Victoria revealed 

I’ll tell you Victoria’s secret. Its success. As to where the success comes from, that’s a harder question.

It’s not the retail stores that hold the answer, although there are almost 800 of them in the United States. Those quasi-ironic, borderline-wholesome boutiques have made thong underwear and lacy black bras seem a normal part of every meso-American mall, along with Sears and frozen yogurt.

It’s not the mail-order products either, the varied lines of women’s merchandise from lingerie to business suits, beach wear to blue jeans, pajamas to tennis shoes.

These are all well and good, and – economically speaking – very successful, just like Victoria’s Web site. But they’d all be nowhere without the famous catalog. That’s where the open secret of Victoria’s success originates.

Take, for example, the most recent issue. The format is immediately recognizable as "magalog" – a catalog that looks like a magazine disguised as a catalog. On the cover, it reads "Fall ’99, Volume 1, No. 1. $3 U.S. £2 UK."

Does anybody actually pay $3 for one? Of course not; Victoria will send it for free. But the price, along with the volume number, is all part of the magalog gimmick. It’s pure fakery, like Pamela Lee’s breasts (with or without inner tubes) or Bill Clinton’s honesty. Nobody’s supposed to believe these things are real, and that’s what makes them entertaining.

But they only stay entertaining so long as everyone involved keeps on pretending they’re for real – and buys into the idea of "Victoria" herself, who resides per the heading of her catalog in "London" (which also explains the otherwise mysterious £2 in the pricing).

Americans love to deal with our appetites by way of proxy. It’s the food-court approach to global understanding and cultural self-knowledge. So, naturally, underwear would be "Victorian," from London. That way, any possibly troubling implications, originating within our own national culture – implications that bare-naked standards of decency haven’t helped our nagging sexual repression – can be conveniently assigned to somebody else.

In this case, it’s somebody Americans already know to be morally suspect, when it comes to the body, and certainly a little bit, well, funny, if you know what I mean. (Think Benny Hill and Prince Charles, with maybe some Jack the Ripper and "Are You Being Served?" thrown in.) So, just like it’s the Irish who get us drunk on St. Paddy’s Day, and the French who make us fat from all that "cuisine," it’s the Brits who’ve forced us into guilty contemplation of all this deliciously titillating flesh.

Victoria’s cover suggests as much, and is invitingly conflicted. The photograph is coded for quality, or what passes for quality in the slick-trade, newsstand school of semiotics. The image is black and white, historic even; the setting is out-of-doors, a great English country estate perhaps. The details are "aesthetic," which is to say fuzzy –venerable trees, a formal garden, a gracious terrace, elaborate metalwork railing.

It’s a Mrs. Dalloway-meets-Martha Stewart kind of set. Diana Rigg might come lisping her way up the garden steps any minute now to enlighten us about – about what?

Breasts, of course. Because that’s the hide-in-

plain-sight point of all this tasteful mise-en-scène. No surprise here, Victoria is selling bazooms. And we’re being invited, ever so tastefully, to leer. It’s a true-Brit incognito: Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hide-and-seek.

Just check out the come-hither look on the cover model’s face. Her lips slightly parted, the bedroom eyes, the arching back (all the better to display the goods), the lithe body – trim without being androgynously muscular, voluptuous as if harking back to a softer time, but not even remotely "fat." And right there, smack in the middle of this veddy-BBC composition are those deliciously uplifted, beautifully foregrounded All-American breasts.

Not that Americans are fixated – men and women both – on breasts and breast size. (It’s a Brit thing, don’t forget. Not our idea, or fault.) But lest you get the wrong idea, this catalog – in fact – is not about nakedness, real or implied, which explains the otherwise unaccountable absence of cliché, photographic teasers, those little fore-takes on exposures yet to come: The nipple hard-on shot (usually underneath a sweater); or the peek-a-boo areola shadow, glimpsed through a lacy bra; or more daringly, the pseudo-pube shot of hair, suggestively implied at the darkling apex of a pair of sheer panties.

Such teasers are not present in the catalog’s photos because the flow is all the other way here, away from the triple-X, depilatory end-point of Larry Flynt-style erotica.

The secret is that these women are not getting naked at all.

They’re getting dressed. They’re hiking up their garter belts, snapping on their panties. They’re filling those cups (A through D) with their multiethnic flesh. The catalog begins with underwear, typically, and progresses through gowns and robes to dresses and finally casual clothes. These women are putting it all back on, after the act, whatever that act – tantalizingly – might be.

What makes them special is that we – we who read along with the magalog, and follow its ensemble cast through to the end – will know something about each of the quasi-famous models that really is unique, intimate, secret, which is what comes between the body that we can pretty much guess at, and the outer clothes that are there for the whole world to see.

That’s the secret Victoria is selling, which is a special access to the body, whether your own body or – especially – the body of the beloved. It’s the secret of touching, holding, caressing the body, which is the most beguiling secret of all. Compared to that, the hard-core image is at best a pathetically inadequate souvenir.

Touching the body, at its sexually most delicious places, is what underwear does, just as it is what each of us wants to do, and have done to us. By making itself explicit, overt and luxurious, underwear makes unavoidable this most intimate and arousing of secrets – that we’re all of us, right now, being touched there, inside our clothes.

The question is who else knows, who we’ve allowed into this special, vicarious intimacy. And that – turning this open secret to intimate trade – is the very secret of Victoria’s success.

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