I’m deeply ambivalent about shapewear. For years I thought it was the worst thing that had happened to the 21st century woman. I felt like there was a campaign to convince us that we all “needed” to be wearing Spanx, all the time, no matter what. I’d hear women in fitting rooms moaning about various body parts and how they were going to have to “fix” them. There is a shapewear garment of every possible permutation: control-top tights, bike shorts, unitards, smoothers, shapers, cinchers, even “shapewear bras”, at which I scoff, because well-fitted bras will be much more flattering than bras with weird back panels of shaper mesh. There are Spanx-like garments for your ARMS. The more shapewear products that are available, the more I stop in my tracks and think “Oh god, am I supposed to worry about my butt/ thighs/ back/ belly/ boobs/ arms/ elbows/ ankles now?” Ugh.
Speaking of Spanx, I went into Saks Fifth Avenue in Richmond when I was home for a wedding desperately looking for stockings with a back-seam. I was SURE Saks, of all places, would have some swanky hosiery. They had one display with Wolford and Hue control-top tights, and the rest of the hosiery section was Spanx. Spanx-brand tights, leggings, stockings, and shapewear, all designed to “solve problems.” The only problem I had was a bra-sized shaping slip with suspenders that needed some stockings, and hoity-toity Saks failed me. (I went to Victoria’s Secret. Turns out she’s good for something.)
Oh. See what happened? I was mentally railing against Spanx, but I wanted to find real stockings because I was already planning on wearing shapewear. But I wasn’t hating on my body! No! Um, it was “vintage-inspired”. And I was wearing a softly draping silk blouse. And I kind of adore the retro look of classic shapewear. And I wanted a smooth line under my clothes, and . . . um.
I want to hate on Spanx for teaching us to hate our bodies, but I can’t deny that one of the functions of underwear is and always has been to create a foundation for our clothes. You will never get the right look in a historical costume or even in a vintage dress from the 1950s or 60s without also wearing historically accurate underwear. You better believe the ladies in the cast of Mad Men are wearing girdles and waist cinchers and period-appropriate bras. Shapewear, girdles, corsets, and even bras have gotten a bad rap throughout the years for “deforming” women’s bodies! and being painful! and terrible! and we should burn them! There’s historically been tension between an artificially constructed need for a certain kind of undergarment and women’s actual desires to wear said undergarment. The beginning of the 20th century produced some batshit crazy “medical facts” about how necessary corsets were, all because manufacturers were panicking as the fashionable world began rejecting corsets.
The shaping of the female form has a vast historical legacy, up to and including the modern-day bra, but despite the cultural insistence, the fact of the matter is that underwear isn’t a necessity. Even bras! I think if you do wear them they should fit you well, because they’ll be more comfortable and more flattering, but the social imperative to banish any bouncing or jiggling female flesh is an artificial construct. Treacle discussed it this past week in a great article at the Lingerie Addict (where she has also hosted interesting shapewear discussions), and Rampaige over at Busty Girls Comics wrote some wonderful responses to questions about corsets that address some of the common misconceptions about them. Every stage actress ever has probably worn a corset at some point. The great historical opera singers wore them. The ideas that corsets are horrible and deforming and prevent proper breathing and are all about the obsession with being thin are overly reductive and largely false, just as some “medical data” that insists wearing bras is better for your health is false.
So, back to my iffy feelings about shapewear: if I applied Caitlin Moran’s litmus test of “Is this something men have to worry about?” to shapewear, I’d be forced to say “Oh, maybe this is sexist?” Parts of it are! The idea that female flesh must be contained at all costs is sexist and sizeist. On the other hand, I really, really, really don’t want to wear men’s clothes (except jeans! Jeans can stay forever). I have always loved wearing skirts and dresses and clothes that fit my feminine style. I like wearing bras, because bras are magical and awesome and so much more comfortable for me personally than bouncing and drooping all over creation. Men by and large don’t worry about whether or not they need to wear Spanx under their business suits, jeans, or formal wear; ergo, women technically shouldn’t have to worry either. I rarely think about shapewear because my day-to-day wardrobe doesn’t require it. I prefer natural fibers and classic silhouettes, and I don’t like wearing a lot of jersey or drapey fabrics. However, much as I reserve the right to choose bras that give me a shape I PERSONALLY like over bras that give me a different shape, I also reserve the right to use whatever means necessary to shape the foundation of my outfit to my liking. You can choose not to wear shapewear. You can also choose TO wear it, and smug, self-righteous Sweets has no business judging you for it.
In terms of sheer success/comfort, I’d strongly recommend seeking out an option other than Spanx. Here’s why:
Those Spanx shorts or camisoles or shaping half-slips? Those things are going to stay in place for a hot two seconds before they start to roll up on themselves. The discomfort of contemporary shapewear isn’t just that it’s compressing your body tissue, it’s also that the damned things just won’t stay put, and you’re constantly adjusting a digging waistband or tugging down a hem that’s rolling up on itself. If you’re in a wedding or going to a dance or engaging in any sort of activity where you’ll be standing, moving, and dancing a lot, Spanx and their ilk will be total buzzkills.
More classic shapewear and foundation garments, on the other hand, are much less likely to require frequent adjustments.
