Men's Fashion

Ripped at the seams

From mirdles (men’s girdles) to strategic support, nothing escapes Mark Ellwood as he tests the latest men’s shapewear.

March 27 2010
Mark Ellwood

It’s a fact: it costs men to be fat. While conducting a recent study for Middle Tennessee State University, Charles L Baum found that obese male employees earned up to 2.3 per cent less than their buffer cubemates. No wonder, then, that the demand for shapewear – that artful euphemism for underwear with something extra, like Spanx, on which many women, whose earnings can slide by 6.2 per cent if overweight, have long relied – is rising among men.

Last year, 61 per cent of male customers at Freshpair, the Amazon of unmentionables, said they wanted the option of shapewear. And a few months ago, men’s shapewear went mainstream when Marks & Spencer produced its first sculpting undergarments for men: Bodymax T-shirts and vests with subtly slenderising stomach panels (from £12).

Like many 30-somethings, despite hours at the gym, I still can’t shift my stubborn love handles and was curious to see if a “mirdle” – or man girdle – would make much difference to me (at least it might improve my bank balance). The packaging wasn’t helpful: the buff models on each box had barely enough body fat to stay warm, and the only hopeful before-and-afters were cartoons of Homer Simpson-like schlubs transformed into V-shaped Disney princes.

The first mirdle I road-tested was from Ript Fusion (£40). “The classic men’s undershirt has been injected with steroids!” trumpeted its accompanying blurb. Certainly, it was Stallone strong; the tight, double-banded fabric almost mummifying my muffin top. There were instructions on each box on how to put it on or take it off. Should underwear come with directions? If so, is wearing a piece worth the risk that you won’t be able to remove it?

The vest from Sculptees was so tight it seemed more suited to treating a broken back than a wobbly stomach, while the undershirts from Equmen (from £50) were so long and skintight they reminded me of a minidress from Robert Palmer’s legendary Addicted to Love video. Spanish firm LumbarWear expressly markets its corset-like underthings as a back-pain-beating compression garment: my spine is still tingling from unpeeling the clingy thing.

Spanx, meanwhile – the firm that gave form to shapewear – also launches compression undershirts for men this summer (from £35). Yet while its women’s line seems intuitive, slenderising body shapers aren’t a cinch for men: we don’t, or shouldn’t, wear body-skimming clothes. Whatever inch-trimming I got from these undershirts, there was no visible improvement when I slipped my shirt on over them. My love handles were just as visible as before.

I had higher hopes for my lower half, where a few brands have launched subtler waist-trimming gimmicks. In August last year, 2(x)ist announced the Form line, a tweak on its usual briefs adding 15cm-wide waistbands (from £24). The manufacturers claim the pants shave up to 10cm from the waist, and likens the effect to “instant abs”. Go Softwear promises a similar, tummy-crust-trimming silhouette with a 10cm-wide waistband on its special Y-fronts ($26). Neither pair, however, seemed to slenderise as radically as I’d hoped. The generous elastic waistbands bunched and folded as soon as I sat at my desk, leaving me to wriggle and tug to rearrange them, ignoring askance glances.

More than that, though, both pairs were strangely feminising: with their wide waistbands and comfy gussets, they were as emasculating as wearing granny pants. But while these brands may cinch and smother, none can claim the same passive posture uptick as Japanese underwear titan Wacoal, whose Cross Walker pants have a special X-shaped design in the thigh to stimulate ab muscles with every step, like elasticised, effortless sit-ups. (Sadly, the line is not yet sold outside Asia.)

Then I moved on to briefs intended to tackle one concern: endowment. Frigo pants (from £17) come with a built-in mesh jock-strap to cushion your personal bat and balls. The tacit implication is that these are the first men’s unmentionables for those with the men’s equivalent of 38GGs. It’s quite a process to even slip them on: you tuck your crown jewels into a special mesh pouch, which is then cinched tight with an elastic strap.

It made a meal of my meat and two veg. Walking was odd, every step a reminder there was something special in my pants. Sitting down for dinner, I moved too fast and had a flash of Bobbit-like panic. C-IN2 offers a similar trick, “sling support” (from $15) – an adjustable elastic strap that felt too snug for safety. I wore a pair on a date; for a product said to boost swagger and sexiness, they felt like a modern chastity belt. The Andrew Christian briefs went further, boasting Extreme Frontal Enhancing Technology (from $25) – an ample, removable foam pad tucked into the Y-front. I felt like I was carrying a Nerf ball in my crotch.

Go Softwear has a parallel gimmick for extra pertness in the buttocks (from $30); the padding was so generous I lost sensation in my buttocks and didn’t feel my wallet fall out of my back pocket.

A discussion of the advances in men’s unmentionables wouldn’t be complete without exploring the ancillary products and services that have emerged to complement them. Las Vegas-based entrepreneur Frank Brooks offers Fresh Balls, a lotion intended to avert uncomfortable crotch dampness (from $15). Road-tested through a couple of enthusiastic hours at the gym, I can guarantee its effectiveness, but felt queasy smearing anything chemical in my nether regions. I’d rather wear a pair of boxer briefs from Saxx (from $25): this line gently lifts, separates and supports, and also has mesh side panels on the crotch for natural cooling and ventilation (these were the only pair I tried whose high-tech tweaks seemed impactful).

Professional grooming is a growing business, too: the new Ministry of Waxing spa in London says that one in three of its male customers are seeking “Boyzilians”. I passed on the chance to try this service, though I’m told it satisfies regular customers.

But my problem with all these tricks, from ab-sculpting vests to scrotal antiperspirants, is simple: they’re the underwear world’s answer to a sports car or hair transplants. They create body issues where once there were none. I’d rather splash out on briefs or tees from Hanro in Switzerland or Sunspel, the 150-year-old British manufacturer of upscale undergarments. This old firm is like La Perla for men: luxurious and indulgent, but free of gimmickry, whether padding, lifting, cinching or shaping. Sunspel offers plain supima cotton underwear (from £17) as well as breathable styles in a patented waffle knit, like an upscale Aertex (no need for any more tubes of Fresh Balls).

I’m stocking up on simple Sunspel boxers and putting what’s left over towards the one thing guaranteed to nix my muffin top: a few targeted sessions with a tough-love trainer at my gym.