A few years ago, when I was working as a Freelance Everything (writer, editor, translator), I spent some time as a copy writer at Victoria's Secret, two days a week for about a year. It felt like Megin's Secret, because I was coming from the non-profit world, specifically international organizations working for women's health and rights, whose philosophical roots were grounded in questioning traditional gender roles. And then there I was, in the glossy offices of a gigantic corporation. My task: make the clothes and shoes in the famous catalog (its many many editions over the course of a year) and the website alluring, irresistible, in the "voice" of the brand. I think the job was intriguing precisely because I had spent so much time thinking about feminism, femininity and all of its trappings. This was an opportunity to dive into the fragrant, silicone bosom of the beast.
I ended up at VS via a writer friend who generously gave me a chance to try something I hadn't done before; I surprised myself by having fun writing copy and actually being pretty good at it. Readers may be surprised to learn that the creative department was not populated by busty, bright-eyed vixens chattering at their desks and indulging in the occasional spirited pillow-fight. What I observed in the copy writers section was a group of very fashion-savvy, creative women, many of them writers with their own personal projects across a range of genres (essays, fiction, poetry, young adult novels). I used to wonder what we could produce if we were actually able to write and design something together of our own choosing. It was easy to joke about the job (the writers themselves joked about it), because it was so much about the frothy confection. But it's really not something just anyone can do, which is why it's paid handsomely. (This isn't mine, but here's a taste: Meet the hottest little halter for warm-weather fun. The shimmery Beach Dress is the perfect pack-and-play, with a plunging v-neck and a built-in shelf bra that lends light support at the beach and beyond. In an exceptionally soft cotton blend with sparkling sequin stripes, it’s your go-to frock when you want to outshine the sun.)
It was not about endlessly repeating cliches (I was asked to avoid the word "sexy"), it was about turning them inside out, picking up on slang, trends of the time, fabrics, fashion history... I wasn't writing about gender-based violence or the feminization of the AIDS epidemic (like at my other gigs), I was writing about shoes and flirty nighties. But that job is hands-down the one that most valued my creativity as a poet. I was encouraged to pull out my full bag of tricks -- rhyming, alliteration, personas, puns -- and basically to have fun with the English language for a few hours a day. I was quietly proud that my skills were valued to the point that in the year 2009, surrounded by computers filled with thousands of dollars worth of software, I was given the freedom to sit with pen and notepad and jot down ideas for hours (which I would later transfer to a template on the computer).
I didn't ultimately want a career as a copy writer, though I did consider it briefly when offered a full-time job, especially having felt so undervalued in the non-profit sector. But I couldn't move beyond the anthropological stage to seeing it as what I did full-time. (Probably if I was still there I would be nauseated by the sight of yet another sassy little halter dress, envisioning myself as a trained monkey and ruminating darkly about taking down the empire of corporate greed, so it's best I didn't move in that direction and can instead remember it as a learning experience…)
What I did not see coming from my stint at Victoria's Secret was how I started to sell myself on clothes, with my own words. We weren't given the glossy, sexy final photos of the models to work with. At best we had a cheap digital picture of the shoes or article in question. I knew what the mark-ups were, I knew what was going on. But in imagining the allure of a color, of a cut, a season, a lifestyle, a story -- I would get sucked into my own illusions. I found myself wanting to shop more, taking more chances with how I dressed (I'm not talking cleavage, more like color), thinking about what style means to a person. Advertising, in the end, proved something about poetry: that stuff poetry teachers say about the visceral component of language is not bunk. There is something fundamental about the charm of the words, about rhyme, about alliteration that we want to respond to, even (or especially?) when it is put to capitalistic purposes.