19 November 2009

Women Bent Out Of Shape By Shapewear

Wall Street Journal

Before Jessica Kraus put on a tight-fitting frock one recent evening, she wriggled into a $76 piece of flesh-toned underwear that extended from the bottom of her bra to mid-thigh. She felt confident and svelte as she left her apartment to meet friends for cocktails.

Then a few hours later, the 25-year-old Boston event planner was faced with what she says was a "horrific situation." As she was embracing a man she had met that night, Ms. Kraus got to thinking about what lurked beneath her sleek exterior.

"There's no graceful way of taking the thing off," she says.

Sales of "shapewear"—undergarments for women who want a flawless, bulge-free silhouette while wearing tight clothes—have taken off since 2000. That's when Oprah Winfrey declared a brand called Spanx, with its bright packaging and product names like Bod-a-Bing! and Hide & Sleek, one of her "favorite things." The size of the market has tripled over that time, to $750 million in annual sales through the end of 2008, according to market-research firm NPD Group.

As one of the stars of the TV drama series "Melrose Place" said in a recent episode: "Perfection is as easy as a good pushup bra and some Spanx."

But the practicalities of actually wearing the undergarments are somewhat more complicated.

Brittany Bohn, 27, a lawyer in Chicago, locked herself in the bathroom at a local bar to wriggle out of what she calls a "girdle/long-underwear contraption" that was rolling down her rib cage and making her bulges look bigger than they actually are.

So what's driving sales of these garments? "It's like this competitive thing we have with other women," says Mary Pantier, a 40-year-old yoga instructor in Erie, Colo., who accidentally flashed her Spanx, worn under her workout ensemble, while in a downward-dog pose in class.

Ms. Pantier's husband, Hank, 35, doesn't get it. "If you stuff five pounds into a two-pound container, it doesn't make the five pounds smaller. It just makes it stranger-looking and uncomfortable," says Mr. Pantier, who has told his wife she feels "like a tire" in Spanx.

Then there's the bathroom issue. The garments, which can be difficult to remove, often come with a "double gusset" opening that wearers say can be hard to negotiate. Last summer, in response to a deluge of emails citing mortifying experiences, a shapewear maker called Yummie Tummie decided to sponsor a "tell us your shapewear nightmares" competition.

"It's like this competitive thing we have with other women,"

The winner, who received a style consultation and $500 to spend on clothes, was 31-year-old New York college student Amanda Davis, whose story involved a bodysuit so tight that it pressed on her bladder. As she ran to the bathroom at her school, she debated, "Do I squeeze out of the Spanx or do I try to pee through the crotchless thingy?" After soaking herself, she had to skip class and go home to change.

Body-shapers have long played a supporting role in fashion trends. The great-grandmother of shapewear, the corset, was "the most controversial garment in the history of fashion," says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who wrote a book about the rigid, uncomfortable garment. The more-flexible girdle grew popular in the early 20th century, eventually becoming a key component of Christian Dior's nipped-waist "New Look," unveiled in 1947. Control-top pantyhose replaced girdles when women began heading to the gym en masse in the 1970s.

Then, in 1998, an office copy-machine saleswoman named Sara Blakely cut the feet off a pair of sheer control-top pantyhose so she could wear cream-colored pants to a party. Two years later, she founded Spanx, which became a staple red-carpet undergarment for already-slim celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba.

"What's the point of spending £500 on a dress if you don't have a straight tummy?" asks 26-year-old Frances Kinloch, who works at an investment bank in London and wears Spanx with everything except jeans. The problem is "you do look a bit like a granny in them," admits Ms. Kinloch, who removes her Spanx in the bathroom and spirits it away into her handbag when she's on a hot date.

High-end designer Roland Mouret has railed against Spanx, calling the process of secretly slipping out of the undergarments "sad."

Shapewear manufacturers are responding to consumers' concerns by trying to boost the aesthetic appeal of their utilitarian undergarments. This year, Spanx introduced an upscale collection called Haute Contour, with items like a lace thong with waist reinforcements that comes in colors like pink. "I said, 'Let's make it beautiful ... like shapewear in disguise,' " Ms. Blakely says.

Lingerie designer Bruno Schiavi launched a line in 2007 called Dr. Rey's Shapewear in collaboration with Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Rey. Sold at Sears and on the HSN cable network, it features bodysuits and waist cinchers in bold prints like leopard and—arriving in stores later this season—snakeskin. "I always thought shapewear was so boring," says Mr. Schiavi.

Other companies are developing apparel with built-in body shapewear. A brand called Not Your Daughter's Jeans features a patented "Lift & Tuck" technology that the company says will make wearers drop a size, and is also introducing shaper tops in V- and cowl-neck styles in bright colors that are intended to be worn as a regular shirt. Yummie Tummie (tagline: "Show it off") has become known for its shapewear-camisole hybrids, which can be worn alone or peeking out from a blazer.

"I wanted to break down these barriers, so that you don't have to be confined to a sea of embarrassing bottoms," says Heather Thomson, founder of Yummie Tummie. It plans to begin selling a line of shapewear dresses early next year.

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