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Out of shape: So just how woke can big pants really be?

Five years ago sales of shapewear were falling. Now, thanks to a clever alignment with the body-positivity movement, the industry is experiencing a resurgence. But how woke can big pants really be, asks Meadhbh McGrath

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Underwear 'disruptor' Heist's take on shapewear

Underwear 'disruptor' Heist's take on shapewear

Making shapes: Kim Kardashian poses with models for her Skims campaign

Making shapes: Kim Kardashian poses with models for her Skims campaign

A model in one of Vivienne Westwood's signature corsetted designs in 1995

A model in one of Vivienne Westwood's signature corsetted designs in 1995

Conde Nast via Getty Images

Too tight: Elle Fanning fainted at the Cannes Film Festival due to her corsetted Prada dress

Too tight: Elle Fanning fainted at the Cannes Film Festival due to her corsetted Prada dress

WireImage

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Underwear 'disruptor' Heist's take on shapewear

It was the year body positivity went mainstream. In 2019 Rihanna's game-changing lingerie brand Savage x Fenty slayed the Victoria's Secret dragon, pop star Lizzo ruled the charts with her self-love anthems, and designers including Tommy Hilfiger, Simone Rocha and Kate Spade New York embraced size inclusivity on the catwalks.

Yet it was also the year Elle Fanning fainted at the Cannes film festival due to an overly tight corset, Kim Kardashian reportedly made $2m in sales within minutes of launching her "solutionwear" line Skims, and Spanx leggings became a street-style sensation. Dublin store Arnotts reported a 24pc increase in shapewear sales for 2019, and according to fashion search platform Lyst, online searches for bodysuits grew 83pc, while searches for bike shorts were up 137pc.

Shapewear - foundation garments such as control pants, slips, bodysuits, waist trainers and thigh shorts designed to alter the wearer's silhouette - occupies an uncomfortable position in our modern world. Its critics argue that the idea of compressing the female form into a particular shape defined by the male gaze is antithetical to body positivity, while its defenders say that shapewear allows its wearers to feel more confident in how they look.

Five years ago, The New York Times reported that the shapewear industry was outmoded, with sales down 3pc. So what's driving the recent resurgence?

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Making shapes: Kim Kardashian poses with models for her Skims campaign

Making shapes: Kim Kardashian poses with models for her Skims campaign

It may be that brands are increasingly aware of the body-positive movement, and have taken steps to reshape, if you will, their marketing to reflect this new consciousness.

Browsing their websites and promotional materials, I notice that rather than focusing on slimming, shrinking and controlling, the emphasis is firmly on ease, comfort and support. Brands want to support me, to hold me up, to empower me to live my best life. Yes, their shapewear can also erase 3.5cm off my waist, but what they're really interested in is "enhancing" and "celebrating" my features.

Gone are the perfectly smooth, hourglass silhouettes of traditional lingerie models, replaced by the stretch marks, tummy rolls and dimpled thighs of "real women", just like me! The diverse casting and largely unretouched photography are very on-message, but brands are still struggling to reconcile the fact that what they're ultimately selling is a product to change your shape - a "solution" for the problem that is your body in its natural form.

Today's shapewear can be traced back to the corset, which was worn by Western women from the 16th to the early 20th century. Throughout history, the corset has undergone many evolutions: the torso-flattening Elizabethan styles, the rib-crunching whalebone versions worn by the Victorians, Christian Dior's wasp-waist corsets for the post-war New Look, and Vivienne Westwood's underwear-as-outerwear in the 1970s, when strapping oneself in became, somehow, liberating.

Sara Blakely's Spanx arrived on the scene in 2000, and the "scary stomach-holding-in pants" played a starring role in the film adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary the following year. They rapidly became a mainstay in occasion wear, and celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Chrissy Teigen and Kristen Bell brayed about wearing them on the red carpet in a bid for relatability, a trend which reached an alarming peak in 2012 when Adele revealed she had worn "three or four pairs of Spanx" to the Grammys, though had to remove two before she could actually sing.

In 2020, the once-secret undergarments are flaunted on the street and on social media, as Irish influencers rave about Spanx leggings and Kim Kardashian strips down to her Skims on Instagram.

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A model in one of Vivienne Westwood's signature corsetted designs in 1995

A model in one of Vivienne Westwood's signature corsetted designs in 1995

Conde Nast via Getty Images

The launch of the reality TV star's Skims - briefly waylaid by a pesky cultural appropriation scandal over the original name, Kimono - has drawn shapewear into the spotlight and introduced it to a younger market. The pressures of our selfie culture have likely also contributed to its renewed appeal, as shapewear can help to create the photo-finish smoothness usually only achieved through Photoshop.

"It definitely is a category that's growing, and it's one of those categories that goes across the age spectrum, from young girls going to their debs all the way through," says Lianne Dunne Robinson, lingerie and shapewear buyer for Shaws department stores.

"But it's moved on a lot. It's not about wearing these constricting garments that make you two sizes smaller, it's about you feeling good in whatever you're wearing."

