Women's Fashion

Hold it right there

The newest shapewear smoothes and sculpts, yet is light, comfortable, unobtrusive – and even glamorous, says Avril Groom.

March 22 2011
Avril Groom

To the generations brought up on boned and laced corsets or rubberised “roll-on” girdles, the need to add artifice to natural assets was self-evident. But feminism and tights changed everything. As Lycra waxed and suspender belts waned, functional modern lingerie became synonymous with female freedoms. Shapewear never went away, but women now resorted to it with a sense of shame and failure. It was also not alluring: no one wants what Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design at Marks & Spencer, describes as a “Bridget Jones moment” in big knickers that give you an hourglass outline but lose every scintilla of magic once revealed.

Recently, however, both attitudes and shapewear have changed radically. Emphasis has shifted from functional items to beautifully decorated or ultra-smooth and sensuous pieces that, as Niki McMorrough says of her Made by Niki brand, “help you feel psychologically confident and sexy whether clothes remain on or off”. The impetus has come partly from advances in fabric technology but also from changes in fashion trends. “Lingerie seems to go in decade-long cycles,” says Jenkinson. “In the late 1980s it was about athletic-looking supermodels in matching bras and briefs, while Jean Paul Gaultier’s reinvention of the corset for Madonna started the underwear-as-outerwear ball rolling. For the 1990s waif, a Kate Moss-style silk cami was enough and the noughties obsession with vintage began. But now we have curvier role models, such as Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson and Nigella Lawson.”

Heather Thomson, founder of mould-breaking US shapewear firm Yummie Tummie, agrees that “there is now an acceptance of all body shapes. Women want to emphasise their breasts and waists, and there is interest in classic corsetry as seen in burlesque shows and TV series such as Mad Men. It’s come full circle: as in the early 1960s, women treat shapewear as part of their daily oufit, but now they want it to be light, comfortable and unobtrusive.”

And here, as Jenkinson points out, “fabric development is crucial. M&S has been selling shapewear since 1926; whereas it used to rely on panelled layers of chunky fabric, we now work with suppliers on fabric innovations that shape but allow you to feel sexy and confident. For instance, the body [suit] is back as a fashion item and ours – in beautiful black mesh or lace [£35] – is a bestseller. And for daily wear, we are using a mix of top-quality pima cotton with Lycra for support in firm-control items that previously could be uncomfortable.”

Shapewear is either pieced, relying on seams and boning for effect, or knitted, where control comes from the yarn’s structure. Increasingly, the two are merging, with delicate-looking power meshes giving a sculpting effect to corset-seamed items, and very flat, soft lace adding glamour to more functional pieces without interrupting their smoothness. Leg and waist lines, says Jenkinson, “now have virtually no edge, using bonded fabric or selvedge technology, as in our Ultimate Magic knickers [£20] that slim the waist, and the torsolette [£25] – a camisole that scoops under your bra and trims the waistline as well as smoothing the bumps that a bra can create on the back.”

French lingerie firm Simone Pérèle has even consulted plastic surgeons to help understand why women seek procedures to change their body shape. “Women may have liposuction but they still want to keep their curves,” says UK MD Carole Launchbury. “So we have developed the Aura range, with a darted, halter-neck bra [£54] that both raises the bust and allows a plunge neckline, and the invisible control briefs [£37], which have extra-flat, seamless microfibre support around the tummy and cross-bonding to minimise yet preserve the natural curves of the buttocks rather than crush them.” Satin 3-D mesh and aloe-vera-infused lace combine with microfibre in the Caressence deep briefs (£34) and control body (£85), in shades of nude, ivory or cornflower blue. There is always, as Mary Cameron, managing director of French brand Chantelle, points out, “a balance to be struck in fabric terms – more prettiness may equal less efficiency, but it can be more visible.”

Today, there are many more individual lingerie designers than when traditional, technically orientated firms dominated the market, and fresh eyes have helped the shapewear revolution along. I first became aware of it over two years ago when a friend brought back one of Thomson’s Yummie Tummie three-panel tank tops (£56) from New York. Silky smooth, it is shaped in at the waist, where there is a distinct but unobtrusive, firmer stretch panel, and it is effective but comfortable even in warm weather.

“I started this business as a consumer,” says Thomson, who has a lingerie-industry background. “I felt that the area women most want to slim is the waist, but the items on offer looked like your granny’s girdle, with no attention to aesthetics. I designed pieces that women would be happy to be seen in, and maybe even wear as a top in summer.” She started selling to friends and last year her business grew 75 per cent. The unfussy but elegant shapes are now seen as a template for competitors and she has moved on to shaping slip dresses (£79), shaping briefs with over 80 per cent cotton (£38) and teddies (£92).

