Chapter Three: Power Red - Part One

After the 1960s, European and American women’s fashion shifted away from the Post-war feminine ideal. The sexual liberation movement and fitness craze of the 1970s and 1980s increased pressure to internalize the ideal body. Heavily structured foundation garments fell out of fashion, as women’s bodies were associated with physical strength and sexual freedom more than ever before.

The powerful colour red seemed to perfectly suit these attitudes about women’s bodies, and by proxy, their undergarments. Yet, during the late twentieth century, the dominant perception was that women wore red underwear to please men. Women’s magazines of the 1980s and 1990s promoted wearing red lingerie to “raise his temperature,” or “revive” men from a long day at the office. In 1982, American magazine Cosmopolitan suggested women could “make an impact” on a man by wearing “gorgeous red underwear” and “accidentally” allowing him to catch a glimpse. Yet in the same year, Cosmopolitan warned men to avoid women in red lingerie, claiming:

“The rare woman who customarily wears red bras and slips and panties … will be passionate, but may also have a temper and may actually enjoy jealous scenes and prefer the sound of doors slamming and plates crashing to the music of Mozart.”

Satin & Lace Overbust Corset By Agent Provocateur, c. 1990s, United Kingdom. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Satin & Lace Overbust Corset By Agent Provocateur

Date: c. 1990s

Origin: United Kingdom

Fabric: Viscose and cotton

Brand: Agent Provocateur


This 1990s red satin corset is by British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur. It features black suspender straps and is trimmed with black lace and ribbons. This piece would have been worn in the boudoir, and not underneath everyday clothing or for daily wear.

Founded in 1994 by Joseph Corré and Serena Rees, Agent Provocateur’s luxury lingerie received significant press coverage. When the couple was interviewed for Videofashion in 1996, Rees said, “The things that sell best are the colours, because that’s the sort of thing … you can’t get anywhere else.” Corré commented, “When you buy something that’s very sexy and, you know, a little bit of a secret that you’ve got underneath your clothes, it actually makes you more powerful.”

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Agent Provocateur’s lingerie had a reputation for catering to the male gaze. Some customers felt empowered by this, while others found the brand’s explicit sexual nature and controversial advertisements to be demeaning to women.

As the contemporary idea of women’s empowerment has evolved, Agent Provocateur has adapted its brand image. In 2021, the brand’s creative director Sarah Shotton was quoted by Flaunt Magazine as saying the “quintessential [Agent Provocateur] DNA” is “fearless femininity and totally in control.”

Red lingerie from Victoria's Secret by Wonderlane on Flickr Date: 2008
Red lingerie from Victoria's Secret by Wonderlane on Flickr Date: 2008

Depicted in this 2008 photograph is a display of red and pink undergarments at a Victoria’s Secret store. The Victoria’s Secret brand was founded in 1977, and according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, it “almost single-handedly redefined America’s conception of lingerie beginning in the early 1980s.”

By the 1990s, Victoria’s Secret was the largest lingerie retailer in the United States. As such, the brand set a standard for American lingerie and frequently decorated the pages of women’s magazines. In 1992, Cosmopolitan advertised that a “smoldering red satin chemise, devilishly seductive, by Victoria’s Secret” was appropriate for catching “his attention.”

In 2021, Victoria’s Secret implemented many changes to its brand image, including exchanging their famed supermodel “Victoria’s Secret Angels” for a more inclusive “VS Collective.” The shift was based on long-standing criticism that the brand perpetuated a narrow vision of feminine beauty, as well as backlash against transphobic comments made by a top executive in 2018.