Rachelle Hanley, lingerie and shapewear buyer for Brown Thomas Arnotts, explains: "There has definitely been a move away from 'this is the ideal body shape' or 'this is the ideal size', and more into 'we want to make whoever comes in and tries our product look and feel the best that they can'. I think ultimately it's about how you feel.

"Everyone has something that they're a little bit self-conscious about, and what shapewear pieces offer is that they help you feel better in that dress that you really wanted to wear. I think it comes back to customers wanting to feel great about themselves, and it's an option there for them to go to - that being said, I want to move away from the word 'solution' because I'd agree it's not a solution, it's more something that will help the customer feel better about themselves."

With Skims, Kardashian has also revived a heated debate around shapewear. Such arguments highlight the feminist generation gap, illustrating the split over "choice feminism", where women make choices that seemingly prop up the patriarchy. While older second-wave feminists would typically reject physically oppressive shapewear as an instrument of patriarchy, today's more flexible feminists tend to feel that a woman wearing or not wearing shapewear is fine, because she's the one making the choice about her body.

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Too tight: Elle Fanning fainted at the Cannes Film Festival due to her corsetted Prada dress

Too tight: Elle Fanning fainted at the Cannes Film Festival due to her corsetted Prada dress

WireImage

The London-based Heist Studios, a self-described underwear disruptor that calls its products "an instrument for progress", tackled the issue head-on last summer with a campaign that asked: "Shapewear is anti-feminist, right?"

"Off the back of the Kim Kardashian launch, it was one of the questions we were asked a lot through customer care and our quite active social channel," says Hannah Craik, the brand's VP of marketing.

"We wrote a blog article about it asking what people thought and to send us their opinions. You can't really deny, to be honest, the history of shapewear, which is corsets, but actually there are a lot of things you can look back on, like makeup, which used to have arsenic in it, and most of us probably wouldn't put arsenic on our faces now.

"The blog post generated a real reaction, and it felt like something that was worth engaging on, and there was also a lot going on in public discussions around who you're dressing for and what it means to be a feminist.

"What we thought was quite interesting from the discussion was how the calling out becomes, of itself, a bit churlish. Our opinion of it was: is it any more anti-feminist to wear shapewear than it is to call out other women for what they're wearing? It felt like there was a lot of negativity after the Kim Kardashian launch, and most of our customers were like, 'I decide what I do and don't wear, not someone else'."

Craik adds: "The thing we all have to face up to is that we, all of us, are living in the society that we happen to be in, and for all its faults and positives, that's the one we're in. Given that those ideas exist and people want to wear makeup, dress in certain ways, change their appearance; actually, the most we can contribute to that - and I will emphasise, it's not the fight for equal pay, it's not that serious - is at least a garment that works and feels like a positive in all of that."

Maybe Heist is right, and if we can't escape the trappings of the society we live in, we can at least make those trappings a little less uncomfortable. For those who are self-conscious about lumps and bumps and would rather conceal them, is it really any more "body positive" to cover up in formless, baggy clothes - essentially hiding their bodies - than with shapewear? Wouldn't it be better to feel like you can wear whatever you want, with a little help from a shaping bodysuit or pair of shorts?

The case for shapewear rests largely on the assertion that it makes women feel more confident. No woman should ever have to feel like she needs to occupy less space, but some of us just want to go to a wedding and not spend the whole time worrying about whether everyone can see our muffin top.

Even if you can't settle with the notion that shapewear can empower women, take yourself out of it and think about another woman, with another body and another perspective and another life, separate from your own. Why should you deny her right to feel empowered wearing it? In the end, it's a question of personal preference.

But opponents of shapewear would have you believe that that personal preference comes at the expense of women's collective empowerment. In choosing to wear shapewear, we're also choosing to participate in a culture of contained, controlled femininity, devoid of any bump or bulge. Each time we put it on, we're telling ourselves that our bodies need to be manipulated into a more palatable, appropriate form. We've internalised the messages that women's bodies are inherently imperfect and inherently disruptive, so now we can effectively police our own.

However much I assure myself that I'm perfectly aware of the unrealistic demands of man-made beauty standards as I'm wriggling into shapewear, distorting my body to conform to those standards can only feed that unhealthy self-image. I'm still submitting to wearing a garment designed to hinder my movement, designed to stop some parts of my body from moving altogether. The ideal woman does not jiggle!

Why are we trying to fool other people that we don't have tummy rolls or cellulite or back fat? Or, if we are indeed dressing for ourselves, why can't we define our own standards of beauty and show ourselves just as we are?

Shapewear is full of paradoxes: it glorifies, idealises, supports and deforms the female body, expressing competing messages of containment and liberation, femininity and power. Perhaps this is why it's still such a part of our world, and why modern women respond to it so readily - such contradictions are part of nearly every choice we make. Perhaps in a few years' time, shapewear will be as inarguable as lipstick and stilettos. Or, we can hope, a world where women will be comfortable letting it all hang out, rather than sucking it all in, will get here first.

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