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Shapewear should be the first thing on your festive-dressing list, says big-pants loving Sarah Vine

One of the things I love most about the festive season (apart from a licence to eat and drink as much panettone and prosecco as is humanly possible) is the clothes. 

I’m not a good summer dresser: I am somewhat generously upholstered, and flimsy fabrics do me no favours. Add to that the fact that it’s too hot for any serious underpinnings, and – sartorially speaking – the options are limited. But autumn and winter are different. Clothes have structure, cut and – my personal favourite – sleeves. And if they don’t, there’s always the greatest invention of modern times: shapewear. 

This has come a long way since Bridget Jones first set out to seduce Hugh Grant with the dubious help of a large pair of beige pants. Far from being the last desperate resort of the chardonnay-drinking singleton, shapewear has morphed into the ultimate expression of female empowerment. 

Dress, £475, Joseph, mytheresa.com. Sandals, £225, russelland bromley.co.uk

Back-smoothing vests are great for clingy fabrics and tight cuts. Pair with control shorts for all-over confidence Vest, £36, pourmoi.co.uk. Bra, £60, chantelle.com. Shorts, £51, spanx.com. Dress, £475, Joseph, mytheresa.com. Sandals, £225, russelland bromley.co.uk

It’s now de rigueur for every pop star/celebrity to launch their own shapewear range – from Kim Kardashian’s Skims to Lizzo’s Yitty, founded on ‘principles of self-love and radical inner confidence’. 

Shapewear is no longer an embarrassing secret or something to be squirreled away at the back of your underwear drawer. Nor is it an admission of defeat in the face of the never-ending battle of the bulge. For a few breathless (quite literally: some of these designs can be extremely restrictive) hours, it’s a way to create the illusion of having lost a few pounds. 

These days shapewear is a style statement in its own right, a proud affirmation of the female form, a way of helping to express rather than repress yourself. In some quarters it has even been re-framed as kind of sexy, bordering on fetish-wear, a bit like a racy corset. We have Ms K to thank for that, naturally. 

All of which, when you think about it, is quite odd for an item of clothing that is essentially the fashion industry’s response to the obesity crisis. Then again, I suppose that’s the power of marketing. And it’s paying off: the global shapewear market is estimated to reach a mindboggling £3.7 billion by 2028. That’s an awful lot of big pants. 

If you have an outfit that really highlights your middle, a waist cincher will give you the definition you need to feel fab Bodysuit, £15, marksandspencer.com. Waist cincher, £40, pourmoi.co.uk

Dress, £179, ghost.co.uk. Sandals, £225, russelland bromley.co.uk

If you have an outfit that really highlights your middle, a waist cincher will give you the definition you need to feel fab Bodysuit, £15, marksandspencer.com. Waist cincher, £40, pourmoi.co.uk. Dress, £179, ghost.co.uk. Sandals, £225, russelland bromley.co.uk

My own relationship with shapewear is somewhat complex. As an earlier adopter of Spanx – invented in 2000 by US entrepreneur Sara Blakely – I distinctly remember hotfooting it to Fenwick in Bond Street, which was the only place that sold them, to buy a shiny black pair of high-waisted shorts. 

Getting them on took considerable effort (luckily at the time I was into yoga, so that helped), but once in place they encompassed a multitude of sins, commencing just beneath the bra and extending all the way to the knee. 

Shapewear is a way of helping you express not repress yourself

Once on, they were almost impossible to remove without giving oneself a hernia, hence I suspect the wholly inadequate and entirely impractical opening at the crotch, which was intended to facilitate the call of nature but which, in reality, merely added to the torture-chamber vibe. 

Still, they certainly helped eliminate those extra pounds, not least because it was impossible to ingest even the smallest sliver of food while wearing them. They were basically an external gastric band. 

Endorsed by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey, soon every woman owned a pair. There was a Spanx to suit every body shape – pear, apple, triangle – and more besides. By the time dear old Marks & Spencer got in on the game, shapewear had become as commonplace in the nation’s underwear drawers as the bra. 

From a feminist point of view, this may seem rather puzzling. After all, didn’t we throw off our corsets decades ago? Have we not rejected the manipulation of the female form to please the male gaze? Well, yes and no. Yes, I think, if you happen to be a lovely young slip of a thing who looks fabulous in everything. No, if you’re a bit older and wider. 

Compression sleeves are handy for anyone insecure about their arms in tight dresses. Bra, £60, chantelle.com. Compression sleeves, £24, leonisa.uk. Shorts, £51, spanx.com

Dress, £119, whistles.co.uk. Sandals, £89, charleskeith.co.uk

Compression sleeves are handy for anyone insecure about their arms in tight dresses. Bra, £60, chantelle.com. Compression sleeves, £24, leonisa.uk. Shorts, £51, spanx.com. Dress, £119, whistles.co.uk. Sandals, £89, charleskeith.co.uk

The truth is, though, that most women don’t wear shapewear to impress the opposite sex. They do it to feel good about themselves – and, of course, to annoy other women. They wear it because it makes them feel that little bit more confident, braver. It’s like a Lycra suit of armour, the sartorial equivalent of red lipstick or a good blow-dry. 

In its modern form, shapewear is also very practical. Clothes today aren’t made with the same skill and care as they once were, or if they are, few of us can afford them. A good foundation garment is an investment: it can elevate even the flimsiest Zara creation, transform the most basic M&S piece into something a bit special. And, of course, it can help keep you warm. 

Personally, I also find them strangely comfortable. Or maybe I mean comforting. One or the other, anyway. There’s nothing more depressing than getting dressed in the morning and feeling your knicker elastic biting into your chub, like some spiteful little imp. There comes a time in a woman’s life when no amount of pilates or yoga can really touch those stubborn areas: tummy, in my case, and upper arms. Put it this way, it doesn’t all stop when the music does, and short of having a tummy tuck (and believe you me, I’ve seriously contemplated it) there’s not much else a girl can do to stop the wobble. 

My favourites are big pants. Ones that go all the way up to my waist (or where my waist is supposed to be), and have nice smooth edges so I don’t get any VPL. I’m also partial to a back-smoothing panel in a bra (Fantasie is brilliant for these) and I own a very elderly pair of high-waisted Spanx tights that I wear maybe twice a year, which look great under dresses. 

I tend to avoid anything that advertises itself as ‘firm hold’ since this invariably means something so tight that it not only restricts the circulation but also has the distinctly unflattering side effect of making the rest of you look like escaped cavityfoam insulation. (The unspoken truth about shapewear is that the excess fat has to go somewhere, and if the fit is too tight it’ll simply spill over into other areas, which is really not the point at all.)

 My preference is for ‘light control’, which generally translates as something very stretchy that more or less keeps everything in place. These garments also tend to be less ugly and shiny, and have fewer scratchy bits to drive you nuts on a night out (and that’s another thing: I always cut out the labels as soon as I buy them). 

Some shapewear is more trouble than it’s worth. I recently came across a bizarre concept, the one-legged control pant, designed to leave one thigh naked in order to accommodate a high side split. 

And beware those adverts on Instagram and TikTok, where some woman magically makes half her bodyweight disappear. They’re a lie, plus they inevitably ship from overseas, which means you’ll end up paying import tax on what is essentially a large elastic band. 

Also, while I see the benefits of the all-in-one bodysuit, I’m too old to be scrabbling around with crotch poppers every time I need the loo. That, after all, is a young woman’s game.

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