Jun 22, 2023

‘Compression not suppression’: fashion’s growing addiction to shapewear

Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand, valued at $4bn, highlights a growing market for clothes that smooth out lumps and bumps. One size 14 writer feels the squeeze

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Shapewear, with all its sucking, tucking witchcraft, has been a part of my wardrobe since I was 14. Family weddings, birthday parties, leavers’ prom – you name it. Whether I actually needed it is, of course, up for debate. And yet the confidence that came with that first pair from M&S, bought with guidance (though not insistence) from my mother, convinced me to keep wriggling into them long before anyone came up with the idea that shapewear didn’t need to be ugly or – worse – uncomfortable. Back then, it was both – but somehow it made me feel more comfortable with my blossoming frame.

Now, I wear it on a weekly basis. When I’m shopping for a dress, I’ll even pick something with the understanding that shapewear will help “finesse” things. And by that, I mean smoothing – not sucking, or making me smaller. Instead, the idea is to even out lumps and bumps to offer up a more “precise” silhouette.

It’s not just me. Charlotte’s Spanx appear in the new season of And Just Like That… And though much was written about Shiv Roy’s Succession “stealth wealth” wardrobe, I was more interested in the taupe body that she wore in the final season, like a badge of honour.

Skims, which is described by Kardashian as “solutionwear” – and was recently valued at $4bn – shows no signs of slowing down. “Our goal was to challenge the outdated conventions of wearing shapewear to slim [the body],” says Jens Grede, the CEO and co-founder of Skims. “It was also with the intention of reinvigorating a tired industry.”

Translated, that seems to mean that people who wouldn’t have worn shapewear 10 years ago are much more open to it. Celebrity stylist, Elizabeth Saltzman – who works with Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore – says she uses it on the red carpet “for comfort, confidence and ease, not for body contouring”. She adds: “[Today] shapewear has been normalised.”

Still, all this begs the question: why do we continue to need solutions to a problem that simply shouldn’t need solving in 2023? Do women’s bodies need refinement to be palatable – and is it normal to want that on a daily basis?

Much of this pressure has arguably come from Kardashian herself, whose influence is such that her body has become a trend in itself. Some women have been known to resort to extreme measures to create a silhouette that Skims alone could never achieve. (Moreover, she and her family have also been accused of appropriating Black or racially ambiguous features over the years.)

Still, the fact that the market continues to grow is curious, something I’d also put down to some clever messaging. Indeed, from Heist to Skims to even M&S’s new shapewear, they now come packaged with sentiments of confidence and empowerment.

Heist describes its “revolutionary” shapewear as “compression not suppression”, while Marks & Spencer now has 94 shapewear items available on its website. Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design says its anti-chafe shorts offer “a smoothing silhouette which clothes glide over” as well as preventing that inner-thigh discomfort many will be familiar with.

There is also a growing trend for size inclusivity. M&S go up to a size UK 24, while Skims and Spanx offer products up to a 30. Most brands also come in multiple colours to suit different skin tones.

Wearing shapewear does still come with an uneasiness, however. Smoothing, even without a message of shrinking, is a questionable practice. Not only does it change your body, it also offers an appearance few of us naturally have. Is this autonomy or simply oppression: does wearing a shoulder-to-knee compression garment make me feel constricted, or is it a choice I make to walk a little taller, and feel better about my size 14 frame?

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For me, it’s the latter, though I sometimes still wonder why I feel the need to falsify what lies beneath. At my best friend’s hen do, I wore Skims pants underneath a sleek, sheer sequin gown from 16Arlington, that emulated the underwear style worn by Paloma Elsesser on the catwalk. Could I have worn the dress without them? Of course. Would I have? Probably not.

And for all my love of shapewear, there are moments (usually at the end of the night when I’m pulling myself out of it) when I wish I didn’t feel the need to wear it; that I could feel comfortable enough to prove a little chubbier here, a little less svelte there. That I didn’t feel the need to hide this very normal body – and that I could prove more confident, more chill with my natural shape than I am. The standards that women are up against – particularly in this Ozempic era – aren’t going to change because I, or my contemporaries, choose to wear an item that makes them feel better about themselves.

Of course shapewear will always pull us back to the days of corsets, which feels particularly depressing when set within the landscape of post-girlboss feminism. But even then, corsets weren’t always about “skinnyfying”. Polly Putnam, curator of collections at Historic Royal Palaces, views it within a more historical context. “In the 18th century, corsetry had more in common with a pair of Skims,” Putnam says. “It wasn’t about making someone teeny-tiny, it was about making sure they were tidy. The aim was to create a neat shape and a neat foundation for which to wear the glorious fabrics.”

Recently, a friend who was getting married this summer asked me if shapewear was worth it. I’ve known her since the start of secondary school and so understand that she’s someone who places a premium on comfort, but who has also always been below a size 8 and who, until now, likely never felt the need to wear something like that. Shapewear is a lot better now – but there’s still a restrictive element that takes getting used to. So, I told her to think about it – and in the end she opted against it.

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