Her British equivalent is McMorrough, a former marketing executive who retrained in lingerie construction and whose award-winning Made by Niki range captures the new mood. It mixes a specially designed British fabric with 51 per cent Lycra, antibacterial and moisture-wicking properties with strategic “booster bands” for shaping around the waist and under the bottom and smooth but nostalgic cuts reminiscent of 1950s girdles, mostly with detachable suspenders.

“We go from Slinkies, such as a minidress [£81.50] that is smooth, seam-free and modern with multi-way straps and that can even be worn as outerwear, to vintage-inspired Classics, such as a suspender skirt (£129), which uses strategic power panels, boning and a high-waisted, cage-seamed cut to displace body fat from places you don’t want it to areas where you do, such as raised buttocks or a boosted bust,” she says. Items can be layered to use as sporty, shaping outerwear and each range has co-ordinated pieces to make a glamorous ensemble. “Twenty per cent of each range is shapewear, with fabrics such as lightweight satin and lace over the supporting structures to add glamour,” she says, “while lacy bras, knickers and suspender belts give a total look that will work as hard in the boudoir as it will in the boardroom.”

Damaris Evans also successfully combines light control with ultra-glamorous styling. “Contemporary shapewear is not just about nipping you in, but about knowing the beautiful ways to work lingerie for every figure,” she says. Both her main Damaris and Mimi Holliday ranges feature the “shoulder bra” (from £47). With fuller, wide straps in lace and a deep plunge, it gives extra uplift even in larger sizes – up to a G-cup. “This shape is also on Damaris bodies [from £170], with a deep cut-out back, and bras [from £121] to wear with high-waisted or corset knickers [£135] that tuck you in in the right places but still look delicate and glamorous.” She is also an advocate of the suspender body (£62, Mimi Holliday), “which is very successful, with a deep plunge bra and smooth, comfortable shaping. The waspie suspender [from £37] is also incredible – today’s are very comfortable and bring your lingerie ensemble together.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah Shotton, creative director of Agent Provocateur, is also a waspie fan. “In a delicate but strong power mesh and tulle [Stephanee waspie, £145], its panelling nips in the waist but does not wrap the body like a corset, so is light and comfortable for all-day wear,” she says. “We use the same principles of soft fabric, such as silk georgette, and light modern boning for actual corsets [Harri, £425], but our focus is to create smooth lines, not to reduce a woman’s size, and this is achieved by clever panelling on briefs [Cindy briefs, £95] and slips [Cindy slip, £185].” Stella McCartney, too, deftly negotiates the line between glamour and comfort with shaping corsolettes (£185) in champagne satin; while Magic Body Fashion majors on smooth shapewear but uses ultra-sheeny finishes and lace hemlines, even on items such as the Super Control skirt (£24.40), which is knitted horizontally for firm control across the tummy and diagonally for a lighter smoothness around the leg.

Traditional lingerie firms are now catching up. “We took time working out how to use the new fabrics, such as Santoni knit,” says Jane Fenlon-Smith, product manager for Triumph. “We wanted a range that would shape and enhance rather than constrict.” The resulting Shape Sensations range (pants, £24), a hit last season, now includes the collections Lace Sensations (from £21) and the very glamorous Retro Sensations (from £24) in zonal knits inspired by girdles. Chantelle has a beautiful, lightly boned basque (£130) and now adds a smooth lace and a controlling side panel to its famed T-shirt bra (£48), “for gentle forward projection”, as well as high-waisted control briefs (£22). Erès, known for its simple, impeccably cut designs, use a mix of super-stretch Spandex on the lightest tulle or supple jersey to “adapt traditional shapes into perfectly comfortable new styles, such as the Phèdre body (£283), which can be forgotten against the skin”, says studio director Marie Paule Minchelli.

All adhere to the new mind-set that shapewear should smooth and enhance while size is almost irrelevant. As Evans points out, “creating beautiful, smoothing lingerie in larger sizes is more interesting – it gives you more to play with”. McMorrough perhaps best voices what shapewear needs to do for modern women: “We want our waists nipped, our busts and bottoms boosted, by underwear that seems barely there and lets us feel glamorous. It needs to perform miracles without spoiling all our fun – otherwise, what’s the point?”

See also