Excerpt from a Sweets/Julia Lambert daily gchat-at-work session:
Julia Lambert: define girdle and girdle panty, please
They’re long enough and anchored enough (by your stockings) that they’ll stay put better than Spanx
Sweets: make sense?
Julia Lambert: I think so? Do they always attach to stockings?
Sweets: more often than not, since they’re such retro styles, but you can definitely find some that don’t. A brand called Rago is sort of the queen bee of contemporary American girdle manufacturing. Fun fact: the word “girdle” was introduced in the early 20th century to be a more youthful, modern, contemporary alternative to the corset. [Editor's Note: I'm reading a legitimately fascinating book called An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality by Jill Fields, and I'm learning ALL THE THINGS.]
Girdle is now the single frumpiest word I can think of.
Julia Lambert: Ahhh, girdle is the worst word!
“Hey baby, I can’t wait to take you home and show you this girdle I have on”
Ok, yes, Miss Lambert is correct, “girdle” is seriously the most terrible, least sexy word ever. Girdles themselves? They can be pretty damned sexy, and surprisingly comfortable. Retro-inspired cuts and styles are popping up everywhere, so there are lots of options if you’re looking for something that will nip the waist in a bit or give your outfit a smoother foundation.
Fräulein Annie is a relatively new brand with some lovely options for small-to-average and full busts alike. The style is sophisticated, womanly, and elegant. From the website:
Designed for glamour whilst offering support where needed, Fräulein Annie is also functional and practical – The brand offers a variety of bras and tops for women from A to G cup that are well fitted and flattering with comfortable support. The sheer variety of matching knickers, basques, slips and suspender belts that really do tuck in, lift and smooth out lumps and bumps to create the ultimate hourglass figure, is unique. Modern fabrics and cutting techniques ensure that comfort, practicality and sexiness can go hand in hand!
Check out these lovely new styles (not widely available yet, as these are for Autumn/Winter) below:
Both of the links I shared with Julia Lambert above go to Kiss Me Deadly, the store where I want to buy everything but don’t, because I also want to feed Gus and Ruby. While the bras are best suited to small-to-average busts, the girdles, suspenders, and waist-cinchers are to die for. Here are some of my favorites:
I’ve mentioned them before for both small and average-to-full busts, but each line currently offers bustiers and camisoles that will give a curvy, streamlined effect. I’ve seen some intriguing preview pictures from upcoming seasons’ styles, so there should be even more color and style options to come in the future. I got a chance to try the full-bust camisole, and while I was impressed with the fit of the bra, the torso was a little long on me (I’m short-waisted), and I will say that it’s not as “shaping” as a basque or bustier would be. As a layering piece, it will work great!
Rago is admittedly old-school. Most pieces are available only in black and white, with a few beige, pink, and red options sprinkled in (Girdle Bound offers custom dyeing). These are definitely your (grand)mother’s girdles. However, if you’re a committed vintage shopper or you’re seeking a distinctly retro shape, you will absolutely find what you need here. There are some terrifying full-body shaper things that go from your under-bust to your calves and make me really concerned about trips to the ladies’ room, but there are some flirtier, sexier options that would be kind of fun for dress-up. Rago is also 100% Made in the U.S.A., which is pretty awesome. Products are available in different levels of shaping and control to suit your preferences.
I’ve mentioned Hips and Curves before, but I want to bring them up again because I think they do a great job of listening to a customer base that sometimes gets left behind: the full-figured woman who wants sexy, flattering lingerie, both for everyday and for the bedroom. If you’re full-figured and full-busted, you may not find as many bras that will give you the support you need, but the slips, corsets, and bustiers are all beautiful and will feel so much prettier on than beige, constricting Spanx will.
Finally, neglect not the slip! I know so many women who don’t own or wear slips, but they’re seriously the best. They keep your skirts from sticking to your tights, they help draping fabrics flow more smoothly and hang more neatly on bodies that are not mannequins, and they can function as removable/washable linings for garments that are a bit too sheer for your liking. I have a vintage red lace full slip that I wear under my Jenny dress from Trashy Diva, which is a heavy-weight jersey fabric. Sure, I could wear Spanx to create a smooth silhouette, but the slip is so flirty and comfortable, plus it helps keep the dress clean for longer. Hip brands like Cosabella and Hanky Panky offer some slip options, but Farr West makes the absolute classics: full ranges of slips, half-slips, pettipants or tap pants, camisoles, and light shapewear in silk, cotton, and microfiber.
So, those are some rambles and suggestions on shapewear and other foundation garments. It’s a hot-button topic, but I think I’ve decided that for me it comes down to a woman’s being allowed to do what she wants. If your thighs or hips or bellies are fuller, you don’t have to wear shapewear unless you CHOOSE to. If you have a straight, slim figure, you don’t have to wear something that “creates curves” unless you CHOOSE to. I like to think of shapewear as something that gives us the options to play with our shapes when we want to but that can be freely ignored when we can’t be bothered. There will never be a situation in your life in which you will NEED to wear shapewear, despite what anyone else may say. If you’d LIKE to wear shapewear, you deserve shapewear that suits your style and makes you feel beautiful, instead of making you feel like you’re a problem that needs to be fixed or concealed. Women, you don’t have “problem areas”. You have a body, and what that body looks like is no one’s business but yours.