck like a leash. An anonymous red-haired woman straddles a seated gasping woman whose arm is being stroked by a blonde in lingerie, brandishing a riding crop. Another woman, who is standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips, watches an athletic female pole dancer. A topless woman in a red wig climbs on top of a woman in lingerie who lies, restrained, on a table.

There are also many examples of dominant female behaviour. Two women in bright coloured wigs and lingerie tie up and blindfold a clothed man on his knees. A man in underwear stands, with hands tied behind his back, displaying marks on his chest that suggest he has been struck by the riding crop held by the woman to his left. A handcuffed man is disrobed by a woman, whilst another woman records the scene using a professional video camera. A man lying restrained on a table, has his trousers unzipped by a lingerie-clad woman who is holding a glass of brandy and is staring directly at the viewer.


In this image, the Agent Provocateur woman is powerful yet playful. She is passionate, determined to satisfy her own desires and, from the facial expressions depicted, is clearly enjoying herself. She is active, not passive, and has agency.

However, in the 2012 brochure, the Agent Provocateur woman appears to have little or no agency. She faces the camera as if directed to by the photographer and is entirely the subject of the gaze – continually watching herself. This appears to be a return to the woman John Berger describes in Ways of Seeing:

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

There is little or no resistance to dominant discourses in the images contained within this brochure. All of the women appear sexually available, but are inviting sex rather than pursuing it. A woman stands in lingerie and heels next to a similarly attired seated woman, both facing the viewer with their legs apart. A woman kneels on a velvet chair, glancing over her shoulder at the viewer, with her buttocks prominently displayed. A woman in lingerie reclines on a chaise longue. A seated woman with her legs apart, hand on hip, stares at the viewer. There is no interaction between these women, even when more than one appears in the same image. Their only purpose is to invite the viewer’s gaze.


Christian Jantzen and others conducted a series of interviews with white middle class women in Denmark. The results suggested that these women wear delicate lingerie in order to achieve a sensation rather than a look. They wear it for how it makes them feel – confident, sensual, happy and satisfied – not necessarily for how they will be perceived by their partner. Some of the interviewees even admitted that the men in their lives do not understand their desire for exquisite lingerie. For them, the purchase and wearing of beautiful expensive underwear is about much more than just sex. It is about identity, pleasure, knowing how to dress for the right occasion, and, occasionally, projecting a desired alternate self-image:

The importance of lingerie to most of our respondents is due to the fact that this kind of garment enables them to demonstrate that they can manage a modern femininity. By adhering to a certain scheme of classification, they show how they master their performance in different situations. This confirms their social self.

Their research suggests that presenting lingerie as something to be enjoyed by the viewer rather than the wearer would not appeal to women. Even if this is not always true of women outside of their small study sample, I would argue that the current representation of the Agent Provocateur woman would therefore not appeal to the customer the brand originally sought to attract.

To conclude, the Agent Provocateur woman’s identity is, like the identity of every woman, shaped by discourse and the ideologies she is exposed to. If the woman is surrounded by, and part of, discourse which challenges what is currently dominant, she will herself become part of a reverse discourse. Agent Provocateur was originally conceived by Corré and Rees as a celebration of femininity, and the initial representation of the Agent Provocateur woman emphasised the performativity of her gender and her rejection of the patriarchal ideologies so often present in lingerie advertising.

Although the association between Agent Provocateur lingerie and this playfully erotic yet not passive lifestyle is purely arbitrary, it was exceedingly easy for customers to see the brand’s values and decide whether or not they wished to adopt them. Through the act of putting on this particular brand of quality exotic lingerie, a customer would create her sense of self, create her gender and transform her life into that of the Agent Provocateur woman. All of this was successfully conveyed in the promotional images and advertising for the brand up until at least 2008.

In looking at the differences between the images used to promote the Spring/Summer 2008 collection and those of the Autumn/Winter 2012 collection, it could be argued that the sale of the brand to a multinational company had an effect on how the Agent Provocateur woman was represented. The brand’s ideal woman appears to now offer far less resistance to current discourses on gender, sexuality and femininity than she did when Corré and Rees first sought to use lingerie as a way to disrupt and question the fashion status quo.

In expanding the market for the brand, the new owners appear to be attempting to create erotic lingerie that does not offend, thus diluting the original ethos of Agent Provocateur. Perhaps it is the current discourse which has changed, or maybe the Agent Provocateur woman simply works with the current discourse rather than against it? However, it could also be claimed that what is considered to be erotic is entirely subjective.

  • 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.
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Gribz permalink
    October 2, 2014

    hmm you wont belive what site I found, so bad, so so bad

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